Demonetisation: One Year After

A Day in the Life of a Cashless Village

Ashish Sharma
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Digitally Jhattipur

IT’S QUIET THIS Monday afternoon in Jhattipur. A lone cow ambles towards a kirana store, pacing against the distant whirr of a tractor engine, and settles under the shade of a tree. A shiny SUV drives past, rocking gently on the cobbled pathway that leads into the village. On our left is a swanky boutique wedding venue, with a ludicrous amount of white satin pitched outside, heaving gently against the wind, while on our right is a series of factory setups, manned by a few men who are temporarily parked on the periphery of the compound for a lunch break. We drive slowly further in, as concrete houses tower above us, unvillage-like, though the sight of cowsheds attached to every boundary wall suggests otherwise. Another car whizzes past us, its interiors booming with the latest Bollywood song.

If one needs a quick getaway from clichés that emerge out of Haryana—the sprawling mustard fields, larders replete with ghee and makkhan, and a customary baithak of men in white kurta-pyjamas, smoking hookahs by the roadside, immersed in a game of cards—one needn’t venture too far. It’s just a 90-km car ride from Delhi and a Murthal parantha away. Just off the Atta-Bilaspur road in Panipat district, a cobbled lane leads to the 100-year-old Jhattipur village, or ‘Haryana’s first digital village’, as several media houses have chosen to portray it .

Upon our arrival at the village headman’s house, the front office lies open. An old lady whisks us towards some chairs. Anil Kaushik, the naib tehsildar-cum-executive magistrate of the village, sits behind a desk placed at the centre of the room. “It hardly looks like a village, you know,” he says, “have you seen the wide roads here? You wouldn’t see such well-planned and well-maintained roads in any other village. It really does not give you the feel of a village.” Around 1.30 pm, the village sarpanch, Ashok Kumar, walks in. He makes his way to the cabinet next to a CCTV screen and whisks out a mic. “Ration depot par gehun vitaran kiya ja raha hai. Kripya apne apne ration card lekar aayein, aur POS machine ke maadhyam se online gehun va cashless transaction ke liye RuPay card ke saath aayein aur apna apna gehun lekar jaayein (Grains are being distributed at the ration depot. Kindly come with your ration card and avail the services and make online transactions via the POS machine or cashless through your RuPay card),” he announces. Kumar, who took over as the 14th sarpanch of Jhattipur last January, finally sits down, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. Heavy does lie the head that wears the crown. He laughs reassuringly, though, “It’s been worth it.” He furnishes a bundle of ICICI payment receipts. “We are a cashless village. Everything we do here is digital,” he says.

Ever since demonetisation was announced on November 8th last year, Jhattipur has been in the media spotlight for its ‘transformation’, mostly credited to Kumar, who took steps such as bringing ICICI’s Digital Villages project to his hometown. By the end of December, Jhattipur was one of hundreds of villages that the bank adopted to introduce such programmes as creating a digital payment ecosystem for financial activity, providing free vocational training and facilitating market linkages. At the inauguration of the ‘ICICI Rural Summit—Sashakt Gaon, Samriddh Bharat’, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had announced (broadcast live at Jhattipur, says Kumar): “One of the learnings we have experienced is that the advantages of economic reforms will reach the villages... Now, a fundamental change has taken place and the [political] debate has disappeared; with that, a segment of society feels that they have been included in the whole economic reforms process.” ICICI reports that over 11,300 villagers, including more than 7,500 women, had been trained for cashless operations across 17 states within 100 days of demonetisation.

The ICICI Digital Village hoardings are ubiquitous in Jhattipur, a village of around 6,000 residents. Every villager holds an account with ICICI Bank or Sarva Haryana Gramin Bank. “We digitised the whole village. From microphone announcements—speakers for which dot every corner of the village—to the CCTV cameras installed in every part of the gaon,” says Kumar, “The banks have had a big role in it. They opened accounts in every household by visiting them door to door. Everyone got an ATM card. We were given POS machines last year when notebandi took place. In fact, we had started this process in September 2016 itself. The digitisation drive had begun across the country and we went ahead with it too.” According to reports, ICICI had started off with 400 accounts, proceeding to 1,700 zero-balance accounts in one year since demonetisation. Sarva Haryana Grameen Bank also claims to have opened thousands of accounts in the village. Additionally, loans were given out to those who wanted to set up their own businesses or fund education, or those who needed agricultural loans.

At least ten Aadhaar camps were set up last year, ensuring every living member of the village has a card, paving the way for Aadhaar-linked payments. Additionally, every house has a ‘name plate’, painted in front in stark yellow, with the name of the property’s owner and a number assigned to it. “We carried out a survey to figure out how many members every family has, who all are the earning members, and so on,” says Kumar. Several training camps were set up in schools and chaupals (community buildings) to train residents in cashless translations and online banking. “Young people came in droves, who, in turn, educated the elders,” says Kumar.

We digitised the whole village with microphone announcements and CCTV cameras. BANKS HAVE HAD A BIG ROLE TOO. Everyone has ATM cards now” - Ashok Kumar, Jhattipur sarpanch

The transformation may sound hurried, executed all within a year. But for Kumar, who was born and brought up here, it was long due. “All of this comes with education, madam. Education taught me things. I’m a Master’s in philosophy and political science. I’ve had some learning from my brother too, who was a sarpanch before me. I went on to do my LLB from Kurukshetra University. Since then, I’ve had progressive ideas regarding how to go about things in this village I call home,” he says, “Once I became sarpanch, I got the opportunity to carry out those ideas, such as those related to health and the environment. I wanted greenery in the village. I wanted a modern village, but amenities like that you find [only] in the cities. Here, we do everything modern a little differently. Take construction, for instance. We abide by government norms in the strictest manner possible, with zero corruption.” Above us, a television screen flickers with 16 close- circuit camera panels. One can see some villagers walking along the road with plastic shopping bags that presumably contain their ration and debit cards. They’re headed for the ration depot.

THE QUEUE AT the depot, a makeshift space, is short. Robin, a 25-year-old appointed by Kumar to work at the depot, calls out names of village residents one by one. The ration depot, he says, distributes grains according to the stock left in their granaries. “As long as there is stock, we distribute any number of times a month,” he says. An old woman steps in, places her finger on a biometric machine and upon a red glow, steps back. The machine reveals the name of all the family members, each assigned 5 kg of grains for the month, along with their Aadhaar card details. “Do you have your debit card?” Robin asks her. She takes out the card and rummages through her purse for a small piece of paper. “I think I forgot the password at home,” she laughs. Unfazed, Robin asks her to come back again with the card’s pin. “Most people here don’t know how to use their ATM cards. So they often bring a tiny slip on which they scribble down their passwords. Sometimes they bring their kids to do it. Sometimes, we do the needful,” he says.

Last year, Robin was one of the several young men who underwent training, organised by ICICI Bank, to get licences to operate biometric machines in order to distribute grains. He enters his name and log-in ID into the machine and says, “The machine won’t work unless a licensed person has entered details on this machine.” The machine records the card activity of every villager. If a card goes unused for more than three weeks, it gets blocked; the card holder is promptly assumed dead. “Earlier, there used to be a lot of cheating. People used to use each other’s cards; even if the member of the family is dead, they would go and collect grains under that individual’s name. Now, every family member needs to come and collect their assigned amount of grain. If that person doesn’t come, their ration will remain here, untouched. Also, earlier, one could take one or two months’ worth of rations. Now, that doesn’t work. You can only take what is assigned to you by the government,” he says.

We step out of the ration store and head to a few retail shops. A favourite excursion for anyone interested in this digital village is the nai ki dukaan (barber shop), one of the first shops to set up PayTM transaction. Robin leads us there, to the amusement of men lying back on reclining chairs, their face covered in shaving foam. “The shopkeepers themselves set up PayTM counters in their shops. Young people end up doing PayTM transactions more,” says Robin. We move on to Atal Sewa Kendra, manned by Vir Pal, a frail young man who set up Digi Pay at the village last year after demonetisation. Digi Pay is one of the many apps that emerged after the announcement, an Aadhaar-linked payment app that is reportedly being used by 22,000 Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs) across the country at the moment. Previously known as Apna Dhan, the app was developed by National Payments Corporation of India in association with IndusInd Bank. “You put in your Aadhaar card number and the money gets deducted from your account. One doesn’t need a debit card; just an Aadhaar card, which is linked to the account. With the absence of ATM machines in the village and a slew of such payment apps, people hardly withdraw money here. The system is mostly cashless. I’ve had transactions up to Rs 15 lakh,” says Pal. Another kirana store, one of the few to have a swipe machine, reports cashless dealings worth about Rs 17,000 over the last few months. “We have PayTM too. We accept cash or online payments, depending on the customer’s demands,” says the shopkeeper.

There’s more, assures Robin, as we proceed further in. “Check your phone. You’ll see four Wi-Fi connections. They’re free,” he says. Indeed, four open connections show up on our screens. The WiFi was installed last year too, around the time CCTV cameras and announcement speakers were set up. At this point, a villager interrupts. “It doesn’t work!” he shouts from a distance. Brief confusion ensues. The man approaches us and says, “The Wi-Fi is always off. I know it because my house has a tower and I personally switch it off. Why would I leave it on if I don’t get the kiraaya (rent)? I switch it on just for myself. The range is zero. Since I have a router at home, I get to use it. You can either listen to me, or the version the sarpanch gives you.” He walks away in a huff.

HAS THIS SUDDEN wave of modernisation seeped into every crevice of Jhattipur? Kaushik, the nayab tehsildar, sips his tea and acknowledges with calm resignation, “Truth is, they have tried, but nahin chal sakta (it can never work completely). Being entirely cashless is not practical. Dehaat mein log seedhe hote hain (People are simple in the village). They don’t want to get into this. Also, these days, there’s this whole system of hacking and fraud. The swipe machines and PayTM booths have been set up by the villagers themselves. Ever since this sarpanch has taken over, he has made these changes; he is well read, has done his LLB, and has this soch and samajh (thinking and understanding) that the village should be cashless. But as far as reach is concerned, it’s difficult to reach the grassroots level.”

A few yards away, we come across eight labourers working in the field, beating bundles of wheat stems against a barrel, separating the grain from its chaff. They’ve all been zero-balance account holders since demonetisation. They all have debit cards. Do they use these? “We are dehaati. What do we know about these cards and machines? People in the village do use cards, but those are smart, educated people. Those like me, we do manual labour in others’ fields. We earn around Rs 2,000 on dehaadi in a week or so. We also don’t want to risk that much money,” says Satpal Singh.

Guddi, another worker, chips in, pointing to a friend standing next to her, “She went to the shop that one day and the whole kharcha (expense) was around Rs 100. When she gave the shopkeeper her card, he deducted Rs 150. And then this other time, we got calls, saying that they are from the bank and they want our account number. Later, we go to the bank and find out that our money is gone. It’s empty. The bank employees say that they never called us. Now our money is gone and we don’t know what to do,” she says. Singh concludes, “We are not educated. We are poor. We don’t know how to use ATMs. All we know is that these cards bring all these frauds and scams to us. We are charged extra. If money disappears, we don’t know what to do. We are now scared to see these cards, machines, Paytms and ATMs. We only believe in cash.”

Caught in the the post-demonetisation hysteria, Jhattipur may have prematurely captured the imagination of a nation that still grapples with the possibility of digitisation. For its people, though, the journey has just begun, and it will take more than a few swipes to make that happen.