Demonetisation leaves Wazirpur labourers victims of commission agents

Labourers are still paid in old currency and in converting the money into valid tender: a 1000 gets 700 and a 500 gets just 300. Middlemen thrive.

Demonetisation leaves Wazirpur labourers victims of commission agents

Wazipur, demonetisation

“We were poor. But Modi made us poorer. He humiliated us by attacking our dignity,” Mehroof, a young industrial worker, said near his workplace in Wazirpur industrial area of Delhi. Mehroof’s face reflects the frustration, anger, humiliation and revenge that steel industrial workers in Wazirpur, one of the largest steel production belts in Asia, have been seething in.

All deshbhakts, starting from a local RSS fellow traveller to Ambani and his India Inc. gang, who eulogise Modi for his demonetisation project can understand how hunger is more intense than narrow patriotism if they ever visit Wazirpur. Demonetisation has halted normal production processes in Wazirpur.

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Wazirpur employs thousands of workers, largely migrants from the hinterland, in polishing, loading and unloading, acid washing and hot rolling in steel factories.

With no available supply of valid currency and drastic reduction in work, a massive reverse migration is on with workers trudging back to their rural hearth.

“Tell us why Modi is doing this to us,” an angry Mehroof and his co-workers asked me. “Media is supporting Modi,” they said. Mehroof, a native of Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, works in a polishing unit.  “Most of our friends left Wazirpur. Some of us stayed hoping that things would normalise. But things are getting worse”.

[caption id="attachment_333782" align="alignnone" width="680"]Wazipur, demonetisation (Photo: Vijay Pandey)[/caption]

“Why you say it’s getting worse? Don’t you think that ‘note bandi’ (demonetisation) would result in fighting black money as well as corruption?” I asked workers. Their answer was quite simple.

“Initially, shopkeepers and hotel owners gave groceries and food without cash. But later they stopped. Workers were helpless. And factory owners were paying us our pending wages/arrears in old notes only. This helplessness of workers were used by ‘currency agents’ for profiting. The agents came with a business model to exchange notes. As per this, one could exchange old Rs 500 notes with legally valid Rs 300. There is a discount if you are exchanging old Rs 1000 note. You would get Rs 700,” a group of indignant workers said.

[caption id="attachment_333783" align="alignnone" width="680"]Wazipur, demonetisation (Photo: Vijay Pandey)[/caption]

I asked several workers individually whether they exchanged notes. All of them said, Yes. “If I work for 2 days, I earn Rs 500. But with a single stroke, Modi reduced it to Rs 300,” Deepak, a worker from Bihar, told me.

“Most of the workers in Wazirpur don’t have bank accounts. Banks in Delhi tell us that we cannot open accounts in Delhi, because our identity cards are from our states. We used to send money to our homes through accounts of relatives or family friends. But after demonetisation, those account holders are not allowing us to send money to their accounts. Several of us stood in bank queues to exchange money but could not succeed. Only option was currency agents,” Deepak added.

For Mohan, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh, “Modi is a mad person whose mission is to kill poor people like me.”

[caption id="attachment_333784" align="alignnone" width="680"]Wazipur, demonetisation (Photo: Vijay Pandey)[/caption]

“When demonetisation was declared, I had a Rs 500 note. First day, the shopkeeper gave me groceries on credit. But from next day, he stopped giving it. I had to exchange old Rs 500 notes for legally valid Rs 300.”

A surprise supporter to demonetisation move from opposition ranks was none other than Bihar CM Nitish Kumar. I met several migrant workers from Bihar working in Wazirpur industrial area. Most of them had voted for Kumar in elections. When I told them their CM is supporting Modi, they asked how was it possible.

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“I didn’t see rich people in bank queues. It was people like me who stood in queue to exchange money. Nitishji should understand that poor people are suffering,” Sunil, a worker from Chhapra in Bihar, said. Many steel workers from Bihar shared their tales regarding how they are doing odd jobs to survive.

“Since there was no job in the factory, I was working as a waiter in a nearby restaurant for some days. I had to beg them to get a job. Even if wages were less, it took care of my food,” Kumar, another worker from Bihar, told me.

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(Photo: Vijay Pandey)[/caption]

Kanhaiya, a steel worker from Buxar in Bihar, has another story. His wife is a domestic servant and she had a saving of Rs10,000, all in Rs 1000 denomination. “We have a child and there was no valid currency to buy food items. My wife stood in a bank queue for three days to deposit money. But the bank officers told that her account is a zero balance Jan Dhan account. They suspected we were depositing black money. So they refused to take the money.”

It’s not just workers who are suffering because of demonetisation. Small scale and medium factory owners are also facing serious crisis. “My unit had 12 workers. They were from states like Bihar, Gujarat, UP and Jharkand. All of them left Delhi,” Dinesh, a factory owner, said.

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(Photo: Vijay Pandey)[/caption]

“Modi’s actions will destroy small and medium scale industries. I regret that I voted for BJP in the last Parliament election. I really hoped that Modi would bring development. His development is only for Ambanis and Tatas,” he added.

Dinesh is not wrong. Soon after demonetisation, a senior official of Tata Steel,the giant steel manufacturer in India, had said the crisis would benefit big business in the long run at the cost of the secondary steel sector. According to a report published in the Times of India, TV Narendran, Tata Steel India and South East Asia Managing Director, had said that demonetisation can seriously disrupt production in the secondary steel sector economy (like Wazipur) since transactions are largely cash based. “So, it could have a significant positive impact on the long products business for the integrated or bigger players,” he was reportedly said. It is to be noted that half the steel produced in India is in the secondary sector.

Photos : Vijay Pandey