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Experiments of a traveller to avoid using cash
A recent trip for work to the southern city of Chennai provided an interesting opportunity to try an experiment, and answer a simple question: Can the everyday business traveller, or journalist, get around India’s cities cashless?
Indian startups and policymakers alike take some pride in how the country has “leapfrogged” the PC era and now leads the world in some areas of everyday chores that can be done painlessly out of a smartphone.
With the venerable—yes, in the tech world, where anything older than six months is not new, it is—IRCTC railway booking, to Oyo Rooms that can be booked and paid for online to Ola and Uber taxis, and Fresh Menu food deliveries, cashless payment should have been a cinch, during the trip. And it was, up to a point.
Indian railway stations are always so much more interesting than airports and when there is time, and the distances short enough as in the case of Bengaluru to Chennai, trains are so much more soul-enriching, not to mention cheaper. So day one started with an early-morning Shatabdi fast train that arrived on time at around 11 am—in time to check into a nearby hotel and get a quick shower and make chai with the complementary kettle, tea bags and Nestle milk powder, ahead of a noon phone call, the first meeting of the day.
Next up was a 15-plus kilometre trip to a software company that is selling internet-based subscriptions of its product to customers around the world. Stepping out of the hotel, the first hitch that shouldn’t have been a hitch, cropped up: Cab-hailing service provider Ola’s smartphone app showed several cabs available within a minute or two away, but payment, in my case, would still have to be in cash.
I have been using the mobile wallet Paytm, which doesn’t support Ola, while Uber, which takes Paytm, wasn’t showing any cabs nearby at that particular time. And I didn’t really want to start using the Ola Money wallet just to prove that cashless was possible.
Meanwhile, accosted by a group of autorickshaw drivers who had also been waiting in the heat outside, the first cash transaction of the trip was agreed to, and Rs 350 in paper money exchanged hands. The return commute back to the hotel happened much the same way, and this time the choice was easier as the nearest Ola was about 10 minutes away, while an autorickshaw driver was camped right outside the gate of the small tech park, and again—they all have an agreement and their meters don’t work —the fare was Rs 350.
Turned out, Ola would have been much cheaper, given its discounts. That realisation led to the decision to hire Ola and still pay cash, for the first ride of the second morning. My destination was the small campus of another software-as-a-service company about 45 kilometre south of the city. The ride cost only Rs 410, in cash.
The journey back to the railway station included a 4 pm meeting in the city, and this time, 45 kilometre south of the city, no Ola, no Uber, no nothing. The only option was the press pick-up and drop facility arranged by the morning’s hosts.
Finally, after another autorickshaw ride—still the easiest to hail—there was the matter of the last meal of the day. Chennai Central railway station has stalls that offer everything from the standard idli-dosa fare to biryanis. Egg biryani looked tempting, as did hot, and really sweet, badaam milk. No way, however, to pay with a mobile wallet or any other way online.
IRCTC’s catering partners do send you an email when you book train journeys where you can follow a link and book food ahead of time, which will then be delivered to your seat. My train back, however, was only at 11.15 pm and going hungry for the three hours or so leading up to it wasn’t an option.
For many “middle class” smartphone-toting Indians, travel today can be of course a lot more cash-free or cashless as one wants to view it. That said, the market is so nascent that interoperability is still missing and the benefits are yet to reach the vast majority of the people. The tech and the backend already exist for the autorickshaw driver to get a pin with any of the popular mobile wallets, and for us to make a mobile transfer to that pin.
What hasn’t happened yet is that the driver hasn’t been told of such options and then enrolled by any one of the many mobile payments businesses in India today. The day is not very far, but in the meantime, it’s still a good idea to have some paper money in a leather wallet or something at hand.