“It was like hitting hard at the bird’s nest with a stone,” said P Somu, a Dalit migrant labourer, who travelled from Mudigubba mandal of Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh to Cochin to work. He said, “It’s the same feeling I got after I was cheated by [the agro-based retail conglomerate] AgriGold. I had sold the cow and calf I loved.” When I met Somu on 12 November 2016, he described the impact of demonetisation as reminiscent of AgriGold. Established in 1995, the AgriGold Group was based in Vijaywada, in Andhra Pradesh. In 2007, it publicised a scheme through which it invited deposits in its companies, promising investors either double the returns or a residential plot in lieu of the amount deposited. However, AgriGold gave these investors neither the promised money nor the registered plots.
Upon receiving numerous complaints against AgriGold from depositors, the Crime Investigation Department, or CID, launched an investigation into the case on 5 January 2015. The investigation revealed that over 19 lakh people from Andhra Pradesh alone had deposited an amount of approximately Rs 1,182 crore in favour of the conglomerate. Somu, one such depositor, invested small amounts every day with AgriGold for around three years. By 2015, he had invested over Rs 10,000 with the conglomerate and was hoping to receive over Rs 20,000 in return. Based on this assumption, Somu sold his cow and calf and all his goats to repay debts he had taken for his sister’s wedding. Although he was attached to his cow and calf, he was confident that he would be able to buy them back with the money he would receive from AgriGold. The returns never materialised. By July 2016, Somu was compelled to accept that he had lost his money when the phone of the AgriGold agent with whom he had deposited his money, stopped working. Farmers such as him were left broke and desperate. He never did forget his cow and calf, and showed me a picture of them that he carries everywhere.
On 11 November, three days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that notes of Rs 500 and 1,000 would be demonetised, Somu only had his wages from the previous week—a few notes of Rs 500 paid for each day’s work. He stayed hungry that night. The next morning, he had some tea and snacks that his mastree—mason—gave him before he left for work. Through the day, Somu finished his work even though he was starving because he did not want to appear hungry or ask others for food. Later at night, when he called up his wife and children, he told them that everything was fine. Somu told me that the three other migrants he stayed with did not have valid tenders either. All of them starved together.
Kerala reportedly has 40 lakh migrant workers among its population—the highest of any state in India. The district with the highest number of migrants is Ernakulam—about 8 lakh. Many migrant labourers who work for daily wages, whom I met in Cochin, told me that they continued to be paid in Rs 500 notes even after Modi declared that they would no longer be legal tender. Without any bargaining power, the labourers told me that they are compelled to accept payment in demonetised currency—essentially worthless pieces of paper. Soma Shekhar Reddy, a farmer from Chennekottapalli mandal of Anantapur district whose groundnut crop had failed this year, came to Kerala for work a week before Modi’s announcement. He had been earning approximately Rs 700 per workday. “I got three days of work”— between 9 November and 12 November—“and was paid in three Rs 500 notes for each day of work.” “It is becoming increasingly difficult to find work now,” Reddy said, when I spoke to him on 12 November, at Kaloor junction. Like many others, he decided against waiting for work. He left for Chennekottapalli the next day. Several migrant labourers told me that only labourers who stayed for a longer duration and had established relations with their employers continue to receive work regularly. These labourers, some told me, have been getting their payments through cheques or assurances instead of the old currency. However, most are not as fortunate. “We weren’t paid any money for this week’s work. The contractor told us that we would be paid next week,” said Sujeet, a labourer from West Bengal who was working on Cochin’s metro rail construction.
Migrant labourers from regions such as Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh arrive at Cochin’s Kaloor junction on a daily basis. On 13 November, one labourer told me that during some months, the junction was witness to as many as 2,000 people. The labourers said that since 9 November, only lottery-ticket sellers at the junction were accepting notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000. However, they would agree to do so only if the buyer was purchasing at least one stack of ten tickets with the same number. “If your number wins the lottery, you get ten times more money,” a lottery-ticket seller told me in justification of this practice. On 11 November, Somu said, he and his friends were so hungry that they purchased one stack of ten lottery tickets worth Rs 300 between the four of them, just so they could get change for a 500-rupee note.