Over the past few days I’ve had the opportunity to listen to people who are coping with the big 8/11 cash reset. The only point I’d like to make is that “life finds a way.” You can draw any conclusion you like from the stories below. It’s a rather long post.
The Policemen Are Not Happy
I talked about my neighbor, the Punjabi Aunty in my last post. The Aunty is a bit of a legend in our apartment complex. A lot of what I know about her is what you would call gossip, but I prefer folklore. It’s more apt.
It turns out that Aunty runs her own little private economy while chopping vegetables or watching the daytime saas-bahu soap. She was a significant player in the parallel economy of the local policemen.
It’s an open secret that the police is one of the more corrupt institutions in the country. But being privileged as we are, we witness this corruption mostly in the news or Bollywood potboilers. The few occasions in our ordinary lives where we come face-to-face with the police is for routine verification for passports, rentals and properties, or minor traffic violations.
Unless you are the very straightforward type (like the old pensioner who is making an appearance later in this post), you wouldn’t think much about tipping the policemen for your passports, mostly out of relief than anything else. The policemen also make money out of settling petty disputes and mild extortion from businesses. I’m not being judgemental – but these are facts of life. You can take the view that such petty corruption should not be tolerated and you will be right. You can take the view that these bribes help smooth life in an otherwise harsh line of work, and you will not be wrong.
The private economy is also enriched by players like the Punjabi Aunty. Like I said before, her husband and son run the family food-tech business (food = chicken, tech = tandoor + skewers), while Aunty runs many businesses on the side. The most prominent of them is the “interest-free-profit-share-only” finance and the debt recovery business. And the policemen in the locality are beneficiary, investor, side-kick, and service provider to her.
The policemen borrow money from her for various reasons. From what I heard, for minor investments like a personal use two-wheeler to out-of-court settlements over domestic disputes. For a fee or as a favor, they also act as debt recovery agents when one of Aunty’s beneficiaries decides to default. A few other times, a third party domestic or a business petty dispute is settled on the basis of Aunty’s request. There are even more colorful stories, but that would be out of context for the moment.
All of this is part of the folklore in the local community. If you ask me if this can be verified, no, you don’t get firsthand information until you are in too deep. I’d rather avoid putting more detail here – while I listen to the security guards and overhear others’ conversations for my interest in them, there are real people who haven’t had a pleasant experience.
As of last weekend, this private economy has come to a grinding halt. Since 8/11, not a single policeman has visited Aunty, down from two or three visits a day. The security guards are happy – policemen are seldom polite, particularly when they need money – for now.
The Parsi Chai-brun Place
There are several types of small eateries I frequent when I am at work. I go to an ancient Parsi bakery every other day, mostly to have a cup of their milky, sweet tea, but also to do some people-watching and eavesdropping. Some say the place is dilapidated, but I’ll call it antique. There are posters of age-old imported German ovens, news articles from a few decades ago, a clipping of a young girl’s sports achievement at school, random pictures, computer-print slogans and so on. If you look up, you will see the beams of an age-old building, and sharp eyesight may distinguish the cobwebs from the faded brown color of the wall paint.
The clientele is varied: working class daily-wagers in and around the area, paper-pushers from the financial district, lawyers, retired Parsis, middle-class south Mumbai families and the occasional outsider armed with a Lonely Planet book.
In one of my trips, I asked the owner (or his son, I’m never quite sure) how the demonetization affected his business. “Nothing much,” he said, “just that the staff needed to be paid by cheque, which made them really unhappy. Who has the time to stand in queue to deposit a few cheques every week?”
I was having this conversation when a crusty old regular piped up. He looked like a pensioner, very tidy in appearance, and a stickler for rules and discipline.
“It IS a good move!” he thundered,”You young men have no idea how it was with Mrs Gandhi. The trains ran on time. There was order in the streets! Corruption disappeared in two days! This is how this country should be run!”
“Why should the black marketers (he said marketers) get away with all their wealth? In one day, one move – khallas! Aisa he hona chahiye! Mr Modi should do more! You young men will benefit if you follow him!”
I sat there quietly and sipped my tea. The waiters tried to look somewhere else. The owner tried, and failed, to engage the old gentleman in gentler conversation. I think he called him ‘Rustom Uncle’, but I couldn’t hear above the din. When Rustom Uncle paused to take a sip, I excused myself quietly. You know when you’re beat!
The Mallu restaurant:
A reasonable barometer of the local economy is the periodic visit of the various upholders of law to the locality’s business establishments. Things may be looking up, because the BMC inspector and the local policemen (again!) are back as regular visitors to the many Kerala restaurants in the Fort area of south Mumbai.
These restaurants mushroomed in the 1980s-1990s during the Kerala-Gulf boom; many laborers passed via Bombay, staying for a few days to get recruited by the large trade recruiting firms that you still see in the area. Some of this still happens. But now, the street vendors – electronics and other knick-knacks – in the Fort area are its regular customers, along with various paper-pushers and Kerala cuisine enthusiasts. On weekends, you may see families and groups of nurses.
The settings are usually modest. A few melamine-topped tables with a special AC section where they serve the plantain-leaf spread. The senior waiters are Malabari and the younger lot are local – you can order food in Malayalam, but the water and cleaning has to be in Bombaiyya.
I talked to Mohammed, a partner in one of these restaurants. He mans the till from breakfast to lunch.
“They weren’t around for a few days. Now they are back again,” he said of the inspectors. Do they ask for cash? No. “That is unsaid. They just say hello, then do their rounds and when they are back, they wait somewhere down the road. I send my boy with the blessings!”
‘Aashirwaadam’, Malayalam for blessings was the word used. The hangers-on around the cashier all broke into laughter and shared a few inside jokes that I could not really follow.
“If I complied to every rule of the BMC, I’d be out of business,” the man goes on. He knows that he can get caught any time under some pretext or the other. “Who wants that trouble? They also make up new rules on their own when they need extra money!”
How is business after demonetization? It appears that they had trouble in the first few days when people just didn’t turn up. Things are much better two weeks down.
“The machine is tiresome. It takes me at least two-three minutes to type the amount in, then ask the customer to fill in the PIN, then print out the receipt,” says Mohammed. I can see that operation hampering the flow of the lunchtime crowd. Everyone has to pay at the till – the restaurant is small, but gets busy during lunch. Cash made it easy to accept payments at the table itself. Now, most people prefer card. They haven’t tried wallets yet.
I tried to ask what he did with the extra cash. He shrugs it away – everything was white anyway, he claimed – and there is a CA firm that audits and maintains all the accounts. Sure enough – all the billing is entered into a computer system. He doesn’t see any point in demonetization, though.
“The policemen still have to be paid, the BMC inspectors ask for more,” he said. “No difference to me. Only that my staff has to go to the bank and spend more time there because of the crowd, and we don’t get enough change. But that will go in some days!”
Back to business. Life finds a way.
The Relocation Firm:
I shifted to a new locality recently. I asked the manager of the relocation firm about the business scenario in his part of the market.
“We were doing between six and eight relocations a week. Since 8/11 we’ve done only three, besides yourself. All the others were company transfers and payment was online. We have issues with long distance trucks, but we have an understanding with big trucking companies, so nothing is stopped as such, don’t worry.”
What does he think of the whole move? He is supportive. “Theek hai… long run mein kuch faayda hoga.”
Did he lose any cash? Always a tricky question to ask. “Seth log ka kaafi nukhsan to hua hi… The owners did make some losses,” he said. The only pinch, he said, is that no one is paying bakshish to the loaders and packers. Every relocation, the loaders (or unloaders) get Rs 100 or Rs 200 each. That’s stopped entirely – they didn’t get any tips for the past three relocations.
Mahesh – A loader with the relocation company:
This was one of the more poignant stories I’ve heard on how families were affected by the demonetization move.
Mahesh must be around 20 or so. He is a local, stays in a tenement in Sangharsh Nagar (Struggle Nagar, if you please), and helps with the relocation company whenever there’s work. He gets paid on a daily basis. If there’s no work, there’s no pay. Since 8/11 there have been exactly three pay days via the relocation business. He is a ‘freelancer’, so when he doesn’t have relocation work, he hangs around in Asalpha market and occasionally gets some other manual work to do. There’s competition, he says, but he has ‘jaan-pehchan wale‘ who call him up for some errands. He would prefer the relocation firm though. It’s teamwork (I could see the camaraderie within these guys) and he used to get good tips.
But that’s gone down drastically. Life has changed. I put the demonetization question to him: at first, he was all for it. He said whatever cash they had, they put it in their bank accounts. “Waise bhi bahut kam hi tha. Modiji ne acha kiya,” he said.
And then he started talking about his sister and father.
His sister is married to a BMC peon. A few days ago, she came home with a bundle of Rs 1000 notes worth two lakhs. Her husband’s supervisor at BMC had asked them to deposit Rs 5.00 lakh in their bank accounts. Between her husband and herself, she managed to deposit Rs 3.00 lakhs. To launder the rest, she approached her father, who refused.
“Bahut strict hain woh?” I asked if his father is principled in these things. No, said Shinde, laughing. It’s just that he doesn’t get along with his son-in-law. So the bundle is still there, sitting on top of the family TV.
Shinde’s father was a daily wage labourer in a few factories till recently. After an illness a few years ago, he decided to quit the taxing physical labour and works now as an auxiliary office peon with a few small offices in a commercial complex in Ghatkopar. One of these firms is a real estate agent’s office.
For the past two years, Shinde senior used to be paid in cash every evening. He wasn’t a permanent staffer at the building or with any of these firms; it was an informal understanding. His pay would go up and down depending on how much work the seths saw him do. On some days, the real estate seth would send him to the title registrar’s office, and that would be a good day. On others, he would get as little as Rs 100.
All this, Shinde tells me, has disappeared. The real estate agent’s office is hardly open. All of the firms have told him he would need to get “official” and asked for his bank details for the pay. He has given them all the documents, said Shinde, but no one has paid any money, despite his father having worked quite a bit (he has waited in queues for changing cash, among other sundry errands).
His father finds it humiliating to deal with accountants. Earlier he used to accost the seths directly and they would fish out a note of Rs 500 or two. But now they just smile and ask him to meet the accountant.
“How can he go and ask them for these things? They are half his age and keep making excuses like ‘bank approve nahin kiya’ or ‘yeh document lao'” Shinde says. Shinde says his father is barely literate, and can’t understand most of what the accountants say. He is worried about how things will change, he said.
“So how do you manage?” I asked, indirectly.
“My brother and I get some work on and off. Mother works as a maid, she had a few old notes which we changed. We manage.”
His youngest sister sometimes gets asked to accompany families with whom their mother is employed. “They used give her a hundred or two, but now they give her snacks and trinkets… she is happy with those!” he said.
After a quiet few moments, he says,”Modiji ne gareebon ke pet me laath mara.” (Modi has hit poor people hard.)
As he left, he said,”Ghar mein karche ke liye paise kam hain, lekin do lakh TV ke upar pade hain, shaam me sabki nazar us pe hain…” and laughed. (we don’t have much money to spend, but everyone looks at the bundle of Rs 2.00 lakh on top of the TV and wonder what’s going on.)
The irony of it is hard to miss.
The Hardware Store Retailer:
I had to buy a few accessories for the house and visited a couple of popular hardware stores in the Andheri East (Marol) area. Usually very busy, these shops are quite empty.
I asked how business was. “No business!” was the answer, but they didn’t seem too unhappy. I went about my shopping and got the stuff I wanted.
I went up to the counter to pay, and the conversation below is almost verbatim, though not a perfect translation:
Cashier/owner on the phone: “I can’t put any more in my accounts. What am I to do with your 35? I have 25 lying around…. (to me: Rs 1200 total, cash please, machine next week only)… So? I can’t help you. I am holding max of my own. Why don’t you ask (some name that ends in ‘lal’)”
Me: R2K ka change hai
Him: “… arre he will say all kinds of excuses. He doesn’t have much to do anyway. I don’t even know what to do with the stock I ordered…(to me: no, please, no change)”
Me: (Sigh) take this (I count my 100s and give him the money).
I’ve changed some names and identifiable details.