Vijay Bahadur Chauhan, a 57-year-old jute mill worker, is listening attentively to what a bank official is saying. The official of a public sector bank is highlighting how a non-Android phone user, without Internet connectivity, can still carry out cashless transactions.
Only a handful of workers at Hastings Jute Mill, one of India’s first jute-making factory, which began operations in 1875, have gathered for the meeting.
These workers, part of the 2.5-lakh workforce in West Bengal’s jute industry, are undergoing training to go cashless. In a move to spread the culture, the participants are expected to impart the lessons to their fellow workers. So far, their wages were being paid in cash but post-demonetisation, money is being directly transferred to their bank accounts.
Pen, not pixel
Mr. Chauhan, from Ghazipur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, takes a sheet of paper and pen and scribbles *99# as instructed by the bank official. Mr. Chauhan has spent more than three decades in the jute industry. He has an old, obsolete cellphone now, its keypad practically wiped out through constant use over the years. He knows the functions of only two buttons on his phone — the green one to accept calls and red to disconnect calls.
At the end of the presentation, which lasts two hours, the participants of the workshop are asked to share their e-mail id for further communication or to seek more information about cashless transfers.
‘ Chatkal mein kaam karte hain, aur aap e-mail maangte hain [We work in a jute mill and you are asking for e-mail?],” Mr. Chauhan said. “A jute mill worker earns between Rs. 8,000 and Rs. 12,000 a month and knows nothing about e-mail.”
Mohammed Idris and Imam Hussain, who are sitting next to Mr. Chauhan too, do not have e-mail ids. But they are talking about what percentage of the workers will be successful in learning the new technology and who all will be unable to adapt to it. According to them, almost 20-30 per cent workers of the mill are illiterate.
At the end of the workshop, Mr. Hussain makes an assessment. “ Bahut se majdoor bhai ke samajh mein nahee aayega [Many workers will not be able to understand],” he says. Mr. Idris and Mr. Hussain chuckles at the thought of paying grocers and rickshaw drivers digitally.
A day before demonetisation was announced, 3,800 workers of the Hastings mill got their salaries in cash. However, in the second fortnight, wages on November 22 had to be credited into the account of workers.
Not all employees had bank accounts and about 600 could not get their salaries. Since then, the mill management has been hurriedly trying to open new accounts and link the existing accounts of workers.
While 70 jute mills on both banks of the Hooghly in four districts of south Bengal are grappling with paying salaries through bank transfers, they are also training the workers and staff to go cashless. This training was triggered by a letter from Smriti Irani, Minister of Textiles, which speaks about sensitising “workers in each of the units run by the Textile Ministry regarding ‘unified payment interface’ so that they can seamlessly make payments without hindering their daily activities.” By mid-December, a month after demonetisation, six such workshops have been held.
Raghavendra Gupta, chairman of Indian Jute Mills Association, describes the move as a “progressive step towards cashless economy” targeting workers of jute mills. He pointed out that from 90 per cent cash payment of salaries of jute mill workers pre-demonetisation, now 90 per cent of salaries are paid by bank transfers. He is unsure though as to how long it will take the workers of the mills to use the digital cash transfer interface.”
Two days after the workshop at the Hastings Jute Mill, a similar session was held about 20 km north on the other bank of the Hooghly on the sprawling premises of Hukumchand Jute Mill, in the State’s North 24 Parganas district. Amrit Goswami, general manager, personnel and administration of Anglo-India Jute Mill, who participated in the workshop, was more concerned about opening accounts for the workers of his mill.
Out of 3,000 workers, only 1,700 had bank accounts, he said, explaining how the company was transferring salaries to workers through the accounts of their close relatives.
“It will take them a few decades to learn this technology to go cashless. Most of them are semi-literate or illiterate,” Mr. Goswami said.
Arvind Kumar Singh, vice-president of Reliance Jute Mill, was also trying to convince the bank officials to open hundreds of accounts of workers who still do not have accounts. Mr. Singh was trying to ensure that all workers should have accounts under one bank so that salaries can be transferred easily by the management.
Not prepared yet
The labour-intensive industry which has long lost its sheen appears to be a little unprepared for embarking upon the change of completely going digital. The bewildered look on those who are learning this new technology at an advanced age of their lives explains the confusion and insecurity that has entered their lives.
The road ahead seems uncertain. Post-demonetisation, about eight jute mills have closed, but a few have re-opened after a gap of a few days. Certain jute mills like Nuddea Jute Mill [the name hints a colonial lineage] at Naihati in the State’s North 24 Parganas district which shut its operations on December 20, suspended the work.
The management did not pay the first bi-weekly wages on December 10 and the workers alleged that the closure was to ensure that they do not pay wages again on December 25.
Some mills like Shree Hanuman Jute Mill in the State’s Howrah district clearly mentioned “demonetisation, delay of payment of wages due to discontinuation of currency notes of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000, non-cooperative actions by some workers” in the closure notice pasted on its gates earlier this month.