Rural Meghalaya’s long road to an ATM
The government must improve power supply, telecoms connectivity to make its digital dreams a reality. Easier ways to deposit and withdraw cash would be welcome.
Shillong, Meghalaya: The government of India might be closer to creating a ‘cashless society’ than it realises. With few bank branches and even fewer ATMs, the rural folk of Meghalaya have little access to immediate cash at the best of times.
In August 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched an ambitious financial inclusion programme, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, under which every citizen would have a bank account and a debit card. The message hasn’t reached Meghalaya, apparently.
According to Reserve Bank of India (RBI) data collected until December 2017, very few ATMs are installed in Meghalaya’s villages, where the vast majority of the unbanked population lives.
Given the relatively small geographical area and populations of the northeast states like Meghalaya (with 411 ATMs), the per-capita availability of ATMs is not far from the average for bigger states like Maharashtra (25,662), Uttar Pradesh (19,855) and Karnataka (17,683).
Total number of ATMs in other NE states: Manipur- 355; Mizoram- 171; Nagaland- 320; Sikkim- 194; Tripura- 498; Arunachal Pradesh- 244
“In emergencies, we have to travel a few kilometres to get to an ATM. And finding one that works is even harder,” says Apkyrmen Lyngdoh of Mawsiatkhnam, on the outskirts of Shillong.
‘Forced to keep cash at home’
Lyngdoh said that the lack of ATMs in the vicinity brings a lot of hardship since one has to spend time and money to visit his bank to withdraw cash. He also said that since ATMs are not available in the area where he stays, sometimes he is forced to keep a large amount of cash at home.
“But to keep money in the house is not safe,” Lyngdoh said. Hilar Sylliang of Mawhati, Ri-Bhoi district said that he feels insecure about keeping large amounts of cash at home since Mawhati lies in the border with Assam where militants are active.
Sylliang said that since ATMs and banks are not available in the area where he stays, he seldom deposits the money he earns in the bank. “We have no other option but to keep at home. Even though we fear that militants may come and extort the money,” Sylliang added.
With just 411 ATMs available, more than half are in the urban centres. So, the citizens of rural Meghalaya in particular, find it hard to access cash in emergencies. Out of the 411 ATMs in Meghalaya 230 ATMs belongs to the State Bank of India (SBI).
As of March 2017, the SBI had installed 84 Micro ATMs in Meghalaya for activation of Rupay card, PIN generation and for deposit, withdrawal and transfer of money. The first mobile ATM in the North East was launched in Meghalaya on 23 June last year.
The minutes of the State-Level Bankers‘ Committee (SLBC) meeting held on 29 June 2017 at Shillong, reveal that of the 6,459 villages in Meghalaya with a population below 2,000, some 5,389 villages are covered but mostly by business correspondents.
The SLBC meet recommended opening more branches and ATMs in South Garo Hills. As of June 2017, there were only seven branches and two ATMs in Baghmara, which is insufficient to cater to the people of the area. There’s a proposal to install one more ATM and civil work is going on for the same at Gasuapara, South Garo Hills district.
Better infra, connectivity needed for ‘Digital India’
According to Anurag Asthana, General Manager, RBI, the district authorities were asked by banks to provide safe places within the campus of a government institution to set up ATMs, especially in rural and remote areas. “Such places could be a police station or an office of the block development officer. But nothing has happened yet,” Asthana said.
Congress legislator from Umroi, George Bankyntiew Lyngdoh, in a recent debate in the Meghalaya Assembly complained that, “Banks try to set up branches within comfort zones and profitable areas.” Lyngdoh pointed out that only 25 percent of the villages in the state are ‘banked’, referring to villages at a maximum distance of five kilometres from a bank branch.
He urged the government to look at the banking network and ensure deeper penetration of the banks into the rural areas to help farmers. Lyngdoh said that due to long distances people are forced to travel to access their bank accounts, the direct benefit transfer (DBT) efforts of the government are being defeated.
This may also be the case with ATMs too. According to SLBC, setting up ATMs, especially in rural and remote areas of Meghalaya is difficult because of lack of connectivity. The SLBC also pointed out it also may not be always feasible since there may not be enough customers to justify the expense.
The government must improve power supply and telecoms connectivity to make its digital dreams a reality. In the meanwhile, easier ways to deposit and withdraw cash would be welcome.
(Kyrmenlang Uriah is a Shillong - based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)
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