Lanura (BUDGAM): Past a vast field of orchards, about 30 kilometers from Srinagar, a dilapidated road leads to Lanura, a village unknown to most Kashmiris until the state government announced it as the “first cashless village”.
A day after Budgam district, in which Lanura lies, was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Excellence Award for promoting “cashless economy”, this reporter visited the village to spend a day with the local people. He found that the village is not so much cashless as short of cash.
Lanura is one of the hundreds of villages declared “backward” by the government. Its homes are mostly un-plastered or are derelict wooden structures. More than 80 percent of the villagers work as daily wagers in neighbouring villages.
A village of 150 households, Lanura has a school dropout rate of almost 70 percent. The village only has one middle school and children have to travel to Khan Sahib, 8 km away, to study further. The village is also devoid of a basic health facility. The nearest health facility – a primary health centre – is 4 km away.
Sitting in his rundown grocery shop, Bashir Ahmad Dar said that in recent days about 18 households have been given Indira Aawas Yojna huts in the village, which shows that people here did not even have a home.
A girl in her 20s, Rubeena, whose teeth were aching, was being carried by two women on their shoulders. She was helped into an auto rickshaw, to take her to the health centre four kilometres away.
“We have no transport facility here,” said Bashir Ahmad Dar. “We walk to the road and wait for a bus.”
Dar remembers the time when official people came to teach him the art of digital payment, and explained to him how to install Paytm on his yet-to-be-purchased smartphone. What he does not remember is the art of digital payment they taught him.
“I don’t remember what they told us. I have forgotten everything about it,” he said and questioned the government’s claims of Lanura as a cashless village.
Here, most villagers haven’t seen or even heard of credit cards. The internet doesn’t work and when it does, is annoyingly slow. Even electricity is often at the mercy of the elements.
“Our village is not ‘cash-less’ but ‘less on cash’,” quipped Ubaid Ahmad, sitting on a shop-front in the centre of the village. “We are a village of downtrodden labourers. We earn a few pennies a day and now we are being told have to live without cash,” he said.
This Sunday, Budgam district was awarded for promoting cashless economy and Lanura was again hailed as the “first village in Jammu and Kashmir to go cashless”. “At least one member of each household has been trained in EPS (Electronic Payment System). Thirteen merchants have been brought under EPS… The total number of persons trained on EPS in the village has touched 150,” the official statement said.
It is not the annoying cashless tag but erratic electricity that troubles villagers the most, they said. Apart from frequent outages, every time the electricity goes off, the cell-phone signal tower, which is without a battery back-up, also goes into hibernation.
A handful of youngsters joined the small group of men outside Dar’s shop who were talking of their new-found “cashless” status.
“Cashless? Are they saying we will have to make do with even less money? I am a labourer and only earn around Rs 200 a day. What will I do with things like Paytm? I need cash to feed my family and I need it in my hands at the end of every day. What will I do with money in my account?” one of the men said.
The village, with a population of about 1,500, has only six shops — a chemist’s and five grocers. None of the shopkeepers has a debit-card machine or has ever used Net Banking. Only one of them — Firdous Ahmad, who runs the medical store — has heard of Paytm.
Ahmad says he was taught how to use Paytm but he uses it only to recharge his own prepaid cell-phone. Today, two months after the village was declared “cashless”, almost every transaction in Lanura’s six shops is either in cash or on credit.
“What is this ‘cashless’? We have been hearing this word for the past few months but what does this even mean?” Dar snapped. “I get cash for what I sell and if somebody doesn’t have cash, I give the stuff on credit and they pay me at the end of the month. It’s always been that way. Why are they trying to change things now? Why?”
Though almost all the villagers have bank accounts, Lanura doesn’t have a bank or an ATM; the nearest one is at the J&K Bank branch in Kremshore, 3 km away.
“Most of the people have been living life below the poverty line. Most of the account holders have accounts on the basis of labour cards,” said Zahoor Ahmad Sofi, standing among the men outside Dar’s shop. “Many villagers don’t even know how to use an ATM card,” he added. “They give it to me and ask me to withdraw money for them.”
The government project to train people in electronic payments was launched earlier this year by the Common Services Centre (CSC) of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. The training is imparted by Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs) affiliated to the CSCs. The two CSC trainers at Lanura have submitted to the District Informatics Officer in Budgam a list of 150 people in Lanura who have ostensibly been “trained”.
Shabir Ahmad, a student, also figures on this list. “I don’t know anything about this training. I can only use my cell-phone to make calls, nothing more,” he declared.
Mohammad Yasin Thoker, a 35-year-old resident of Lanura, is one of the two CSC trainers from the village. “We have trained around 150 villagers in electronic payment systems, one from each household,” he claimed. When asked if he could identify the people he trained, so that we may talk to them, he said, “None of the people we trained is in the village today.”
“We didn’t have much cash anyway,” said grocer Dar with a shrug of indifference.
Former sarpanch of the village, Ghulam Hassan, said the village has been declared cashless to “shore up the central government’s image.”
“We are illiterate people. The government can do what it wants but why drag us into it? We are now the butt of jokes. People come here, look around, laugh at us and say, ‘This village is cashless!’”