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In Modi’s Varanasi, demonetisation is welcome despite the pain

M RAMESH Varanasi | Updated on January 16, 2018

In PM Narendra Modi’s constituency, there is a strong belief that the demonetisation has killed the influx of counterfeit notes from Pakistan   -  Rajeev Bhatt

People are firmly backing the PM

Hundreds of bright-red row-boats lie bobbing up and down in the swells of the Ganga, tethered to their pegs and making crackling sounds, as their broadsides collide repeatedly.

These boats ought to be out mid-streams, ferrying thronging tourists to the numerous holy spots of Varanasi or taking them on down-the-river joy rides.

Instead, they lie glum waiting for customers. One foreign tourist wryly offered the metaphor of long queues outside employment exchanges.

These ‘benched’ boats are a visible illustration of how hard the currency crunch has hit Varanasi.

“Last year was very good,” says Mahaveer Singh, who owns around 25 of the 2,000-odd boats in Varanasi, “but this time, business is down 50 per cent.”

Tourists have vanished. Auto-rickshaw driver Baidhyanath feels the same pinch. He too, estimates the decline in customers at 50 per cent—which is worrying him because his is a brand-new vehicle for which he has to pay off a loan.

City in support

Varanasi, Prime Minister Modi’s constituency – one of the biggest pilgrim centres in India – depends upon tourists for sustenance. Empty boats and waiting auto-rickshaws tell the story eloquently.

However, many people that BusinessLine spoke to – cab drivers, shop keepers, temple touts – are all strongly in support of the demonetisation.

Yeh hona chahiye!” (this must happen) was the common refrain. “Is notebandhi affecting you?” “Yes.” “Are you angry with Modi?” A vociferous no! The dip-stick perception survey revealed another insight. People are willing to put up with the inconvenience of the cash crunch essentially because of a sense of schadenfreude, out of the belief that the crooked rich are suffering.

People in Varanasi are up to speed on the happenings across the country. For instance, the cab driver knew well enough about the raid on Sekhar Reddy in Chennai (which happened the previous day). “How did they get so much money in new notes?” he exclaimed.

Anger against bank officials who facilitate transfers of new currency notes was also evident from the chats that BusinessLine had with Varanasi folk.

Smug in the faith that “Modi will go after” those who tried to escape, these small businessmen of Varanasi don’t seem to believe that the rich have truly gotten away by turning their black money white.

“Till now, they believed that they could get away by throwing money,” notes Baidhyanath, expressing hope that the erring officials would get “such a stringent punishment” that they would never think of doing any wrong again.

There is also a strong belief that the demonetisation has killed the influx of counterfeit notes from Pakistan.

Hanging on

But still, how are they managing the cash crunch? “Somehow” was again the common answer.

The owner of a wayside fast food restaurant that sells only pooris and tea said that cash shortage has not affected him much.

“I collect money from customers like you during the day and buy stuff (for the next day) in the evening,” he said. One way of managing the situation, as was evident in the interactions, seemed to be a willingness to take whatever comes. This correspondent tested the limits of bargaining and found it to be practically limitless.

For instance, a boatman who asked for ₹500 for an hour’s ride was okay to come down to ₹100, though for a shorter time. A share-auto driver was willing to do a round for one person, and not wait for the all seats to be filled.

They make good with whatever they have. A tourist bus driver, who preferred to be called ‘Radhe-Radhe’, opened his wallet and showed two currency notes — a $20 bill that he had received from a tourist as a tip, and one now-invalid ₹500 bill.

For that evening, he had no money. But tucked under his arm were two packets of biscuits that a shopkeeper had loaned him for dinner.

Published on December 14, 2016

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