How demonetisation affected Naga people—I

How demonetisation affected Naga people—I
A file photo of customers queuing up in front of a bank in Tizit, Mon district, to exchange demonetized notes on November 2016.


People went from disbelief, panic, drudgery to helping each other


Morung Express News
Dimapur | November 7


SS is the youngest sibling in the family. Their father, a cultivator, had not disclosed to the family the small amount he had saved, over all of his life, for the youngest child. He would hand it over only on his death bed, the father, now 80, insisted. When demonetisation came and went, on November 8, 2016, their little village in Ukhrul district in Manipur received no information. When one of his children showed him the old and new 500 notes in February 2017, long past the 50-days exchange deadline, he refused to believe that his life’s savings, in cash, lay waste in a corner of his home. In whispers, the family found out the savings even existed.


But this is not the story of an old cultivator in Ukhrul. His story resonates with many his age, and income, who live in the remote Naga hills, cut off from markets, news, infrastructure, technology or any sign of a ‘new economy.’ When the Indian Union Government announced demonetisation of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes on November 8, 2016, many remotely located Nagas lost the last signs they had collected through life.


Total panic, total drudgery
Mimi village near the Indo-Myanmar border is 80 km away from the sub-district headquarters in Pungro and 125 km away from the district headquarters in Kiphire town. Given the state of roads, it takes the people of Mimi a day to reach Pungro, where a small bank branch is located. It takes two days to reach Kiphire where a larger branch of the bank is located. Transport is another tragic matter.


Most people in these areas are so poor, the only money they own is in Rs. 100 or lower denominations. But some have managed to make Rs. 500 and above. Revered, crisp notes are often stored in precious field baskets or stuffed into holes made in a bamboo pipe.


“Some people in these interior areas refused to believe that the notes had no value anymore, so they hung on to old notes,” said LS, a grassroots activist based in Kiphire.


LS further explained how old and unlettered people in such villages were cheated by middlepersons who offered to help them exchange notes at a bank. “Some charged 10-20% for their services from these poor people while others never returned the money, saying the bank has confiscated it. People believed them. What choice did they have?” LS wondered.


The concurrent insistence on opening bank accounts was no easy fare. Things city dwellers take for granted—Xerox machines, passport photos—were unavailable and villagers’ anxieties compounded. While travel time and energy spent was huge, “people would reach banks and have papers thrown back at them by rude officials telling them that some other documents are required. There was total panic and total drudgery,” said the activist.


As implementation of demonitisation suffered, banks struggled to keep up. ATMs refused to dole out requisite cash throughout the Naga areas—hours were wasted in barricaded queues.


In Mon district, people walked from villages to a lone bank in Mon Town, another lone bank in Aboi Town to make it in time for an exchange of notes. Frustrated, one day, a restless crowd broke down the revolving Iron Gate at Mon Town’s bank entrance.


Helping out
Out in the west of the Naga areas, in the Rengma Naga villages of Karbi Anglong (Assam), people had to pass treacherous rivers and jungle roads to reach nearby banks to deposit savings of Rs. 1000-2000. Here, Gaon Buras (GBs) and school principals pitched in to help open accounts and lengthy negotiations ensued when personal presence was demanded.


How were people going to access that money afterwards with the condition of infrastructure in their area? Nobody cared.


It was, at the end, small communities that rescued each other from total collapse.


In the Chizami circle of Phek district in Nagaland, for instance, local organisers desperately needed cash for a program towards the end of November 2016. They could not swipe a card, give cheques or high denomination notes (if there was any) to visiting farmers and taxi drivers from remote areas.


“Mothers and aunties from the villages around came to our rescue,” said AT, one of the organisers. “They were the only ones with small cash savings and they thankfully helped us out as we know each other. Many people even deposited cash into each others’ accounts!”


In Wokha district’s New Riphyim village, an organization called Green Team distributed Rs. 40,000-50,000 worth lower denomination notes in late November 2016. The nearest bank was 14 km away and business had come to a standstill till the Team intervened.


Elsewhere, people were not so lucky. “In larger towns like Pfutsero and Kohima, small vendors faced a lot of problems as community trust has faded,” opined AT.


Yet, students in cities had to wade through informal borrowing, and piling debts, when parents could not send money to them (from the village through local taxis) for their hostel fees or admissions. From wherever they were, students had to travel on faltering public transport to banks two-three times a week just to pay tuition installments.


The story repeated itself for the Naga people inhabiting the hills of Haflong in Assam. “Thank god cashless economy is not a reality!” exclaimed NZ, a college teacher in Haflong. In Dima Hasao (former NC Hills), infrastructure could sometimes be poorer than Nagaland—internet crashes frequently alongside electricity and ATMs. Cashless transactions could mean a nail on the coffin.

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