Network issues scuttle cashless drive in this Maharashtra village
Dhasai (Maharashtra): Anant Bhoir, a 46-year-old farmer from Dhasai village in Maharashtra’s Thane district, opened an account with Bank of Baroda four months ago just so he has a backup option to his Vijaya Bank account. Plus, he was super excited at the prospect of using his ATM card at the smart-looking Bank of Baroda Express kiosk inaugurated in June by veteran anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare.
On 2 November, when Bhoir went to the kiosk to check his savings account balance, it said: “Transaction not allowed”. This has been the refrain these past four months. He has learnt from experience that the same internet service provider serves both the Vijaya Bank branch and Bank of Baroda kiosk—state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd or BSNL.
So what does he do? He goes back to Vijaya Bank, fills up a withdrawal slip, takes a token, and awaits his turn in the queue.
At the bank’s Dhasai branch, officer Ravi Gaikwad is used to negotiating long queues of account holders like Bhoir. “BSNL internet is down as usual. If you go to the BSNL office, you won’t find a soul there who can attend to these daily complaints. The story about cashless Dhasai is for all to see here,” Gaikwad says.
Dhasai went “cashless” on 1 December last year amid much fanfare in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 8 November demonetisation announcement. Today it is back to its old ways of dealing in cash.
Back in December 2016, even a roadside shack selling snacks boasted of an Electronic Data Capture (EDC) machine that Bank of Baroda distributed free of charge then. In fact, the bank gave away 50 such EDC machines in the village.
“The machine has not been used for more than two months now. People give cash because they have cash now. Why would people want to swipe a card when they have cash and when they know that the machine won’t work because network is down,” asks shack owner Vijay Sukose, who got an EDC.
Salman Sayyad, who runs a meat shop, says his machine has gone for repairs. “Soon after notebandi (withdrawal of Rs500 and Rs1000 currency notes), 70% of my sales were executed on the machine. But its usage dropped to 15% by August when it developed snag,” he says.
Sayyad adds that the idea of going cashless will work only if all agencies—BSNL most prominent among them—work towards it.
Dhasai sums up the quintessential Indian way of doing things with great fanfare only to undo them later. If in December 2016 it enthusiastically joined Modi’s “cashless” and “digital” drive and attracted nationwide attention, a year later the exercise hardly merits mention.
According to Ranjit Savarkar, chairman of the Maharashtra Military School near Dhasai and the main agent of change last year, “It is like keeping the milk container on the stove and then stepping out to buy tea and sugar. Things have fallen apart because the right sequence has not been followed. Last year when the government was keen to showcase Dhasai as a cashless village, I told them to put in place a system first so that other things follow as a logical corollary. But that has not been done for a variety of reasons.”
Savarkar believes the Dhasai story has not turned out the way it should have because of the dearth of imagination on the part of banks and government agencies like BSNL as well as the absence of follow-up action.
“They can still redeem the situation by issuing as many debit cards as the number of applicants. Debit cards will enable not only Dhasai residents but tribals who live in 60 hamlets around Dhasai to access the Bhim app. And for Bhim to run efficiently, they must provide wi-fi at least in select locations,” Savarkar says.
Bhim or Bharat Interface for Money app, launched on 30 December last year, enables users to send and receive money over the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) platform.
He proceeds to transfer a small amount to grocery shop owner Swapnil Patkar’s account using the Bhim app. Both Savarkar and Patkar run the app using their mobile data network.
“Mobile data does not work in interior parts and that is why wi-fi should be provided. Imagine a tribal woman getting the remuneration for the forest produce she sells directly deposited into her account. That will give her access to her money which, if given in cash to her husband, mostly gets wasted in drinks. Give her a debit card and access to Bhim app and she would be on her own,” says Savarkar, who thinks some smaller policy interventions like these and a concerted technological push could permanently make Dhasai a cashless but also help nearby hamlets use digital transaction.
Patkar, president of Dhasai’s retail merchants association, says 60 of the retail establishments had been issued EDC machines. “But very few are using them now. The real culprit is the network problem. BSNL only has to only extend the broadband cable 3km from nearby Umroli village but that has not been done for two years now,” he says.
Ashok Warghade, branch manager of Thane District Central Cooperative Bank, says the network issue should have been sorted out to ensure Dhasai consolidated the gains it made during the initial months of demonetisation. “Of our 27,000 account holders who are from nearby villages, 2,500 have ATM cards. We have also issued 3,000 RuPay cards. But due to network problems and availability of cash, people don’t tend to use ATM cards. Also, there has there been no rise in the number of applications for debit cards,” he says.
Dhasai resident Rajendra Joshi mocks the village’s “cashless” tag, saying it was true just for the month of December. “Government agencies and people who are at the forefront of this initiative are well aware of all the problems.
Network problem also predates demonetisation. But at least after the village was declared cashless, all agencies and elected representatives should have worked together to address the problems and ready Dhasai for digital transactions. But nothing has been done by way of follow-up and things have gone back to their default setting,” he says.
Savarkar, who remains hopeful that the “cashless” dream can be realized, says all the training and awareness that locals carried out in schools on cashless transactions will go to waste if students are not kept invested in the project. “Now, banks come up with all sorts of rules... That students cannot be given debit cards and so on. What use is mere theory if students are not allowed the practicals,” he asks, standing in front of a poster from 2016 which hails Dhasai as Rokhmukt gaav (cash-free village).
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