1 Year Of Notes Ban: Being Cashless A Distant Dream In Assam Tea Gardens

NDTV visited the tea gardens in Assam's Golaghat district - that has about 70 large tea gardens out of 800 odd gardens in Assam - for a reality check on whether the workers there are getting their pay digitally.

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ATMs in the area have a chronic record of link failures and running out of cash.

Golaghat, Assam:  A year ago, when the government announced its demonetisation move, one of the major decisions taken was to bring Assam's tea industry under digital pay, creating scope of financial inclusion of about 10 lakh tea garden workers.

NDTV visited the tea gardens in Assam's Golaghat district - that has about 70 large tea gardens out of 800 odd gardens in Assam - for a reality check on whether the workers there are getting their pay digitally.

In Dholaguri tea estate, 300 kilometres from Guwahati, NDTV met Rumi Gaur and Somani Gaur, two friends who have been plucking two leaves and one bud from tea bushes for 15 years. Last year their tea garden made a place in the record books when it got Assam's first ever ATM inside a tea garden - the government and banks claimed that digital India has arrived at tea gardens.

"When the ATM was installed we were very happy since like other we would get back accounts, we can have some savings. I gave my documents on the very first day but yet to get my ATM card" said Rumi Gauri. 

Her friend Somani did get her ATM card and withdrew money but is upset with several taxes levied on her Jan Dhan account.

"I withdrew from ATM but it's troublesome, often ATM does not have cash, we work on weekly wages and need money anyhow in weekend. And then they cut taxes for not maintaining balance so we would prefer cash, I have kept the ATM back at home," said Somani Gauri. 

The SBI ATM at Dholaguri, the model for entire tea industry, could take load of only 60 percent of the 1200 odd workers of the garden on a pay day, and for a month, even that is not happening. The ATM's key pad is out of order.

"We have informed the bank repeatedly, every day they commit to come and fix it, we had problem of link failures and at that time we have to face labourers," said Bijay Das, Assistant Manager, Dholaguri tea estate.

Other ATMs in the area also have chronic record of link failures and running out of cash.

E-pay in tea gardens began with a lot of hype. Biometric data of tea garden workers were collected for first of its kind bio-metric ATM card. Banks had promised Jan Dhan accounts for 10 lakh workers. Nearly 8 lakh have been opened, about 60 percent of them are empty. 

On paper records, about 500 mini ATMs are operational. On the ground, they can hardly be seen, say the garden workers.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal acknowledges that there are serious issues but takes great pride that nearly 8 lakh tea gardens workers have bank accounts now.

"This is a major success. They have reposed faith in Modi Ji's leadership. Getting 8 lakh bank accounts opened is not a matter of joke. In this matter we have discussed it with the bankers and we are looking into it," Mr Sonowal told NDTV.

But dreams of financial inclusion has turned a joke of sort for the 400-odd tea garden workers who have bank accounts and ATM cards but are being paid in cash at Aboyjan tea estate in Golaghat. 

44-year-old Ratan Koya says within a year he could withdraw his salary digitally only once.

"When we got our account, we felt we will have money and there was a sense of financial empowerment but four times it happened that the more ATMs came but due to network failures they could not pay," Ratan Koya told NDTV. 

And the industry is completely upset. 

"Connectivity is a big issue, availability of ATMs or cash dispensing machines was simply not in place. Some infrastructure was created to show that they are doing... My own experience has been bitter, when mobile ATM van went to make payments connectivity was low and we could pay 50 to 400, we tried with another garden it didn't work, so we had to switch to cash again," explained Manoj Jalan , Chairman , Northeastern Tea Association. 

The banks defend with a fresh promise. 

"Accounts were opened by bringing the people to a place where connectivity was better, but it is not possible to pay them in that area, so account opening was successful but for digital payment we have challenges," said PVSLN Murthy, Chief General Manager, SBI, NE Circle. 

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