Sundara Pandiyan, a manager at Chandra Transport in Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu for years has been repaying his company’s truck loan instalment to Shriram Transport Finance Ltd in cash. The scramble for cash after Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes did turn his life upside down, for the better. He now has downloaded the MYSTFC app and his banker has taught him how to do net banking, and after initial hiccups, he feels liberated.
Millions of citizens are being put through the hardship of waiting endlessly in front of ATMs and bank branches. But the struggle for cash may also be silently changing the way the country transacts as the dematerialisation of shares did to stock trading in the mid-90s.
From Sivaganga to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, businesses are adapting to the new reality that cash may no more be the king. The adoption of digital banking is accelerating and some of those who are reluctant are hoping for those good old days to return even as they lean on neighbours to take payments on their behalf by swiping the plastic cards at their businesses. “When I did it for the first time, I found it a bit difficult and strange, but now I guess it is going to be easy,” says Pandiyan. “I think that this move is going to be beneficial for us.”
Shriram Transport Finance, which gets about half of its payments and disbursals in cash, has also realised that life may not be the same and has come to recognise that digital is the way to go. And for the first time in 35 years, customers are keen to buy the theory. “We have created the MYSTFC app and expect a number of people to go up during such times,” said Umesh Revankar, managing director of Shriram Transport Finance Company. “Big operators were using online payment gateways to repay their loans.”
Restaurants and tourist guides in the remote desert town of Jaisalmer are coming up with indigenous ways to overcome the cash crunch. Narendra Purohit, a tourist guide, didn’t even blink when a tourist said he did not have cash to pay for his services. “Don’t worry sir, the guy who is running the handloom shop is my friend and you can swipe your card there,” said Purohit. “I would get my money. We all trust each other.”
An increasing number of people have been turning to digital payment solutions in order to overcome the cash shortage. Various finance institutions have been on the lookout for ways to increase repayments through use of plastic money and digital wallets.
The Reserve Bank of India and the government have been pushing digital payments and fees on debit card usage has been waived.
Banks have been promoting point of sales and pre-paid cards. Ordeal has been the order of the day and even seasoned businessmen did not know what hit them.
“The whole thing did not sink in and I could not comprehend it at first,” said Samit Ghosh, managing director of Ujjivan Financial Services. “We went to office and informed our employees that Rs 500 and Rs 1000 would not be legal tender.”
MFIs with different repayment cycles have given leeway to its customers. Ujjivan had deferred its centre meeting and asked all its customers to take time to pay.
It asked all its senior people to talk to people in branch and gauge their reaction. It only started collection from November 14 and was better than anticipated.
But they have come to grips with the reality. “We visited branches in Delhi and rural Haryana,” said Ghosh. “Surprisingly, people were happy. They felt this is the sacrifice that they are making for the country even if people were queued up for 14-18 hours.”
Businesses plunged and there were temptations for some workers to find out novel ways to circumvent.
There are stories of how people are working overtime to convert their ill-gotten wealth into legitimate wealth. But there are others who resisted the temptation.
“We said business may get affected, but we will not accept any old note,” said George Anthony, managing director of UAE Exchange. “It turned out to be a very good decision. The Enforcement Directorate raided our 10 offices across the country. Over the next four days, our business went to zero.”
Professor JR Varma of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and a former member of Sebi board has argued that it is credit that matters for the economy and not cash. As long as credit flows, economy should be able to overcome the cash crunch, he wrote in his blog.
Abdul Gani, a taxi driver in Udaipur, did not hesitate to comfort his potential customer about the cash crunch. “Don’t worry sir, just land here. You can transfer funds to my bank account, or if you can’t, I can take even a cheque.”
But the transformation from a predominantly cash society to digital world may not necessarily be a long way off, given the need to adopt due to the crunch, say experts such as PN Vasudevan, founder of Equitas Holdings, which began its small bank business.
“Attitudes and behaviour are changing,” says Vasudevan. “My cook did not know that debit cards could be used in shops and there is no charge on that. Things will change,” he said.