Post 60, Beeja

1 p.m.: Shailendra visits me in my room. He tells me he returned to Beeja yesterday, after spending a few rather productive weeks in Sargana. Having completed work on the temple, Shailendra informs me that he operated a thresher for a farmer near his home, by the canal in Sargana. He worked for ten-odd days and received 25 kilos each day as wages! Before his departure, Shailendra has applied for a loan to help him purchase a tractor. If this works out and he is able to purchase one, he will lend it to local farmers during their agricultural operations.

Shailendra does not want to work in construction any more. His wife Sunita thinks it too dangerous, and would like him to take up some other employment, preferably in a factory. He has struck an acquaintance with one of Damodar’s neighbours, who is a supervisor in a factory near Delhi. The factory manufactures the packaging in which electric meters are stored when being sold. He wants to work there for at least a year so he can master some skills, he says.

“They will pay me INR 8000 per month. In addition, I will get a place to stay in the factory complex,” he adds.  

Work in Barmalipur is yet to commence, Shailendra adds. The jobs in Malerkotla have been assigned to others, leaving Shailendra without any employment at the moment. He hopes to receive a call for work from a contact in Khanna.

Shailendra expresses further worries. In the aftermath of demonetisation, when cash was scarce, he and his cousins had approached one of the many currency exchange entrepreneurs who mushroomed during that period. Queues in banks had been too long and standing in those queues would have meant the loss of at least a day’s wages. They had then deposited INR 36,000 in the old high-denomination currency notes and received from the entrepreneur two cheques of equivalent value, which they thought they could easily deposit in the bank.

However, the cheques have bounced. Shailendra hopes to confront the entrepreneur and have him return his money. But he has discovered, much to his consternation, that the entrepreneur and his enterprise have both vanished.

Post 57, Ludhiana/Jammu/Araria

10:00 a.m.: Shailendra tells me on the phone that he is working at a construction site approximately three kilometres south of Sargana. He is part of a team of workers building a temple. While Shailendra does not know the name of the employer, he tells me he was ‘placed’ there by Damodar Rajak, the labour contractor who allocated him to constructing gurudwaras in Ludhiana.

Shailendra tells me that the project on which he was working in Barmalipur remains incomplete. Moreover, he has yet to be paid for 20 days of labour he had put into building the dome and the screens: the arrears to him amount to INR 32,000.

Shailendra will not stay in Sargana for long, he tells me. He plans to leave for Malerkotla after Holi, which this year is scheduled to be celebrated on March 12/ 13.

12 noon: I chat with Damodar Rajak, who is currently in Sargana. Damodar complains that demonetisation hit the construction market really hard, leaving builders with little capital with which to either purchase materials or pay their workers. All his worksites in and around Ludhiana have had to be abandoned, although he hopes to be able to bag a contract for supplying labourers to Malerkotla.

1 p.m.: Pradeep informs me that his son Sundar, who is currently in Sargana, has delayed his return to Jammu and Kashmir. Instead of returning by the end of February, as he had initially planned, he will now return after Holi in mid-March. Pradeep himself hopes to finish the work on the church within a few days and proceed to Jammu.

Post 45, Chandak, Poonch

11 a.m.: I accompany munshi Mansoor Alam to the local branch Jammu and Kashmir Grameen Bank where he wants to withdraw INR 10,000 with which he can pay his workers their wages. But the cashier takes one look at his account details and hands back the slip.

“You withdrew INR 10,000 on the 1st, another INR 10,000 on the 2nd and INR 4,000 on the 3rd. Don’t you know you can only withdraw INR 24,000 in a week,” the cashier told Mansur tersely, referring to the regulations enforced after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation drive.

Dejected, Mansoor walks away, grumbling: “If I can’t pay the workers, they are going to be very upset at me. But you saw what happened- what can I do?”

2 p.m.: The contractor who recruited Mansoor for procuring labour is at the site: the workers refer to him as the thekedar. Pradeep whispers to Mansoor to ask the thekedar for money to pay them their wages. Mansur tentatively approaches the thekedar and requests him for a loan:

The labourers will leave for their homes next week. If we could pay them off, that would be nice. They want to buy clothes for their families. All of them are planning to leave by the 12th.

The thekedar shrugs:

Oho, the 12th is a long way off. Why are you worried? And clothes? If they come with me to the Chandak market, I can get them clothes on credit. They need not worry about anything.

Mansoor persists:

The clothes are cheaper in Jammu. If they could have the money, they can purchase it at less prices in Jammu than having to buy at exorbitant rates here.

Pradeep mutters:

Even if he does pay us, how does it help? We have bank accounts with Bank of Baroda and Central Bank of India. Neither of these have branches here. State Bank of India does, but we don’t bank with them. Shanti, my wife, tried to open an account there last month (hyperlink to Journal entry 30), but has not been successful so far.

The munshi cannot convince the thekedar to loan him any money to pay the workers their wages.

9:00 p.m.: Dinner over, Pradeep and the rest of us tune into the only radio channel available, Voice of Kashmir, at 105.8 FM. The programmes are broadcast from Rawalkot, across the Line of Control. Interspersed with discussions on the political situation in Kashmir and Pakistani film music are advertisements about English-language schools in Kashmir, whitening creams and tourist agencies offering competitive deals for pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina.

Post 42, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal reports:

9:20 a.m.: Shailendra’s father Harish Rishi stands in his courtyard, wearing a pink-coloured T-shirt, advertising the English football team for the FIFA 2019 World Cup. He worries about the trouble he faces procuring seeds and fertilisers for the wheat crop which he intends to plant on his farm.

“The bank has only started allowing us to withdraw cash in the last three-four days. I need cash for the treatment of my grandson and daughter-in-law: they are both ill. Fortunately, I was just able to sell my paddy crop, so the cash the sales helped us meet the cost of food during the last few weeks.”

Post 39, Barmalipur, Ludhiana

2:00 p.m.: Shailendra and I speak on the phone (I have not been keeping well, so we chatted on the phone). Shailendra has still not been able to go the bank to exchange his high-denomination currency notes. He says he will be only able to leave after the 15th, when his workload will be slightly reduced.

Shailendra tells me that Damodar Rajak, his contractor, will also return from Sargana on November 15.

Post 38, Barmalipur, Ludhiana

4:00 p.m.: I speak to Shailendra, who informs me that he and his co-workers are now laying tiles on the pillars of the gurdwara. Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on demonetising high-denomination currency notes, Shailendra is anxious about the few Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes that he possesses. Nobody in the vicinity of Barmalipur is willing to exchange them, so he will have to go the Bank of Baroda branch in Manjhi Sahab where he has his account so he could get rid of these and acquire new ones.

Since Sandeep has left Sargana, Sundar, Shailendra’s cousin, will join the team at Sherpur soon.