Nedumkayam tribal colony in the Karulai Panchayat in Kerala's Nilambur has become the first digital and cashless tribal colony in the country. Or so Malappuram District Collector Amit Meena and MP Abdul Wahab (who had adopted the Karulai panchayat as part of the central government's Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY) scheme) claimed in a ceremony on Tuesday.
However, a visit to the settlement in the southern district of Malappuram, two days after the announcement, tells a completely different story. Housing nearly 103 families from the Scheduled Tribe community of Paniya, the settlement lacks even basic needs including like individual toilets for each household and piped water supply.
Amid such deprivations, most members of the community are skeptical about how a smartphone will ease their troubles. They point to the community toilets and the empty water buckets and speak with little enthusiasm about the strange title suddenly bestowed on them.
In the two days since the announcement, the residents have made one cashless transaction – when they were asked to transfer Rs 5 to the collector's account and received Rs 25 in return as part of the inaugural ceremony.
The inauguration of their cashless existence completed, the members of the community aren’t sure just how the system works for them.
On Thursday morning, 24-year-old Sonia hurries out of her unpainted house to go to the office of the electricity board.
"Our house got electricity just three months back. I need to withdraw money to pay for the wiring work that was done," Sonia says.
She carefully narrates the "advantages" of digital transactions, something that she picked up when a group of volunteers conducted a three-day training programme in the colony ahead of the inaugural ceremony.
"But can we pay our electricity bill through that?" Sonia wonders.
Sunitha, another resident declares that she was not informed about the training given to community members, as most people leave their homes early in the morning to work in the neighbouring forest.
"I wouldn't have gone even if they called me. What's the use? I don't own a touch-phone, I don't know how to operate it with my finger like the younger generation does. How can the older generation including me, at this point learn about internet banking? It is the older members of the family who go out to shops to get the provisions while we are out at work the whole day. Who will make them adapt to this new technology?" Sunitha asks.
Many of the residents echo Sunitha's thoughts, and point out that issues that there are other needs of a higher priority that have not been addressed.
38-year-old Seetha works as a helper at the only Anganwadi in the colony that has 16 children. She admits that while her husband, who owns a "touch-phone", is quite set up about the digital transformation, she’s more worried about running water.
"Water stopped coming in the only pipe in the colony long ago. The only well that is there is at the end of the road and does not have enough water at any given time. I have to personally walk nearly 800 meters every time I need to fetch water from the river. Can't they solve such problems first?" Seetha wants to know.
She points out that the village does not have enough houses to accommodate all the families, leading to more than one family living in the same house in many cases.
44-year-old Vasu's mouth is stained red from regularly chewing the betal leaves. With her house located far down the road from where the inauguration ceremony was held, Vasu says she heard a few youngsters talk about cashless transactions. Vasu complains about the lack of toilets in the village.
"It is with great difficulty that we have got a toilet for the house. Earlier, we used to have a common toilet for three households. A lot of families here, even now, have to share toilets with two or more families. I make at least 30 trips to the river everyday to fetch water for daily use. And they are talking about smartphones," Vasu rues.
"They are saying our colony is the first cashless tribal colony in the state. Or is it in the country?" Vasu asks.
But not everyone in Nedumkayam is pessimistic about the digital programme. Some people like Usha and Velayudhan, who attended the training programme, feel the colony can benefit out of it.
According to the coordinators of Jan Sikshan Sansthan (JSS), an NGO that has been providing training in digital payment modes to the members of the settlement, of the 103 families that live in the colony, 30 own smartphones. The rest of the families too, own phones, though not smartphones. It is only 8 families, they claim, that do not own a phone at all.
They assert that comprehensive door-to-door training has been provided for all community members owning a smartphone on how to use mobile banking and USSD facilities, and the rest are being familiarised too.
Faisal, one of the coordinators of the programme, claims that nearly 40 shop owners in Karulai panchayat have also been asked to switch to cashless transactions.
Whethere community members can eventually overcome their scepticism towards this new and alien technology and genuinely adopt a cashless existence is yet to be seen. For now, however, while officials are ready to proclaim Nedumkayam's new identity, its residents have other problems foremost in their minds.