Demonetisation in India exposes a sad sorority of married women

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November 8 will go down in history as an earthquake that shook the entire India. And not because that’s the day when Donald Trump was elected POTUS. It was because our Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation scheme that made notes of Rs.500 and Rs.1000 illegal tender. Overnight, nearly 70% of all cash circulating within the country was not worth the price of the paper it was printed on.

The move was termed as a masterstroke in the government’s fight against black money, which is a major source of funding for terror acts within the country, be it in Kashmir or in Naxal-affected areas, or elsewhere. Limits were imposed on exchange of money – a paltry sum of Rs.4000 in cash could be exchanged at one go at the bank, and in that too, it was made mandatory to bring your ID proof. The government was counting and the taxman was watching. For the first time, black money hoarders and tax evaders had no clue what to do.

But these aren’t the only people that were scared. There was another class that found the move completely daunting and intimidating. Married Indian women. Women who were dependent on their family’s largesse of TLC and money. Women who had been squirreling away the money from their household expenses basket in order to keep cash at hand for a rainy day. This sounds dishonest but it most certainly isn’t.

Most of this money ends up in their secret stash through diverting it from where it was meant to be spent: her children want to eat ice-cream, she cajoles them to share one ice-cream cone rather than have one each. She needs a new pair of sandals but she takes her well-worn pair to the cobbler and buys a new one for half the price of the money she has. Her daughter needs a new dress so she fashions one out from one of her saris that she got in her trousseau that is now gathering dust. Instead of buying veggies from the vendor that comes to her doorstep, she takes a bus ride into the outskirts to find cheaper supplies. She doesn’t buy a new sari to attend her cousin’s wedding. She borrows it from a neighbour. This secret stash is achieved by the dint of years and years of sacrifice and severe monitoring of cash flows.

And these are not just lower middle class or uneducated women doing so. This sorority also includes upper middle class women whose family dynamics are far from being dysfunctional, at least by definition. These are women who could trust their spouse enough to have children with them but not with candour about why they needed some cash kept aside.

Their secret stash comes in handy when her daughter needs pocket money for her school picnic that her father is skeptical about; when her son wants a new pair of bright sneakers for sports day; when her own mother wants the new alternative medicine that the son she stays with would refuse her because it is extra expenditure; when she wants her father to take money from her instead of taking a loan; when she wants it for something she can’t tell her husband about lest he shouts at her, and becomes suspicious of her spending away all ‘his hard-earned money’; when her own mother-in-law suddenly collapses and cash has to be arranged for emergency care at the hospital; when she would need it to secure her own freedom after her husband drinks himself to death and penury.

These are limited scenarios but not untrue. 80% of India’s women remain outside of the banking system. Finances are controlled by the men in the family. Close to 49% of Indian population is comprised of women. There are inheritance rights and Hindu women have been granted equal rights to all inheritance but equal inheritance is not an equality yet. Daughters are blackmailed emotionally and sometimes literally into forfeiting their right. If they still fight it, they are shamed by the society.

The Indian mainstream media and the social media have aptly captured the plight of all these women. Countercurrents.org has written a long one about how demonetisation is an unfolding tragedy for women (link here), TheLadiesFinger too recounts stories of such women (Link here), while scroll.in details how women are scrambling to link here salvage their savings. There are many more.

Revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia has clarified that small businesses, women, housewives, will face less scrutiny while depositing their savings in 500-1000 notes up to Rs. 2-2.5 lakh, so long as it is all accounted for in the household’s income. But this has failed to bring relief to our sorority girls.

In what is the saddest part of this story, our sorority sisters are probably not that afraid of the country’s government. What they are afraid of is the powers-that-be at home.

40-year-old Eshwarramma from Chikaballapur in Karnataka killed herself on November 14 after losing her savings of Rs.15,000 while on her way to the bank to deposit her money. Her husband Nagappa was an alcoholic and had almost abandoned their family. She was a day labourer and is survived by a son.

My previous domestic help had lost Rs. 20,000 in a local village-level ponzi scheme she had invested in, keeping it from her driver husband who was having an affair with a fellow driver’s wife. He used to beat her up for every little thing, right in front of her two young sons. She wanted to secure their future while ignoring her husband’s selfish indulgences.

Another domestic help was working 8 hours at my place after working all the rest at hers to support the education of her two young sons. Her husband is an autorickshaw driver whose vehicle EMI was being paid from her salary. When I took her to the bank to make a fixed deposit in her name, we couldn’t because the signature on her PAN card did not match. It was her husband who had put her name down, not she. There was no way she could access her own Jan Dhan account.

Another woman who worked at my place is a sole breadwinner in a family of eight. She has been duped by her own brother, who offered to help her buy a house. Her husband is a security guard and spends most days drinking after he was kicked out of his job.

A friend who lives in a super affluent joint family can’t buy a laptop because her husband would laugh at her, she being “just a housewife”. She’s looking to buy a used one from her savings, a purchase she’ll disguise as a gift from her cousin.

A distant aunt recently declared a secret stash of Rs.50,000 to her husband, to face much mocking and derision for her secretive nature, and not credit for her frugality.

Media calling the demonetisation step monstrous for robbing the peace of mind of these women need to look at the larger picture. These women do not have the luxury of peace of mind. Much like the government that has for decades rewarded a system where crooks and power-hungry are emboldened and get richer, our society supports a family system where hierarchy-driven patriarchy is emboldened and controls the money.

Media has brought forth all these stories of financial heartbreak of women but a rejoicing for their relatives. But they have failed to notice where all this comes from – control women’s birth. Suppress their education. Let them remain dependent on family. And last but not the least, blame them for their lower status in the society. Repeat.

In this sense, the good, clean, honest man in the Indian polity can be compared to a housewife. So far, he couldn’t question the government. He was too busy trying to make clean money so that at least 1 chapati out of all three his wife cooked could go towards feeding the babus and the politicians. He had to furnish a clean bill of expenses every time he went out shopping. Probably that’s why he is largely supportive of the government’s move.

The honest man is happy today because the government has taken a step that he believes will, in the long run, benefit the country by penalising the tax evaders and black money marketers. When will a housewife experience such relief, I wonder.

The housewife is in a state of quandary. But this just compounds an already dysfunctional situation. She fights day in and day out. She survives. She will continue to survive. This is but a sad comment on the social state of affairs and what passes of as a “family” in India. She can’t trust anyone for understanding her. Not even her spouse.

 

 

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