Sagar Nichite flicked through his wallet to pay for the vada pav he had bought, but all he had was a Rs 2,000 note. He pulled out his bank card. “I’ll pay with this,” he said, handing it over to the older man frying the golden brown fritters for the snack. Vijay Suroshe wiped his palms clean, took the proffered card and swiped it through his brand new machine. The screen lit up. “That’s Rs 85,” he told Nichite.

Suroshe punched into the machine, but flummoxed, went over to the shop next door for help. Nichite called out his personal identification number, or PIN, within earshot of everyone around. “That’s no problem,” the 24-year-old said, laughing. “They are our people.” Five minutes later, Suroshe had figured out how to use the machine and the transaction was done.

Dhasai village in Maharashtra’s Thane district, 100 km from Mumbai, has embraced digital payments in the wake of the November 8 demonetisation of high-value bank notes. This has prompted the government to hold up this hamlet of 3,053 people as one of the first in India to make a serious effort to go cashless.

In his dimly-lit vada pav shop that Saturday, 47-year-old Suroshe had conducted five transactions on his card swipe machine till 1pm. He estimated that of the Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 he made daily, about Rs 500 came through cashless exchanges. “It will pick up slowly,” he said.

Salman Sayyad has gone cashless.

In another shop in the neighbourhood, Salman Sayyad, 23, sliced up big hunks of meat. At least a third of his dealings are now cashless, he claimed. “This is ekdum best,” he said, pointing to his card swipe machine. “This will help us dream bigger.”

The road to digital

Behind this digital push is social activist Ranjit Savarkar, who floated the initiative, and the Dhasai Shahar Vyapari Association, which supported it with the aim of simplifying the lives of villagers after demonetisation resulted in a severe cash crunch and all-night queues outside the solitary ATM in the village.

The main road in Dhasai is the seat of this experiment. On December 1, 39 vendors inaugurated their swipe machines amid much fanfare. Many more have applied to get theirs. The Bank of Baroda is supplying the devices, waiving off routine charges. State Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar attended the launch, though the initiative is not government-driven.

“I thought it was my duty to do something,” said Savarkar, who is based in Mumbai but runs a school here. “I didn’t want to involve local leaders or the gram panchayat.” And so, with the help of the traders’ body, the plan was hatched.

“This should have started in cities, but a village is showing the way,” said Swapnil Patkar, head of the trade association. “We have shown that we can also use cards.” He added, “People felt they couldn’t use their own money even though it was in the bank.”

Sridhar Rao, deputy general manager for the Bank of Baroda’s Mumbai Metro South Region, said he was in the process of going through 45 applications for card machines from Dhasai and neighbouring Tokawade village, and expected another 30 in the coming week. “The moment we called a meeting of traders, they spoke in one voice,” he said. “We have been seeing a lot of machine transactions.”

A signboard on Dhasai's main road gives an idea of the businesses now offering cashless transactions.

Many residents said that after demonetisation made cash scarce and change even harder to come by, most transactions were on credit as people here trust each other. However, they added that they were now glad to be part of the digital drive.

Apart from kirana stores, a range of goods in Dhasai are being bought and sold this way: beer, clothes, utensils, medicines among others.

“Business had gone down 50%, so we applied for a machine,” said Yashwant Gholap, 25, who along with his father sells fruit from a cart. The hope is that with the cash-free option, business will pick up.

Down the road, Gajanand Sande, 37, who runs a medical store, also said he had got a machine after his business dived. “And with the Rs 2,000 note, change was a problem,” he added. “Also, how much can we give on credit?”

Shalini Anande, 37, who runs a beauty parlour for women, said she was waiting for her point of sale device to arrive.

Beauty parlour owner Shalini Anande has applied for a card swipe machine.

Breaking out of old habits

While Dhasai has wholeheartedly embraced the move to cashless payments, Ranjit Savarkar admitted that educating customers and changing old habits remained “a big challenge”. He said that while customers have the right to choose how they wish to pay for their goods, the move to going cashless wan’t that difficult. “If you can use a mobile, using a card is no big deal,” said the activist, who is currently spending some part of his time educating children on the benefits of using cards.

Shopkeepers acknowledged that it was early days yet for this experiment, and the bulk of their business still ran on cash. Moreover, since Dhasai is a nodal point for neighbouring villages, not everyone who comes to shop here has a card or even an interest in using one.

Among those who come to Dhasai to make their purchases are Adivasis from adjoining hamlets. Many of them admitted they were not comfortable using plastic. “I haven’t used my card since I got it a year ago,” said Kundalik Shiddh. The 40-year-old also said that he was yet to receive his wages for the past few months, so the question of depositing or withdrawing money did not arise. Still, he supported demonetisation. “The system is good but there have been problems,” he said.

At Vijaya Bank, the main bank in the area, about 10,500 people have accounts – this includes residents of Dhasai and neighbouring villages. But only 3,000 have debit cards. “It is a rural area, so people are less aware,” said DL Sutar, the bank’s manager. “It is a new idea, so it will take time.”

Some do not even use their accounts, let alone transact with cards. “The prime minister said open an account, so I opened it,” said Eknath Pardhi, 45. “But I have not used it.”

Others are trying to get their de-activated cards working again. Among them is 20-year-old Deepak Pardhi, from a village 10 km from Dhasai. He visited the bank on Tuesday but failed to get the job done as a result of the long queues. “I hadn’t used it for more than a year,” he said, “But now I will.”

Traders’ association head Swapnil Patkar said, “Many cards have become inactive and we have asked the bank to help reactivate them.” But he admitted that with the load demonetisation has placed on banks, this could take awhile.

Elsewhere, others grumbled and worried about going digital. “This is no use to us,” said Ganpat Gholap, 59, a guard at a primary health centre. “We are troubled. We don’t know how to operate like this.”

For the elderly, especially, e-payments are still a thing of mystery. “The shopkeepers know how to use it, but what about the customers?” asked Suresh Babu Mhadse as he bought medicines at a neighbourhood shop. “The idea is good but they need to educate us more.”

Sande, the chemist, smiled and nodded. “In every household, there will be someone who is educated and who knows,” he said. “It will happen slowly over time.”

All photos by Bhavya Dore