When coming from the district headquarters, one has to take a sharp left turn at the Bugroo Chowk and travel a few kilometres on the bumpy road traversing through the terraced fields to reach Lanura, one among the many remote villages in Budgam, Kashmir’s most backward district.
The place, around 30 kilometres away from Srinagar, was unknown to most Kashmiris until the state government, in an official handout last week, announced that it had become J&K’s ‘first cashless village’.
The “feat” was, as per the handout, achieved through “rigorous efforts by CSC e-Governance Services India Limited and National Informatics Centre (NIC) under the objective of Digital Financial Inclusion”.
CSC, an acronym for Common Service Centres Scheme, is a part of the Government of India’s ‘Digital India’ campaign. These centres are expected to provide a variety of services, mostly electronic, to the general public and also train them on how to use them.
As soon as the handout went public, Lanura made it to the national dailies, faster than most other important happenings in Kashmir do.
The first ‘cashless village’, that too in conflict-ridden Kashmir seemed some sort of a reply to the anger post-demonetisation, hence the publicity.
Imposing Tech Literacy
Apparently, the visiting CSC team to the village had hit upon a goldmine of an idea.
Carrying a few smartphones with internet connections found miraculously (the village has an extremely weak mobile internet connectivity), they pulled up their socks to train the entire village in Electronic Payment System (EPS) in a single day and make it a model of Digital India’s new ‘go cashless’ motto.
It must have been quite a task to make people like Ghulam Hassan Sheikh, the elderly Sarpanch of Lanura who doesn’t have the faintest idea of technology, learn the art of digital payments in a matter of few hours, to make him understand how to install Paytm on his yet-to-be-purchased smartphone.
The obvious result is that Hassan, after his maiden day out with technology, neither seems to remember what he was made to learn nor does he seem to care about what he has unlearned.
“I don't remember clearly what they told us there. I have forgotten everything about it,” he explained, and questioned the government’s claims about the ‘cashless’ status of the village.
“There are just a few kirana shops here and both of them still deal in cash. So, how is the village cashless?” asked the Sarpanch.
Zeba Akhter, an ASHA worker in her forties, said that the whole exercise turned out to be more of a problem than an achievement.
They train illiterate people like us who don’t understand anything.Zeba Akhter, ASHA worker
The training venue chosen was an old single-storey building of the local middle school, the only educational institute in Lanura.
The village, which is crying for basic facilities including road connectivity and an upgraded primary healthcare centre, was declared ‘cashless’ on the evening of 17 December.
“Lanura beats cash crunch, becomes first to go cashless in J&K” this headline from the Times of India explained the hype attached to a place that does not have any ATMs, Point of Sale machines or other requisite equipment to actually support the official claim.
The merchants as well as kiranawalas in the village have no clue how to make electronic transactions and are happy taking hard cash.
Muneera, a girl at the main kirana shop in the village, just opposite the middle school, said she still deals in cash.
How is it cashless? They just made it a hit! They trained my father, Abdul Majid Thoker, who is illiterate. He couldn’t understand anything. They should’ve trained the educated youth about the procedure. There are some machines (not even knowing the name) which I’m supposed to install at my shop, but who would use them!Muneera, resident of Lanura village
As per Yasira Jan, District Manager Budgam CSC, making Lanura ‘cashless’ was based on them training at least one member of the 120 households in the village.
She claimed that they trained 150 people on EPS in Lanura on the day it was declared ‘cashless’.
“We trained 150 people on 17 December including 13 merchants,” she said while claiming that the people were trained on using five payment modes:
- Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) where they have to dial *99# from their mobiles and follow the instructions
- Unified Payment Interface (UPI) mode where a user has to download an application
- Card payments
- E-wallet payments which includes using applications like Paytm, Freecharge, Jio Money etc, and
- Aadhaar Enabled Payment System (AEPS)
Hurry to Tag a Village ‘Cashless’
Such complex processes, which even the brightest minds may lose track of, were taught to the simple-minded villagers in a single day in a quest to declare the village ‘cashless’ without it actually becoming cashless.
“The internet works in the village, it may not be strong, but it works,” said Yasira when asked how the villagers were supposed to do electronic payments when there is no internet available. She, however, accepted that no merchant in the village had Point of Sale (PoS) machines.
“The government of India is planning to give them PoS machines,” she added.
While Lanura grabbed attention apparently for nothing, the state government, a few days later, added two more villages to this ‘feat’ of going ‘cashless’. Bonigam in Kulgam district, and Manzigam in Anantnag district were declared ‘cashless’ on 20 December with the government claiming that the CSC team had trained 700 and 470 people in both the villages respectively.
As per Raees Khanday, District Manager, CSC Anantnag, they trained over 400 people in Manzigam to make it ‘cashless’. He however had no answer when asked if the village had actually gone cashless since it too did not have requisite facility in place.
“It (the use of electronic payments) will increase day by day, there will be facilities which people can use, our job is to train them and we have done that,” said Khanday.
District Manager CSC Kulgam Ashiq Hussain Mir was not available for comments.
To further understand what CSC was all about and why was the ‘go cashless’ tag put on a certain village in Kashmir so hurriedly, this reporter spoke to State Project Manager CSC, Asif Iqbal.
As per him, CSC was an implementing agency of Ministry of Electronics And Information Technology (MeitY), government of India and was “directly controlled by them”. Its aim, as per Asif, was to implement all electronic and information technology services.
He also revealed that it was only early this month that they were directed to train people on digital financial inclusion apparently in the aftermath of demonetisation.
Loopholes in Official Claims
When asked how a few hours of training of people who hardly know anything about digital payments would make an entire village cashless, Asif said that as per their guidelines, if they train 80 percent of the residents of an area, it automatically becomes cashless.
“We have to train a minimum of 80 percent of the population in a given area… we teach them on five modes of payments, make them download at least one app on their mobiles, and then register them on our portal,” he said.
He however had no meaningful answer when again asked how that made the village cashless as it had no relevant means and little or no understanding to actually transact electronically.
“Very little population in Kashmir knows about these things… but when we teach them, like in USSD they do not have to use smartphones or internet connection... We are giving them some information, making them aware… Hum aise he kar rahe hai, logo ko laa rahe hain unhe sikha rahe hai (We are trying to train people),” he said.
(The writer is a correspondent with the Daily Kashmir Monitor. The views expressed in the article belong to the author alone. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)
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