Just days after the Central government’s demonetisation announcement on November 8 kicked off a major push for digital payments, Kusheshwar Paharia, a resident of Telo village in Jharkhand’s Godda district, received a thick packet in the mail.

It contained a letter from the State Bank of India, with which he has held an account for the past seven years, and a Kisan Card with the image of a farmer couple. The letter contained instructions on how he could use his first debit card – “check for tampering. Sign the reverse of the card. Change your PIN to a more familiar combination. Make sure your four-digit PIN stays confidential”, and so on.

The problem was that the entire letter was in English. Kusheshwar Paharia, the manjhi or headman of Telo, never went to school. He speaks fluent Paharia and Santhali, and a smattering of Hindi, but no English.

The letter Kusheshwar Paharia received from the bank is entirely in English, which no one in his village can read.

He handed over the letter and debit card to Chandrima Paharia, a young man in the neighbouring village Nathghoda with experience of working with non-governmental organisations. That’s as far as the debit card has got for the last eight weeks.

“I take the cattle out to graze every morning, and stay in the forest the whole day,” said the elderly Kusheshwar Paharia. “How do I know how to use it? The letter they sent is in English, no one in our village can read it.”

Chandrima Paharia said he, too, was not sure how to get the debit card activated. “I will try, but I do not know how to,” he said.

The Saoria Paharia have been designated a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group and have the smallest population among Adivasi communities in the state. There are 2.2 lakh Adivasis in Jharkhand who are included in the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, and the Saoria Paharia make up a little over 60,000 of this number.

The Saoria Paharia are among the smallest Adivasi groups in Jharkhand and have the lowest health and education indicators.

A few other residents of Nathgoda said they too had received similar plastic cards in 2015 after opening bank accounts. Four of them had made the 10-km trip downhill to Chandana, to the State Bank of India branch there. One of them, Dharmendra Paharia, said they had met the bank manager and asked him what they were to do with the cards. “The bank manager asked, ‘Do you sign, or do you put a thepa, your thumbprint? Do you know how to count 1, 2, 3?’,” he recalled.

Most of the villagers count in the Paharia way, calculating in sets of 20 or kodhi, where they use the term kodhiyon for 20, dokodhiyon for 40 and so on. But this is not numeracy by the government’s standards. “When we told him we cannot sign or count, the manager told us, ‘This is of no use to you. Go home and burn the card’,” he added

Jaleshwar Paharia, who had accompanied Dharmendra Paharia on the trip to the bank, added, “We took the bus back to the village, and on reaching home, Jabra [another card holder] burned the card. A few of us have hidden it in our homes.”

Commissions and corruption

Many of Nathgoda’s residents have had bank accounts for a few years now, and some of them have even taken bank loans. Earlier, the postman who ferried their money would siphon off a portion of it. Now, the switch from cash to bank payments has brought new forms of corruption.

Most Paharia men and women, who now receive social assistance pensions of Rs 600 per month in their bank accounts, said they had paid commissions to open these accounts and were paying more to operate them. “I paid Rs 500 to open the bank account,” said Bedi Paharin. “To withdraw two months’ pension of Rs 1,200, I had to pay a middleman Rs 400, as he said I have to pay Rs 200 as his share for his help in accessing the account and Rs 200 to the bank staff.”

Kusheshwar Paharia applied for a farm loan in 2009 with the help of Bamrha Paharia, a middleman from the nearby village of Ghaghri. “Bamrha helped me apply for a farm loan of Rs 25,000,” he said. “Of this amount, he let me keep half as my actual loan, Rs 12,500. Bamrha took Rs 1,000 as his commission, and the bank staff kept the rest.”

The village headman has paid back only Rs 9,000 of the loan so far, and is unsure how he will repay the full amount and the interest on it.

Bameshwar Paharia, another resident of Nathgoda, said he too had received just half the amount of the loan he had applied for but was being charged interest for the full sum.

In Chandana, Ashok Sardar, bank manager with the State Bank of India branch, denied the allegation of the Paharias being cheated of their own money.

Lack of education

Lack of education and development in Nathgoda is the main reason why its residents continue to face such problems. The village, located on a forested hill, is connected to the larger Santhal hamlets downhill by a single broken road.

Despite the allotment of funds each year for the development of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, they lag behind on all crucial socio-economic indicators. Their average literacy rate is 17%, which is less than one-third of the state average of 67.6%.

The high school in Nathgoda is partly unfinished and has one teacher who is mostly absent.

Nathgoda has a functional high school, but that’s only on paper. In reality, the classrooms have no furniture or blackboards and part of the building is still under construction.

Jasmine Paharia, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in arts at Mahila Unversity in Godda and is in her first year there, was home to visit her family in Nathgoda. She is the only one among the village’s Paharias to have gone to college.

“In the village school, there is one teacher, and he shows up only on two days – January 26 and August 15,” said the college student who finished high school from a residential school near Godda. “I do not know how children studying here are still regularly shown as having passed the exams.”

She said it was this lack of education that stopped Paharia families from receiving the benefits of the government’s various welfare schemes, including those for financial inclusion.

Jasmine Paharia is the only resident of Nathgoda to have made it to college.

All photographs by Anumeha Yadav.