New India vs Other India: When will we get on the digital highway?

NH24, the highway stretching along Uttar Pradesh, is more than just a traffic nightmare. It can also be a perfect case study for how ease of doing business and ease of living are a myth despite some encouraging rankings recently. More than anything else, digital transaction is a misnomer even as data might show otherwise. Here’s how.

It was a rainy winter afternoon and the ceaseless construction of the Meerut Expressway had slowed down the bumper to bumper traffic terribly on NH24. At the makeshift toll plaza (due to the expressway construction) near the Delhi-UP border, an Uber cab braked to a halt suddenly as two toll attendants blocked the path. The driver insisted on paying toll through Paytm, a digital transaction that gained popularity after the government’s demonetisation decision of November 2016. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has since advocated digital and non-cash (as well as less cash) payment as a preferred mode of transaction for rooting out corruption and black money, time and again.

Digital payment or Paytm was, however, not the chosen currency at this toll collection booth on NH24. The driver put his foot down and said he had no cash left because all the passengers he had ferried till then that day had paid him digitally, and that he had spent the small cash he had on buying CNG. The commotion was enough for senior representatives of the toll booth to gather in a show of strength. They had started checking the driver’s wallet and the cab’s dashboard to see if some cash was hidden somewhere.

While the Uber driver got away by paying a fraction of the toll after he found some small change in his pockets, one was curious why he hadn’t tried Paytm while buying CNG a little while ago. He pointed out the gas station didn’t accept digital payment either.

That’s something, especially because the numbers depict a different India, or rather a ‘New India’ that is being celebrated at the biggest gathering of business and political leaders—the World Economic Forum in Davos.  

The PM said in his address at the Davos Plenary, "You might have seen in the recent past that more than 1.25 billion Indians accepted in one voice and moved towards a less cash society...’’ He was of course referring to demonetisation. Then the PM added, "We are now a financial system which is fully prepared and integrated for digital transactions.’’

Are we? Data shows we are doing well. Total electronic payment transactions crossed 1 billion in December 2017. The figure touched 1.06 billion compared to 957 million a year earlier, according to data released by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI).

Again, Amazon India recently said digital payments accounted for over 60 per cent of its total transactions against  less than 50 per cent in 2016. The company had launched its Amazon Pay wallet last year, and that now accounts for almost half of the total digital transactions on the platform.

Clearly, there’s a mismatch between the India that is being showcased in the Swiss resort and the one playing out closer home. Between the India that is increasingly paying through virtual wallets while shopping online and the one that is binging on cash on border roads.

Till the two Indias meet, digital highway will remain a pipedream. And, there’s still time for India to move to a "less cash society".