December 2016 News
Cashless Villages Remain Offline As Poor Internet Mars Adoption28 December 2016
Srinagar: Demonetisation and 'cashless' are currently the hot topics for discussions at the shopfronts in Kashmiri villages, where people gather every evening and morning to discuss and debate all sundry things. The Kashmir Valley along with rest of India is still reeling from the aftereffects of demonetisation which Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on 8 November. Now, there are reports emerging from the region that some of the villages in the valley have gone completely cashless. Manzigam is one such village which has been recently declared cashless in Kashmir. It is around 25 kilometres from the main town of Anantnag. On 20 December, the village of Manzigam received a team of state government officials from the Common Service Centers (CSC) e-governance division. As part of central government's 'Digital India' campaign, CSC provides various services, mostly electronic, to the general public along with training them on how to use those services. The CSC team trained about 20 villagers for cashless transactions and provided information on various digital payment systems. But going cashless is a slow process, more so, because some habits are hard to change. A week since the training, most people in the Manzigam village are yet to understand the idea of cashless payments. They are still carrying cash in their pockets and it is evident that there is no implementation of cashless transactions on ground. In one of the morning gatherings at a shopfront, few of the villagers described their experience when the government team visited. Most of the villagers still look confused when they hear about their village becoming cashless. Many have heard the term cashless, but they have no idea about what exactly it is. Yet, they are quick to point out its effects. 'Now we have to carry ATM cards like we used to carry our identity cards in the early 1990s to prove our identity to the security forces,' said one of the villagers who got in the middle of the discussion to offer prayers in a nearby mosque. However, another man in the early 30s said, 'It would be beneficial.' Many nodded. Some have no idea what payment swipe machines are or what was taught in the training. While talking to Firstpost, a villager named Arif Ahmad said, 'Shopkeepers have to submit some forms (not knowing what exactly) to get the machines. I was busy and couldn't attend the training class.' He said that only around 30 people among the 300 families in the village attended the CSC camp. Shopkeepers are the key enablers for implementation of the cashless monetary system in any village. Manzigam has around 10 shops which are yet to install payment swipe machines. They have been told to open Current Accounts so that they can accept payments through the machines. But many are reluctant, so they are still insisting on cash payments. These problems aside, there are other logistical challenges too. Manzigam has few smartphone users, poor internet connectivity, fluctuating electricity and the only broadband internet connection is at the only Khidmat centre. Hamid, a 20-year-old shopkeeper from Manzigam doesn't have a 4G-enabled smartphone which is the foremost priority for using mobile wallets in Kashmir these days as prepaid 3G mobile internet services are yet to resume after the 8 July killing of militant commander Burhaan Wani. 'I don't have the internet on my phone yet, as I have a 3G phone. I somehow connect to Wi-Fi hotspots of my friends' phones to access the internet.' Hamid is, however, optimistic of having his own internet as he is expecting that Reliance Jio, a 4G service provider, may introduce internet services on 3G phones in near future. When asked about the internet speed in his village, he is quick to answer: 'There is a cellular network in our neighbouring village. We go in the fields for faster internet speed, otherwise, it is frustrating.' It's a similar story with Lanura village in Central Kashmir's Budgam district, which was the first village in Kashmir to go cashless. Various media reports say that the village has only got the tag of cashless, but on the ground, its implementation is zero. The story repeats in other such villages of Kashmir which were declared and tagged as cashless villages. There seems to be no solid sign of practical adoption of cashless payment mechanisms by the villagers so far. Talking to Firstpost, district manager of the CSC, Rayees Ahmad admitted that it is not easy to make villages go cashless. 'It's really hard to say how much time it will take to go cashless. No one can say,' he said. Ahmad also pointed out the problem of poor internet connectivity and ban on prepaid mobile internet services. 'Mobile network is not that good. Reliance Jio has brought some relief. But everybody cannot afford a 4G smartphone. It is necessary to lift the ban on prepaid mobile internet for going digital,' he added. Many Kashmiris are of the opinion that it is not easy to implement and promote cashless transactions in the Valley as long as internet access remains susceptible to the law and order situation in Kashmir. Mohammad Ishaq who hails from Anantnag while talking to Firstpost said, 'In Kashmir, where prepaid internet is banned for more than five months, how can the government claim to have cashless villages.' 'If it is possible to go cashless amid these prevailing circumstances, then it will take no time for the whole Kashmir to go cashless,' he remarked sarcastically. The author is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar. He focuses on the socio-political issues of the Kashmir Valley.