My work in digital payments led me to India this past year, to observe and help document possible pathways to the country’s move to being “cash-lite.” This move is championed by the government, as a means for increased transparency and financial inclusion, and by new payment banks and fintech firms as a market of massive scale and opportunity. Achieving the dream is a daunting task for a country of 1.2 billion, but one that is evidently underway. I witnessed urban professionals paying through mobile wallets for rickshaw or Uber trips in Delhi and Mumbai and had the opportunity to use a mobile wallet to buy snacks after my elephant ride to the Amber Fort in Jaipur.
I made my latest passage to India to help launch a report, released by NetHope, based on research by Deloitte, which provides new insights into financial behaviors and attitudes towards digital financial services of the emerging Indian middle class who reside outside the major metro areas. The report demonstrates that this segment has high access to financial services and mobile technology, including smart phones, but also that this availability has not yet been translated into the regular use of mobile and digital services in its financial practices. A webinar on the report is being held on March 16th.
After the report’s launch at a meeting of the Confederation of India Industry, travels through the majestic state of Rajasthan reinforced Deloitte and NetHope’s findings on the lag in use of digital financial services and divergence in merchant interest and acceptance. Digital payments were accepted by merchants offering block print fabrics of exceptional artistry and at hotels reached only by traversing Udaipur’s Lake Pichola by boat. Cash was accessible through use of debit cards, as I could easily get rupees from ATMs, now refilled with cash post-demonetization. In small merchant shops and at toll gates on the ride from the blue city of Jodphur to the pink city of Jaipur, the QR code of Paytm, the mobile payments system, was prominently displayed, indicating these businesses’ readiness to transact without cash. Yet, in buying copper pottery to carry home to hold curry that will inevitably pale in comparison to that served in Rajasthan, the merchant asked for only cash – preferring even U.S. currency to payment in a digital form. These experiences confirmed the report’s finding that there is a spectrum of merchant and consumer personas, with differing degrees of interest in moving along the digital payments adoption curve.
The efforts of the government to promote financial inclusion through banking have, in many ways, succeeded. My numerous acquaintances, including waiters, drivers and tour guides, all had formal bank accounts and mobile phones. Many were aware of new payment systems like Paytm and held in their wallets Rupay cards as the debit card issued with their Jan Dhan accounts. All confirmed they had been issued their unique national identity numbers of Aadhaar. Each day of my travels, the daily newspaper proclaimed news on digital payments, from the launch of the universal QR code, BharatQR, front page news, to words of caution in an article about the lack of sustained uptake of digital payments by the city cited as the first city to be cash-free in India. The road to a true digital economy is being paved in India and the country is set to present a global example. I am honored to be a traveler on that road, which may be long and winding – but as is often the case – is as much about the journey than the destination.