The story behind BPGC’s much-delayed embrace of cashless transactions.

Freedom from cash was on the (limited) political agenda of the students of BITS Goa long before it captured the imaginations of the powers that be and drained the wallets of peeved Indians. Yet it was only at the beginning of this semester that outlets on campus introduced cashless payments, almost two years after a cashless campus was first proposed by an optimistic (read: uninitiated) CSA. The path from cumbersome cash- with eternal shortages of change- to convenient cards and POS (point-of-sale) machines has not been easy, as DoJMA found out through a wide-ranging discussion with the CSA President, Sarthak Singh.

Cashless campus posters have been put up all over campus to encourage students to make card payments

The move away from cash was initiated by Yashoraj Tyagi during his tenure as CSA President in 2015-2016. Sarthak told us that, back then, a deal had been reached with the SBI to have a payment system involving ID Cards and fingerprint verification. It was agreed that SBI would charge a flat rate of Rs. 10 per month per account for use of the cashless facility. Students from the 2015 batch and earlier will remember a spate of emails on this subject, as well as a drive in which student fingerprints were taken, bringing us tantalizingly close to a cashless campus. Alas, the deal fell through in February 2016, when SBI transferred the administration of campus payments and the like to a centralized office in Mumbai, which retracted the offer claiming that the customer base would be too small  in a 2500-student campus. In this regard, Prof. D. M. Kulkarni (Dean, Administration) had helped the CSA get in touch with the SBI to try for a solution, but these negotiations did not bear fruit. Eventually the SBI office ceased to respond to the CSA’s communications.

Later in 2016, the CSA, with the help of Prof. Kulkarni, contacted the newly-appointed manager of the BITS Goa SBI Branch, and, through her, the adamant Mumbai division. This time, SBI offered a new deal- they would provide ID-cum-debit cards to the students, with a transaction charge equal to that for regular debit cards. And since these cards would be issued by SBI (and not the Student Welfare Division, as is currently the case), they would take up to 15 days to replace if lost. Given the frequency of ID card misplacement and the risk of prolonged inability to leave campus (currently ID cards are replaced within a few days), the CSA and the administration rejected this offer.

 

Things continued at a snail’s pace for a few months and change came only when the Prime Minister himself took a personal interest in the matter, declaring to his mitron that much of the currency they had stockpiled or dreamt of stockpiling was now invalid. While students rushed to Google ‘demonetization’ and deposit banknotes, their representatives swung into action, seizing the chance to introduce cashless payment options all eateries, where the now-ubiquitous Rs.2000 notes were the causing the greatest nuisance. While the PayTM option was initially considered, it was quickly rejected since most vendors on campus were unfamiliar with it, and since the erratic nature and limited reach of WiFi would hinder an internet-based gateway. With all students in possession of debit cards, POS emerged as the obvious option.

Of course, outlet owners resisted strongly when asked to install POS machines, since they come with monthly charges. While the CSA prepared to pay for these card machines from their own funds, the Contracts Committee stepped in and mandated that all vendors procure these machines and bear their cost. 31st December was set as the implementation deadline for all food outlets (except Gajalaxmi Snacks, which was exempted from POS due to low transaction volumes and asked to use PayTM instead). Incidentally, this cashless clause will also be a part of all future contracts with vendors, so expect all outlets to have cashless gateways from here on. The CSA has also asked fest teams to encourage all stall owners to use POS machines henceforth.

POS machines, including this one at Cafe Coffee Day, have been installed at outlets all over campus

With the continued support of Prof. Kulkarni in his capacity as head of the contracts committee, the CSA was able to enforce the use of POS machines at all outlets on campus. It is worth noting that these efforts were not hindered by the repeated changes at the post of Director, which at one point was beginning to draw comparisons to the jinxed Defence Against the Dark Arts post at Hogwarts.

Nonetheless, concerns exist. When questioned about recent instances of denial of cashless services to students for sub-Rs.100 transactions as well as the possibility of being charged more for card payments, Sarthak replied that students should report any such instances to the CSA. With the support of the Contracts Committee, he says, they will take to task any offending outlets.

While we commend the efforts of the CSA in bringing some form of cash-free payments to the campus, the POS machines fall well short of the tall expectations generated by ID-card and fingerprint-based systems. The collected database of student fingerprints is likely languishing in some server instead of being used to simplify campus life. Hopefully, it will be salvaged in the near future (by the next CSA, perhaps?), unlocking its potential to free students of debit cards and eventually even ID cards, relics of a bygone era of campus curfews and cash payments.