How Demonetisation Is Affecting Migrant Labourers in Kerala

18 November 2016
Somu, a Dalit migrant, returns from work.
Photographs by Rahul M
Somu, a Dalit migrant, returns from work.
Photographs by Rahul M

“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.

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    Rahul M is an award-winning independent journalist based in Andhra Pradesh.

    Keywords: economy labour Kerala migrants finance Cash demonetisation workers daily-wage