Demonetisation has brought fresh misery to the lives of tribal villagers in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region, already affected by Maoist violence. Caught in the crossfire between insurgents and security forces, they area are now being hounded on the suspicion that they are helping members of CPI (Maoists) in converting black money into white.
The Bastar police is keeping a close eye on the activities of the locals after 8 November. The controversial Bastar IG Shivram Kalluri has recently claimed that the note ban has broken the back of the Maoists.
The state government has expressed a similar sentiment during the winter session of the state Assembly by stating that the "demonetisation has forced the Maoists to come out of their den".
Yet, the police, who have shown proficiency in staging fake surrenders, has so far failed to arrest a single person for depositing the money 'belonging to the Maoists' in banks.
The CRPF unit in Bijapur district had arrested a village sarpanch in the Avapalli area with cash money of Rs 1 lakh. But, there is no evidence that the money belonged to the Maoists. The police has also failed to establish any links between the sarpanch and the insurgents.
The question is being asked is - has the Modi government has given free hand to the CRPF to issue notices to innocent tribals and interrogate them for their hard-earned money?
No law in Bastar
Lakhan Singh, the state president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) says, "The Bastar police is engaged in the bloody game of killing innocent civilians. It is the place where the police burns the effigies of the social activists. Therefore, it is not wrong to say that democracy and the Constitution stands suspended in Bastar. Only the writ of Kalluri runs large in this area. Nobody is surprised at any illegal incident here. "
According to Lakhan Singh, people are severely affected by the note ban in the interior regions of Bastar. But, nobody is paying heed to their difficulties.
Lakhan Singh's claims are not unfounded. A large number of villages in Bastar are hardly accessible. Only a few tribals have bank accounts.
It took several days for the news of the demonetisation to reach these areas. The locals are travelling 50-60 kilometres to reach the banks. However, most of them are returning empty-handed as many Adivasis still don't have valid identification documents.
The Sarva Adivasi Samaj Secretary BS Rawte has received several complaints that touts were charging Rs 300- Rs 500 for exchanging Rs 1,000 notes.
Going back to the old ways
The centuries-old barter system has returned to haat-bazaars, the traditional markets in the villages.
There used to be a time when middlemen used to exchange valuable Chironji (a cooking spice made from the seeds of Buchanania lanzan) with salt. The same era seems to have returned after the note ban with Adivasis trading the precious forest products for daily goods.
"It is difficult to say whether the demonetisation has really affected the Maoists. But, it has indeed broken the back of the tribals," laments Suresh Karma, an activist of the Sarva Adivasi Samaj.
"The villagers usually keep the money earned from selling forest products in their homes. Now, those reaching the banks with this money are being summoned by the police. The fear of the police is forcing them to exchange notes on commission," Karma adds.
Social activists say Adivasis have been forthcoming in helping the police track Maoist money. However, this has not helped them escape the police high-handedness.
The only ATM in the Barsur area has not been functioning for the past four months. The people from the surrounding villages submitted several applications to get it repaired. They even organised protests and jammed the road to press for this demand, but to no avail.
Local leaders have alleged that the people associated with the ruling party are involved in the business of exchanging notes. The money of the farmers is being looted by falsely linking it to Maoists.
Acute cash crisis
The cash crunch continues to affect dozens of villages on Rajnandgaon border. More than 100 villages in Aundhi area have no banks or ATMs making the locals an easy scapegoat for middlemen.
Although, there are a few working ATMs in Manpur and Mohalla areas, the situation has not normalised yet. Most banks in the rural areas of Ambikapur are complaining about cash shortage.
People in several areas are being forced to spend nights in temples and cheap motels as the ATMs are only getting the cash in the night.
The farmers in the Pathalgaon and Farsabahar areas of Jashpur region are not happy despite the bumper tomato crop this year. They are being forced to sell their produce at a throwaway rates of Rs 2-3/kg. The rate increases to Rs 5-8/kg in the cities.
The situation has worsened as the RBI has not allowed the co-operative banks to exchange money. Most farmers in rural areas have accounts only in these banks and are now left in the lurch. Uttam Yadav, a farmer in Mahasamund district has died, reportedly due to the note ban adding his name to the long list of casualties demonetisation has claimed.