Bind Toli, Basti of Maner and Patsa were among the first villages that were to go cashless after demonetisation last November. A year later, digital transactions are a distant memory and cash a way of life

Rohit Mahato was ecstatic to be part of history. Demonetisation, on November 8 last year, was unprecedented; the abrupt move to shift to a cashless economy was audacious; and, in spite of being caught unawares, the 60-year-old farmer in the tiny hamlet of Bind Toli of Kurji in Patna district was eagerly looking ahead to the profound changes in his life that the move entailed: shunning cash, and transiting to a debit card and mobile banking.“ Darr lag raha tha, lekin Modiji ke saath tha (I was apprehensive, but was with Modi),“ recalls Mahato, who had deposited `10,000 in his bank account post November 8. “ Notebandi se zindagi badlegi (Demonetisation would change my life),“ is what he hoped.

Bind Toli of Kurji, some 15 km from Bihar’s capital city, was among the first few villages in India to go cashless. Bank of Baroda reportedly took the initiative to open bank accounts for the villagers, facilitate enrolment of Aadhaar cards and handhold some 2,000 inhabitants of the village to move towards a cashless life.

A year later, Ma hato sounds dejected. “Landless the hi, ab cashless ho gaye (Were landless, now we have become cashless),“ he rues, whining about how falling returns in agriculture have forced him to lead a life with little cash. Optimism of a year ago has given way to cynicism. “Nothing will ever change for the poor,“ laments Mahato, as he pays `5 for a cup of tea and samosa at a ramshackle snack shop at the entrance of the village on Friday morning.

Bind Toli of Kurji is made up of displaced villagers who were relocated to this dusty village along the banks of the Ganga last January. The roads are bumpy and muddy, some of the semi-plastered houses have crowned themselves with Dish TV and Videocon D2H dish antennae, and the rest rely on their mobile phones for enter tainment; there is electricity but electric poles don’t have lights; the village doesn’t have drainage, toi lets and potable drinking wa ter; three gro cery stores transact with cash as PoS (point of sale) machines to accept credit, and debit cards remain an alien concept; and there is no bank branch or ATM, just the branding -Bank of Baroda is as conspicuous as Jio.

“They (Bank of Baroda) came here twice last year after demonetisation but disappeared after that,“ alleges Mahato.Most of the villagers opened zero-balance bank accounts, deposited some money, but have made no transaction over the last couple of months on their own, he adds. “Nobody knows how to withdraw money from a branch or ATM,“ he says.

Take, for instance, Prayag Mahato. The 70-year-old villager, who has been struggling to get his pension sanctioned since last year or so, has only made three bank transactions in 2017. A Bank of Baroda account holder, Mahato doesn’t have a debit card, has never withdrawn money as he is illiterate, and is ignorant about digital transactions. “Aapke sath kisi ne maz zak kiya hoga. Ye gaon kabhi cash less nahin tha (Somebody must have played a prank with you. This village was never cashless),“ he says. Questions emailed to a Bank of Baroda spokesperson remained unanswered at the time of writing.

The rest of the villagers mirror the same picture of neglect in terms of banking. Sujit Kumar, another Bank of Baroda customer, is in no mood to activate his account that lapsed six months back. Kumar, 23, works in a mechanic shop in the city, earns around `6,000 per month, and doesn’t have a debit card or a Paytm.He has downloaded some apps on his Samsung smartphone but they are remotely disconnected with banking: WhatsApp and Facebook! “Paytm karo sounds good on TV,“ he grins.

Kumar’s friend, Sanjit, drives an autorickshaw and recently bought a Hero bike from Patna. Staying in one of the few plastered houses in the village, adjoining a small, under-construction temple of Lord Hanuman, Sanjit has a debit card but is apprehensive of using it. “ Paisa gayab ho sakta hai (Money can vanish),“ he says.

Some 30 km from Bind Toli of Kurji is Basti of Maner, another village that reportedly went cashless in the wake of demonetisation. Fortunately for the inhabitants, the living conditions are hospitable. There are three big banks as one hits the Basti Road market, which is more like a semi-urban locality. A kilometre-long market road is dotted with a few ATMs, but most of them have run out of cash; shopkeepers are delighted with power supply and net connectivity, so crucial for digital transactions; Samsung, LG and Voltas dealers are busy wooing consumers for big-ticket items even as their neighbours make a killing with Vivo and Oppo smartphone mobile stores.

Guddu Singh, owner of an electronics store, has no reason to complain about demonetisation. The 40-year-old has a Paytm account to enable customers to pay, and also keeps nudging users to make payments either using the government’s UPI (Unified Payments Interface, a real-time payment system) or mobile banking.

A digitally savvy Singh, though, has a gripe of a different kind: it has been eight months since he opened a Paytm account but there are no takers. “Nobody has paid even once using Paytm,“ he whines, pointing towards the Paytm logo displayed prominently on one of the walls of the shop. “Cash is still the preferred mode of payment,“ he says, pointing out one of his blunders in trying to be a cashless citizen. This January, Singh had installed a PoS machine, which he finally removed last week. “It was such a waste. Nobody swipes cards,“ he rues.

Shrikant Prasad, a sari store owner, presents the consumer side of the story. The issue, he lets on, is not about absence of PoS machines or erratic internet connectivity.“The biggest impediment to a digital way of life is mindset,“ he says. Consumers are more comfortable with cash. “In villages, plastic means plastic bags, not money,“ says Prasad. During the first few months after demonetisation, a few shopkeepers installed PoS machines; today, most of them are gathering dust in a corner, he adds.

Prasad’s assessment might not be way off the mark. The companies dealing with the villagers too acknowledge the tough task.“Cash can’t be dethroned in villages overnight,“ says Praveen Dhabhai, chief operating officer of Payworld India, which runs an assisted wallet and has a presence in over 630 cities and 80,000 villages across 23 states, including Bihar. Making villages go cashless is a real challenge. While digital payments and other online media always have easy takers in urban areas, in rural Indias cash is still the king, he reckons. The reasons, he explains, are apprehensions about digital payments and a lack of handholding. “One needs to win the trust of the villagers and it can’t happen in a year,“ he says. Villagers, he contends, are taking baby steps towards going digital. “But they will take their own sweet time. One needs to be patient,“ he adds.

For villagers of Patsa in Bihta, some 15 km from Basti of Maner, patience is a dirty word. There is neither an ATM nor a bank branch. Shops only accept cash as nobody uses cards; most of the houses have an LPG connection but are still hooked to smoke-emanating earthen stoves in their zeal to `save’ the cylinder; smartphones and Jio connection are the two most common items in this village.

Ajay Kumar, a 41-year-old farmer, claims to be have been championing the cause of a digital way of life in Patsa. The irony is that he doesn’t have a bank account. “Bank officials came only once to the village,“ he complains. “Pradhan mantri n e thee k kiya lekin bank afsa roon ne kuch nahin kiya (The prime minister made a right move but bankers didn’t do anything),“ he says.

Abhishek Singh, however, mocks at the idea of cashless villages. “Villagers don’t know how to write, and you want them to use cards?“ asks Singh who did his graduation from Sikkim Manipal University. “First teach them, then give them facilities and finally ask them to go cashless,“ he says, as he accompanies this reporter around the village to show their life after dusk. “Walk carefully, there are no street lights,“ he cautions.

Professor DM Diwakar, director at AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna, agrees with the prognosis. Demonetisation, he reckons, made Indian villages cashless, but not in the way it was tom-tommed. “Villagers didn’t have cash to spend, and this is what a cashless village is,“ he quips. How can villagers, the professor argues, use digi tal modes of transaction without being lit erate? One needs to spread literacy and then push digitalisation. “We cited the Swedish example -the world’s largest cashless society -in going cashless. But did anybody bother to check the differ ence in literacy levels?“ he asks.

As the day grinds to an end, one gets to sense an undercurrent of anguish. But it is not against notebandi. It’s not even against Prime Minister Modi. There is no heartache over GST. The villains here are the bank officials and the government machinery that went about enforcing demonetisation.

In Patna city, cash is king. “Sir, Paytm mat kijiye, cash de dijiye,“ says cab driver Satrughan Yadav. “Cash chalta hai.“