In the analyses that followed the Modi government’s announcement of withdrawal of 500 and 1000 rupee notes, or what is known in popular parlance as demonetization, huge losses were predicted for the real estate. According to the Liases Foras Real Estate Rating and Research Pvt., unaccounted transactions in the property sector is anywhere between 10 to 15 per cent. The likelihood of nosediving real estate prices is also under discussion in the public domain. Beyond the long-term effects, the immediacy of demonetization hit the ones who earned the least attentiom; the foot soldiers of the real estate industry- the construction workers.
Javed settled down for a short noontime break, making a futile attempt to brush off the soot on his hands. He has been engaged in construction work for 5 years now, the income from which looks after his family back in West Bengal. “The builders pay us in 2000 rupee notes. What will we do with a 2000 rupee note when we want to buy something for 50 rupees?” he asks. Most workers have bank accounts opened in their respective hometowns. But that privilege is rendered pointless when even banks and ATMs have only high-denomination notes on offer. Employees in the informal sector like Javed work from 9 AM to 6 PM, which leaves them with no time to queue up outside banks for cash, especially at a point when its availability is far from certain.
A considerable chunk of the labour force are migrants. How do they send money to their families? “We should have enough money to pay for our own needs first,” laughs Lata, who hails from Gulbarga, Karnataka. In the days that followed demonetization, they received just enough cash to pay for their ration, she says.
Normally, the frequency of payment is once in 15 days or on a monthly basis. This regularity was disturbed due to the cash crunch that followed the note ban. Kamal, a Nepali national, has been working in the real estate sector for two years. He says that the situation is normal now. He is paid 7000 rupees in cash, in the denomination of 2000. Kamal is not complaining about the shortage of change. He is happy to simply receive his earnings on time.
The Centre is pushing for digital payments for employees in the informal sector. How familiar are the workers with the virtual world? Murugan from Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu has never stepped into a school. It is thus surprising to find that his income reaches his family via net transfer. When prodded further, he says that ‘somebody’ from the company transfers the money on their behalf. “We just have to give them our mobile number and account number,” he adds. Rajesh from Jharkhand also said that the builder sent the money to his mother’s bank account through the internet.
Toddlers finding an improvised playground among mounds of cement is a common sight at construction sites. More often than not, the children growing up amidst brick and mortar in Bengaluru are born to local workers. The migrants prefer to leave their families behind, given the enforced nomadic nature of their lives. A windowless mud-based structure adjacent to the under-construction high-rises serve as temporary homes. Their children back home have the luxury of a school life. “What kind of a parent would want his children to do this work,” asks Murugan who has a 5-year-old son. He is a first-generation construction worker. Why didn’t he take after his father who was a farmer? “I looted what our land brought for us. I didn’t think about what I would do for children in future,” he regrets. Javed, whose father worked as an electrician, concurs. “Humne bas khaaya, piya aur aish kiya, (I just had fun and made merry)” he said.
Are they aware of the reason behind the decision of demonetization? “Everybody says that it is because there are fake notes in circulation,” Rajesh said. Lata responds with a deep sense of resignation. “How does it matter? Poor people like us are always suffering,” she laments.