By K. Rajendran* Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
In the picturesque island of Anju Thengue, a poor village in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala, the banning of high denomination currency notes has brought widespread distress among the women who buy and sell fresh fish, as all business in the market is conducted in cash.
Our village had been seeing joy and prosperity. But now we'll have a hungry Christmas. Jessy, fisherwoman
Jessy, 63, is one of the oldest fisherwomen in the fish market on Anju Thengue (which means "Five Coconut Trees" in Malayalam). She does not have any opinion on the demonetisation announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 8 November or on black money or the political controversies around it. The only thing she knows for sure is that her sales have plummeted to a fifth.
"Our village had been seeing joy and prosperity. But now we'll have a hungry Christmas," Jessy says. "I don't have black money. But why are buyers who regularly buy fish from me not coming to the market?"
The answer seems to be fairly clear and is connected with the demography of Anju Thengue and the hurried manner in which the demonetisation drive has been implemented. The small but thickly populated village is home to 16,732 people, out of which 8475 are women. As many as 60% of the women are working in the fish trade, including selling, auctioning, drying and associated activities, according to Anju Thengue Grama Panjayath. Most of them don't have a bank account in any of the commercial banks.
The Mamballi Nedughadam Fishermen Society (MNFS) is situated at the centre of the village. In the morning, fisherwomen are gathering around the society that is the hub of their community. The scene is turning ugly. One desperate but agitated fisherwoman vents her ire against the society authorities. "I have deposited my entire savings with the society," she says. "But I am not permitted to withdraw the amount. Please help me if you can."
Anticipating further distress, Stella, another fish trader, wants to deposit whatever amount she has in hand. But the society is not ready to receive the amount. Jerald, secretary of the Fishermen's Association in the village, and one of the coordinators of MNFS, expresses his helplessness. "If you deposit the amount, you cannot withdraw it whenever you want," he says. "We are helpless."
The new rules in the wake of demonetisation have been changing often as the government tries to grapple with the unprecedented situation. This has brought cash transactions to a virtual standstill all over the country, particularly in fresh produce. Vegetable and fruit growers and sellers are also facing a crisis.
In Anju Thengue, the functioning of the society has been severely disrupted. MNFS was not allowed to exchange old ₹500, and ₹1000 notes. Further, new notes are not being supplied to corporative societies such as this.
Even a small corporative society cannot withdraw more than ₹24,000 per week. We are unable to provide more than ₹1 lakh to 3000 women before Christmas. We are helpless. Jerald, secretary of the village Fishermen's Association
MNFS is a strong community organisation. It is the apex agency of some 160 women's self-help groups (SHGs) comprising a total of around 3000 fisherwomen. It is the main instrument of financial access for the fish trade conducted in the village and also carries out many welfare schemes. For instance, in the past Christmas some women got inter-free loans. There is no hope for it this year.
The role of co-operative banks has been restricted in the current demonetisation scenario. "We have collected ₹50 lakh from SHGs and the same has been deposited in Anju Thengue Service Corporative Bank," Jerald says. "But according to the new regulations, even a small corporative society cannot withdraw more than ₹24,000 per week from a bank. We are unable to provide more than ₹1 lakh to 3000 women before Christmas. We are helpless."
Karmali is another sufferer of demonetisation. She is the official controller of the fish auctioning that takes place every morning on the Anju Thengue seashore. Until 8 November, many people used to gather around Karmali, the powerful lady of the village. Now the seashore is vacant. Fishing has also come to a practical standstill because small merchants and street traders are reluctant to do bulk purchases due to the cash crunch.
"Irrespective of the variety and quality, one box of fish had to be auctioned from the seashore for at least ₹1000," says Karmali. "In fact, now the box has not been auctioned even for ₹100."
Like Karmali, most fisherwomen in the village do not have other work skills. None of them are even registered with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Now the currency ban has brought on a sudden shift in the job pattern of fisherwomen. Huge chunks of unsold fish catches are being dried and sold in packets and fisherwomen are trying to sell them on the Varkala-Kovalam beach road.
But selling the packets is also not easy. "Instead of giving ₹100 for a dry fish packet, most of the buyers are giving ₹2000 notes and seeking change," says another resident.
Although banking density is very high in Kerala and it is ranked first in the country, services in Anju Thengue, with a population of 16,732, is being met by Anju Thengue Service Corporative Bank. "Till recently, we had a branch of a nationalised bank in the village. But recently it was shifted to the next town, Kadakkavoor," says Jerald.
In this poor fishing village, no bank can sustain if they have only commercial interests and thus they are reluctant to open branches here. Many fisherwomen have accounts in post offices. But they were tired of long queues in the name of exchange drives. Local moneylenders and private financial institutions have exploited this situation.
Instead of giving ₹100 for a dry fish packet, most of the buyers are giving ₹2000 notes and seeking change. Village resident
Sherly Joseph, a resident of the village, is a victim of a local shylock. She had to urgently arrange ₹50,000 for her husband to have surgery. She knocked at many doors. But none were helpful due to the demonetisation move. Finally, a local moneylender approached her with ₹50,000, plus an exorbitant interest.
Sherly is reluctant to share further details. "According to the secret agreement reached between me and the moneylender, I cannot reveal it," she says. "But it is unaffordable."
All the people in the village are now asking when this disruption will end. Till that time, there are no easy answers for the women of Anju Thengue. Their luck will turn only when the fish trade revives and that is unlikely to happen until the markets are adequately monetized and restocked with currency notes.
Rajendran is a journalist based in Kerala.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.