India: Dragging the reluctant elephant into a digital, cashless future

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Final processing for India’s digital identity platform Aadhaar, New Delhi on 3 March 2017 (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

My recent immersion in Delhi a mere four months after demonetization (or, notebandi as it’s locally known) was a bit of a letdown. Oh sure, there were numerous, visible changes in the 2 years since my last trip – mostly very clear indicators of India’s socio-economic development – but none of the sense of chaos that I was expecting, having relied primarily on third party news sources, that too, in English, in the weeks leading up to my departure.

The headlines would have it that people were dropping like flies on the streets. A grand total of 187* people died visibly due to notebandi, or so I heard. The two most common responses were either sympathy – people should not have had to die for something like this and it was a sad thing to happen; or pragmatism – “people die everyday, who knows why, maybe his time had come and he was standing in line.”

The overall atmosphere was one of energy – there’s less of a sense of lackadaisical chaos that used to characterise the neighbourhood market and it’s sleepy vendors waiting for the evening strollers. There’s a sense of purpose in the hustle, as though there was money to be made. Digital money.

IMG_6950The combination of a digital identity platform and the disruption of demonetization could indeed be said to describe ideal conditions for triggering cashless India. Cards are accepted far more easily than before. “Paytm” – a local payments app – is visible everywhere, from on demand cars (Ola, Uber, Meru, etc), small kiosks, through to shiny upmarket shops. As a taxi driver told me with a smirk, everyone’s using Paytm now, even the beggars.

Rural India is said to have suffered far more, according to the reports I’d read prior to my trip. This might be unevenly distributed according to geography and growing season – a factoryworker returning from his home village in Bihar said he’d attended a wedding with hundreds of people and surely someone would have had a sob story to share.

Instead, he’d heard it was the intermediaries in the farm to fork supply chain who purchase from myriads of small farms in order to aggregate in bulk prior to selling onwards towards the cities who’d been hit harder by the sudden lack of liquidity. They were caught in the middle of the cash based chain of transactions and had to carry the burden of wastage if they weren’t able to move produce fast enough. Anecdotes included them distributing potatoes freely to farmers to use as seed for the next harvest, and tomato prices crashing.

Articles in the news state that the economy was hit harder than people would admit to but none, as yet, have complimented the common man for his endurance under conditions of scarcity and hardship, nor praised the hardworking women who kept their families fed through their social networks of give and take.

All the papers – domestic and foreign – only go on about India’s GDP, the economy, the vast business sectors, and the politics. If at all the average Indian is mentioned it is through the lens of pity – “oh, the poor farmer is suffering” or some such heartrending sob story from the “informal sector” – there’s never any mention of their ingenuity in keeping things going without cash; or the way it was all held together under conditions of adversity and scarcity.

IMG_7319That, perhaps was my biggest takeaway from my open ended conversations with a wide range of people from different socio-economic strata, professions, backgrounds, and age groups.

Their palpable pride in themselves in having come through upheaval relatively unscathed, or having the wherewithal to manage.  All the rest of it, the Aadhaar digital ID, the use of technology for transparency and accountability, the mobile platform and its ubiquity, all of these and more, I believe, will sort themselves out in time.

I’m minded to end this with a quote from Rositta J. Valiyamattam writing, ironically, on the topic of Indian fiction (page xii):

“Their novels testify to the amazing resilience of the masses in a nation wherein the commoner is rendered helpless by an often corrupt mighty polity. What stands out is the assertion of the individual will over uncontrolled powers and unfavourable circumstances. They salute the heroic struggles of ordinary Indians in times of extraordinary transformation.”

 

 

*Word of mouth number, every report has a different total, so whatever. All photographs not captioned were taken in Delhi by Niti Bhan during March 2017.

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