In India’s first cashless island, cash is currency

Karang island went cashless after two months of demonetization in November 2016. Representative Image. PTI.

As electioneering reach fever pitch elsewhere in the country, there are few signs India’s
first cashless island is as excited. Isolated from the frenzied campaigning, fisher folk of Karang, an idyllic lake island in Manipur, are trying to get on with their daily struggles to earn a livelihood.

A couple of flags of BJP, a few posters North East India Development Party and some
banners of Congress are the only signs here that show a political event is underway.

For locals, it has been a hard reality check. Imagine. And compare.

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In January 2017, two months after demonetization was announced abruptly, they
enjoyed a brief moment in the Sun when Karang, located in the middle of Loktak Lake,
was declared the country’s first cashless island. Ahead of polling on Thursday (April 18), locals said all hopes of a better life, because of that distinction, are dashed now.

Oinam Babu, a shopkeeper, wrapped up his PoS machine six months ago and tucked it
in a corner after frequent breakdowns. He had hoped to use it for accepting digital
payments.

Babu is among three shopkeepers in the area who were given PoS machines. He said
the machine wasnt registered in his name but given to him by a facilitator when the
cashless drive had started. He received cash reimbursement from the facilitator for every
transaction made through the device. The PoS machine was meant more for tourists as locals here always make cash payments. The awareness of a cashless system is negligible here. It is of no use now, he told PTI.

With the tourist season in Karang lasting only two months June-July, he said there is
little he can do with the device. Moreover, the machine often breaks down and it is not worth going all the way to Moirang (around 9 km) to fix it. That’s why I have packed it and kept it in a corner of my shop, he added.

Karang Island Cashless Promotion Society president Ningthoujam Indrakumar said, It is
a failure. Nothing is happening now. Indrakumar, who operates a motor-boat, blames officials for the failure. He said they did not follow up on their promises to make the cashless drive a success.

Initially, training and awareness programmes were organised, but nothing happened
later, he lamented.

Last month, Deputy Commissioner of Bishnupur district, under which Karang comes,
was awarded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for making the remote place the first
cashless island. In absence of proper infrastructure to support digital payments, you cannot expect this to succeed here, Indrakumar said.

According to him, out of the total population of nearly 3,000 in the island, only a few
have smartphones, a key instrument for digital payments. It is yet to have
a broadband connection.

It takes nearly two hours by road from the state capital Imphal to cover the 52-km stretch
to reach the nearest dock at Thanga to enter Karang by boat. Another 10 minutes by
boat leads to the main island area.

Every day, nearly 50-60 children from Karang take boats to the mainland to attend their
school. They all pay in cash for the ferry. Even adults who have to go out of the island
pay in cash, he said.

A one-way trip to the island by boat on a sharing basis costs Rs 10 while booking a
motor-boat for a round-trip by tourists can cost up to Rs 300.

Indrakumar, who is also a member of Karang Island Boat Association, said efforts were
made to make at least the ferry payments digital as it in a way served as the gateway to
the cashless island but it hasn’t yielded results.

At the islands Primary Health Centre, an official on duty who requested anonymity, said
the fee of Rs 10 for an OPD card is accepted in cash only. It is because that’s the only way of payment that the locals know, the official said.

Karang Island Development Organisation president Salam Kheda said the Government
lacked in making the island economically developed and hence the cashless drive failed. Unless the local economy develops, how can you think of a successful digital payments
system here, he questioned.

With a majority of the natives of the island earning about Rs 300-400 a day through
fishing, Kheda said requests to the government for support on developing self-
employment means, skilling the youth and encourage vocations like handloom and
handicrafts have not been heard. Physical connectivity is also a major issue here. Even after laying the foundation stone for a bridge to connect Karang with Thanga years ago, nothing has happened, he said.

He said it is clear that everything was done to announce Karang as India’s first cashless
island and nothing beyond. While there is disillusionment, Babu said the intent of digital payments system was good. We are hoping that irrespective of who comes to power at the Centre after the general election, they follow up with a vision for development. Karang badly needs development, he asserted.

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