A recent announcement which has seen two highest value bank notes in India (Rs 500 and Rs 1000) demonetised has had wide reaching impacts on many communities. Demonesation means the bank notes are no longer legal to use. Sex workers, women, hijra, refugees and rural poor people are reportedly amongst those standing to be most negatively affected.
The demonetisation policy was abruptly announced on 8 November 2016 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating the two cash notes would “not be legal tender from midnight tonight.” An initial 30 December 2016 deadline was given for those able to present proper identity documents to bring the cash to banks or post offices for exchange or depositing into accounts.
In September 2016, a Supreme Court panel recommended that sex work be given legal recognition citing the difficulties sex workers face in accessing services such as banks. The panel said, “as sex workers are criminalised, it is difficult for them to acquire proof of identity such as ration cards or voter ID cards, owing to lack of proof of residence. The local district authorities do not recognise the identities of sex workers and their children, even though every citizen of India is entitled to basic human and fundamental rights… sex workers have no access to credit facilities offered by the state because of their inability to open bank accounts, due to lack of supporting documentation.”
Activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, chairperson of Astitva, a Hijra–Kinnar (trans) community organisation, was prompted to write a letter to the Prime Minister regarding the impacts the policy is having on the Hijra community. In the letter, Laxmi explains that many members of the Hijra community do not have bank accounts. Earning income that is paid in cash, lack of official identity documents and lack of formal education were some of the key barriers to accessing banking services. After sex workers and members of the Hijra community faced discrimination and harassment attempting to access banks, many have used the services of cash exchangers who offer Rs 350 for the demonetised Rs 500 notes.
For sex workers in Kolkata’s Sonagachi district, the issues stemming from systemic discrimination and lack of access to banking facilities inspired the creation of a sex worker run cooperative bank in 1995. The Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Bank (Usha) announced it would accept the demonetised notes for a short interim period as the new policy came into place.
Shantanu, an official from Usha Bank explained to Indian Express that sex workers usually prefer to keep money in their homes but following the recent demonetisation, “there is a rush among them to deposit the money in the bank.” Shantanu explained that in ‘normal circumstances’ Usha Bank carries out a business of around Rs 5 lakh per day. During 2 days in November however, 55 lakh were deposited.
“We have 30,000 account holders and our daily deposit from sex workers used to go up to Rs 4-5 lakhs,” said Rita Roy, Secretary, Usha Multipurpose Co-operative. “Now it has gone down to a few thousand rupees. We also don’t have enough supply of cash from the bank to meet the demand for withdrawal from our members.” Usha Banks’s concerns are reflective of wider experiences across India. ATMs are running out of cash despite withdrawal limits, and analysts are sceptical of the government capacity to print enough lower denomination notes to fill the need in the short term.
Sex workers have also faced a rise in counterfeit notes attempting to be used to pay for their services. To address this, NSWP member Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee (DMSC), is working with Usha Bank to tailor a training course for its 30,000 registered members across the state to help them differentiate between original and fake notes.
DMSC told Hindustani Times that they plan to launch the training in January or February 2017. Santanu Chatterjee, finance manager of the co-operative bank, explained ”we’ve already had currency identification machines installed at our clinics apart from holding outreach programmes (for sex workers). We’ll make them aware of the security features in the new currency notes. Many of our members are coming forward, asking to be trained.”
Some sex workers have used online payment systems such as Paytm, as Shalu, as sex worker explained to the Hindustan Times, “if people can buy clothes on the internet, why can’t people buy sex online … I take all kinds of payments – I even have a card swiping machine at my house.” However, the majority of sex workers still rely on cash income for their work.