Way back in the 1990s, when mobile telephony was still in its
infancy, several companies introduced Payphones which were installed at
every important junction. While it was possible to use Rs.2 coins to
operate the machines, they introduced a novel method that made it easier
to place calls and control your spending- pre-paid cards. That was our
first experience with the concept of pre-paid cards. Pre-paid cards
gained popularity when mobile phone operators too, seeking ways to
bolster their revenues and growth, introduced cards which contained a
“stored value”. For example, if a card has a value of Rs.500, the
subscriber can take calls to that value. Mobile operators saw explosive
growth after the introduction of pre-paid cards, because the subscribers
do not have to worry about a huge bill at the end of the month, as in
the post-paid model. It is easy to control your calling costs since you
know exactly how much is left in the card. Today, the majority of mobile
subscribers use pre-paid cards due to their sheer convenience.
Internationally too, pre-paid cards have become commonplace. Gone are
the days when you took paper money abroad - now you can have a stored
value card in the currency of your choice, with which you can buy goods
abroad and pay for various services. They can be used at ATMs worldwide.
Now that Sri Lankans are completely at home with the concept of
stored value cards, the authorities have decided to introduce them to a
variety of other sectors. Passenger Transport is one of the first
sectors to benefit from this move apart from filling stations which
received the system around one year ago.
In fact, Sri Lanka has become one of the first countries in the
region to introduce pre-paid cards for bus travel.
Pre-paid cards eliminate several hassles faced by commuters. They no
longer have to fumble around looking for maaru kaasi (small denomination
coins) to give the conductor. Most conductors too have a habit of
complaining that they do not have coins to give balance money.
Although the minimum fare is still Rs.9, they invariably do not give
the balance Rs.1 if you hand over a Rs.10 note or coin. If prodded, the
standard answer is “no coins”. Most commuters, reluctant to get into an
argument with private bus crew, give up.
Private bus crews rarely issue tickets, which is actually a right of
the commuter. (This is not an issue in SLTB buses where tickets are
always given). They dish out tickets in a hurry only if they get a
message from a passing bus that provincial passenger transport authority
personnel are checking buses. Pre-paid cards also eliminate this
From the point of view of bus owner, there is another benefit - the
card reader can be linked directly to his or her account, thereby
preventing any financial fraud by the bus crew.
It is common knowledge that bus crew make a tidy profit at the end of
the day at the expense of the bus owner. With no paper money involved,
the chances for such fraud will be much less.
The cards make life easier for both bus crew and commuters - at some
point in the future it may be possible to do away with the conductor
altogether if everyone uses pre-paid cards which can be topped up as and
when required physically at a store or online.
Indeed, there are many countries where this machine-only
transformation has already happened without any fuss over labour issues.
However, Sri Lankan laws will have to be amended in that case because
passenger transport buses (and trucks) are required to have another
person to assist the driver.
This concept can be extended to a number of other transport options.
It will be ideal for three wheelers and Nano taxis, especially if the
card reader can be integrated with the meter reader, which is now fairly
standard on almost every three wheeler. In fact, some Nano taxi
operators already accept credit cards and pre-paid cards will be a
The train service and the SLTB too will benefit from the introduction
of stored value cards.
Hopefully, they can be integrated with the already popular season
cards which save hundreds of rupees every month for passengers including
schoolchildren. The authorities envisage that the cards would eventually
be used for buying goods at supermarkets and for other services such as
salons. Parking is another area that our authorities should be looking
at. Parking meters that read smart cards can be installed at key parking
lots and roadsides.
This “one card for everything” concept is not new. Several countries
have similar systems, at least on an experimental basis. The idea is
simple - the individualized card can store information on the owner,
including emergency medical information such as blood group, contact
number of a relative, health history etc which comes in handy if the
bearer meets with an accident. Readers carried by paramedical personnel
can instantly read this information which can be relayed to the nearest
The same card can also be used to access goods and services. Although
there are certain privacy concerns, it is a neat solution that
eliminates the need to carry multiple cards. Safeguards such as EMV
(Europay Mastercard Visa) chips which can be verified with a Personal
Identification Number (PIN) have to be built-in to prevent misuse of
such biometric and financial information.
Worldwide, the use of such smart cards and mobile telephones as cash
gateways is rising exponentially. Our banks, mobile operators and
government authorities deserve praise for being up to date in this arena
and introducing such “cashless cards” here.
We can take a cue and learn from the implementation of similar
systems in other developing countries to perfect our systems. For
example, Mumbai in India currently carrying out a smart travel card
project which is perhaps the most ambitious one carried out in a
developing country, involving the city's monorail, BEST buses and the
suburban rail system.
The future will be even more exciting for stored value cards, but as
far as we are concerned the cashless future is already here.