- The government has played a key role in the digitisation of cash in India
- Digital payments went down in February but are rising again
- Upcoming payments firms will have to expand reach via new channels
Most accounts of successful digitisation feature technology providers or tech-hungry consumers in the lead role. But in the story of digital payments in India, it is the government that is the unlikely hero.
In his budget speech this year, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley set the nation a target of 25 billion digital transactions for 2017-18. And enabling this, we have the creation of a new category of financial institutions, namely the Payments Banks. Telecom/ e-commerce companies have turned into payments banks, and are processing huge numbers of low-value transactions via digital wallets and other electronic prepaid instruments for their subscribers and customers, many of whom never had the benefit of formal financial services.
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In August 2014, India’s financial inclusion agenda got a huge boost with the launch of the “Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana”, devised to provide every Indian easy access to basic banking services. In just over two and a half years, the Jan Dhan Yojana has garnered a record breaking 282.3 million “no-frills” bank accounts and deposits worth Rs. 640 billion. From here, the next step is to enable these accounts to make and receive digital payments. Aadhaar, India’s unique identification program, is the perfect platform for that because it links to bank accounts to enable both Direct Benefit Transfer (of government payouts) and a host of simple financial transactions via the Aadhaar Enabled Payment System.
Another government initiative that ended up promoting digital payments, even though that was not its primary intent, was the overnight demonetisation of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 currency notes in November 2016. With about 86 percent of cash instantly going out of circulation, consumers from all segments, and even tiny, unorganised businesses were forced into digital transactions, shooting that number from 672 million in November 2016, to 958 million just a month later. Even after the new notes flowed into the system and digital transactions dipped considerably, they remained at higher than pre-demonetisation levels at 763 million in February 2017, and were at 844.7 million in June 2017, as per the RBI.
But arguably, the government’s crowning achievement is the Unified Payments Interface, which has transformed the fragmented mobile payments landscape with an environment where money can move from any bank or financial provider to any other, instantly, cheaply, securely and transparently.
The path ahead
Although the average Indian consumer is way more financially empowered today than a few years ago, as a nation, India still has a long way to go. Getting the one billion plus largely feature phone subscribers to use their device for simple financial transactions is one thing, educating them into financially responsible, informed consumers, quite another. Although India’s payments infrastructure is looking solid, there is a need for a massive effort to build awareness about basic financial management as well as safe financial practices to protect customers from fraud. The fact that India is deemed a favourite target for cyber-attack underlines the seriousness of the problem.
Viability is a big challenge for India’s niche digital payment providers, who are pouring large sums of money into acquiring customers and keeping them happy. At present, almost all digital payment services are being offered free of cost or with attractive incentives – for instance Paytm Payments Bankcharges no fees on any online transaction, while Airtel Payments Bank offers free talktime. Once the honeymoon is over, providers will certainly look at charging these services, which might put the brakes on growth.
One way to keep costs (and hence fees and charges) down is to leverage Blockchain and other open source technologies to facilitate digital payment transactions. Actually, Blockchain fells several challenges in one go – it collapses transaction time and cost, improves transparency, and provides virtually impenetrable security. It can also scale up to meet India’s requirements with ease.
The last point is crucial because it is also the key to viability. Niche payment providers will need to extend their services down to the very last mile and feature phone to sustain the business; banks, although under less pressure, should also look at expanding reach via mobile and other channels, such as micro ATMs and business correspondent agents carrying handheld devices for delivering digital payments to the doorstep.