In rural Odisha, there’s nothing to bank on

Sixty-year-old Bibhishan Marei is at his wits’ end. All he had as savings was Rs 17,000 in cash which became useless unless he exchanged it for new notes.

Published: 21st November 2016 05:40 PM  |   Last Updated: 21st November 2016 08:15 PM   |  A+A-

Road_leading_to_Meghpal

Road leading to Meghpal

Express News Service

HOW BHARAT COPES: By postponing, delaying, waiting

MEGHPAL (Odisha): Sixty-year-old Bibhishan Marei is at his wits’ end. All he had as savings was Rs 17,000 in cash, with which he wanted to buy a pumpset to irrigate his one-and-a-half acre of land in Meghpal village, 40 km from Sambalpur in western Odisha. A couple of days after the Prime Minister announced demonetization of high value currencies, a fellow villager broke the news to him that his money was worthless unless he exchanged it for new notes.

The elderly farmer was devastated. On Nov. 13, he hitchhiked to Hatibari, 20 km from his village, and waited in the queue at SBI to deposit the cash. Reaching the counter after a few hours, he asked the clerk if he could exchange a small part of his money for new notes so that he could use them for day-to-day expenses. He was told he would have to stand in yet another queue the next day to do that. Exasperated, Bibhishan deposited it all.

“I waited in the queue from early morning till evening to deposit the cash. Now I wouldn’t dare visit the bank again to withdraw my money. It will take the whole day,” he said.

Now without any cash, he has switched to the age-old barter system. Thanks to the ongoing harvest season, paddy has become the new currency for Bibhishan and other villagers. A kilogram of paddy is valued at Rs 10, and villagers are bartering rice for their daily needs at the groceries of Meghpal Chowk, the main market of the gram panchayat.

Bibhishan Marei collects paddy in his hay yard in Murtal

Grocer Pradip Jal (26) understands the plight of villagers. “Their small change has been spent, and their savings are locked up in the bank. And since most banks are located at far-off places, villagers cannot travel everyday to stand in the queue and withdraw cash,” he says.

Meghpal, considered the Naxalbari of Sambalpur, is a gram panchayat with no bank. It was in the headlines on January 23, 2003, when Maoists killed Kader Singh, the sarpanch of Tampargarh. Out of the 645 households in the panchayat, as many as 503 are tribal. Most of them depend on agriculture, either as farmers or as daily wagers.

To access a bank, villagers have to go to Hatibari, Jujumura or Padiabahal. Hatibari is 20 km from Meghpal, Jujumura 25 km and Padiabahal 19 km. The village has no post office either, the nearest one being at Chhamunda, 10 km away. If that is not bad enough, buses run only up to Hatibari. People with invalid 500 or 1000 rupee notes have no other option but to go to those distant places to deposit and exchange the money, losing their daily earnings in the process. Many people return empty-handed as banks run out of cash, and the whole process has to be gone through again.

With wholesalers asking for legal currency to replenish stocks, shop-owners are at out on a limb. What has added to the woes of small farmers is that the local rice millers are reluctant to purchase paddy from them due to demonetization.

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