A year after the government of Assam began a massive digitisation drive to route the weekly wages for around 686,000 tea workers in the state via banks and ATMs, cash continues to be the preferred choice.
Owing to the remote location of at least 55 per cent of the 745-odd gardens in Assam, banks have found it too difficult to either set up ATM counters or service these gardens via customer service providers, a prerequisite of the digitisation drive.
The announcement of demonetisation last November had resulted in a severe cash crunch situation across the country. And, the Assam government initiated an ambitious plan to open bank accounts for all registered tea workers and asked the gardens to route the payment via banks. In turn, the banks were asked to install ATM machines in the gardens, so that workers could withdraw their weekly wages and estate managers the cash they neded for day-to-day operations.
Till now, accounts for around 78 per cent of the workers have officially been opened and a fourth of the gardens have ATMs.
"We had allotted space for the ATMs in the gardens but it's still vacant. Infrastructural bottlenecks and operational problems are the primary reasons why the pace of digital payments has been slow," Azam Monem, chairman of the Indian Tea Association, told Business Standard.
As a result of the absence of ATMs, the estates are making the payment via banks for workers who have accounts. And, the workers, have to travel eight to 25 km in hilly terrain to withdraw their weekly earning.
This means increased absenteeism, pushing the managements to mechanise operations, beside loss of a day's wages to the workers.
According to Paban Singh Ghatowar, president of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha, the state's largest tea workers' union, the state first needs to put in place the necessary banking and physical infrastructure before digitisation of payments can be enforced.
In its pursuit to inculcate banking habits among the garden workers, the government had announced that each account holder would get Rs 2,500 in his account through Direct Benefits Transfer. If they continued their accounts for another six months another Rs 2,500 would be credited. Industry officials allege that while this move initially led to a push in opening of the accounts, the workers later started asking for cash payments.
The government's chief secretary, V K Pipersenia, in a meeting with the State Level Bankers' Committee, identified poor internet connectivity as a major issue in the goal to digitise the payment system. In some of the gardens, owing to the workers' demands for disbursing in cash despite having bank accounts, a major portion of the tea industry is still unable to make the switch Digital India. Cash is crucial in the region, being the preferred mode of transaction. In Assam, the credit-deposit proportion is about 47 per cent, against the national average of 60 per cent.