The government’s concerted drive to make Goa the first cashless state in India by December 31 is coming unstuck. After opposition from traders, the plan is facing resistance from the state unit of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which on Tuesday opposed the month-end deadline, saying it gave no time for preparation or implementation. It also pointed out that the plan was causing panic among tourists and the trading community.

A section of the BJP cautioned against angering the business community when Assembly elections are scheduled for early next year.

The party urged Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar to withdraw a government circular, issued on November 30, directing traders to comply with the government’s decision. The rollback request came a day after BJP workers spoke with vendors and shop owners in the Panjim market.

First cashless state

The circular was issued four days after Defence Minister and former state chief minister Manohar Parrikar declared, on November 26, that Goa would support Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation drive and be the first state to go cashless by December 31. Since then, the state administration has been in mission mode, formulating plans to connect the mobile phones of vendors to bank accounts and facilitate customer payments even through non-smartphones. It has held several meetings with banks and plans to move all payments online, including various fees and traffic fines, and to set up information kiosks to educate the public and spread awareness about the drive.

But while the government departments have speedily announced their proposals, talks with traders ­– already suffering from a demonetisation-induced slowdown – have hit a roadblock.

The November 30 circular, issued by the commercial taxes department, directed all registered vendors, hoteliers, wholesalers and traders to “ensure that cashless available modes of payments are made available at their respective place of business within 10 days from the date of issue of this circular”. It said commercial tax officers would visit them to “verify compliance” and a consolidated compliance report would be submitted to the commissioner of commercial taxes in a fortnight.

The circular has caused a furore among traders, even as the commissioner has clarified that no punitive measures were tied to the request and that 70% of vendors already had point of sale machines for card transactions. The chief minister, too, has sought to allay fears by stressing the absence of punitive action and stating that such a move would not completely eradicate cash.

The matter has reached the Goa State Human Rights Commission through a petition filed by lawyer and social activist Aires Rodrigues, who said such a switch would cause immense hardship to smaller establishments and those without credit/debit cards in a state where internet connectivity and uninterrupted power supply are not assured.

“It is a violation of human rights to proceed so haphazardly when cash is still legal tender,” Rodrigues told Taking note of the petition, the commission has issued notices to the chief secretary and the commercial taxes commissioner to appear before it on December 9.

Traders not ready

Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the assurances given to them, traders remain unconvinced. Their anger was palpable when spoke to hawkers in Panjim’s main vegetable market. “For generations, nothing like this has happened,” said a woman who sells vegetables, who asked to remain unidentified. “Where have these people come from to crush us? If we were literate enough to use mobiles to transfer money, we would have got service jobs. Instead, we earn four annas a day and use the same money to buy fresh vegetables the next morning and eke out a living. And now they are making matters worse for us.”

Across Goa, vegetable markets such as this one have seen business go rapidly down as the demonetisation announcement on November 8 sucked out hard currency from the economy. Though purchases have picked up lately, it is nowhere near previous levels.

While most of the hawkers were livid at the government’s cashless drive, there were also some who had not heard of these plans. Said a hawker just outside the market, who requested anonymity, “We’ve been told nothing, though I heard there were some instructions in the main market.” She said she did not trust or understand banks, adding, “Mine is a very small business, selling fruit.”

Sanjeev Lamani, who goes door to door on his two-wheeler selling fish in a North Goa village, said, “Do I sell fish or handle a mobile? How is that even possible?”

Mohammed Shahbaz, who sells clothes from a small stall in the market, was more optimistic, saying he was willing to go cashless if it became a rule. But he also pointed out that merely making traders install digital payment devices would not solve the problem. “Mine is a small shop, my customers mostly come with cash,” he said. “What if they don’t have debit or credit cards or mobiles to use eWallets? Then what?” He said he believed the plan would currently only work for bigger shops.

Subhash Naik George, president of the All Goa Bank Employees Association, also pointed to the problems customers would face as a result of taking all transactions online. “Just count the cost of going cashless for customers: you have to have a smartphone and an internet connection or a credit/debit card,” he said. “The young are tech-savvy, but what about those unused to technology?”

Touching on a concern shared by most traders’ associations in the state, George said that while bank charges on ATM transactions have been withdrawn till December 31, “at some point, charges will become applicable on these transactions”.

Even traders willing to go cashless pointed out that there should not be a choice between one method of payment and another. “I have been waiting for my bank to process my application for a swipe machine,” said a supermarket owner in North Goa’s Saligao village. “I will get it eventually, but there should not be any compulsion on accepting only one kind of payment.”