Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Nation’s digital voice

Who has the legitimate claim to say his/her voice is that of the nation? In a popular democracy, with high legitimacy, we may say, that it is the voice of the head of the government. In the case of India, it is that of the prime minister.
What did that voice say a couple of days ago? It asked us to switch to digital mode in economic transactions; faster we do that, it is better for all of us.
But, unfortunately, my neighborhood pharmacist – an outlet of a chain – had not heard of that direction from the nation’s voice. And, she (a lady at the counter) had a voice all her own. My purchase amounted to Rs. 160/- She flatly refused to swipe my debit card. The floor for digital transactions, she had been advised, is Rs. 250/- and at times this may be relaxed to Rs. 200/-. But, anything below that? No go.
Her calculation, indeed, the calculation of the bean counters at the head office, is at Rs. 250/- per footfall, the charges the company has to pay to offer this facility to its customers may be absorbed. But, for anything less, sorry, folks!
Now, why did our prime minister not make this point to the nation? As we switch to digital mode of payment, there is a built-in cost to the transaction, which, over time, you will accept – you may not have any choice.
Why, as he was urging the public to go digital vigorously, did he not address the “card sharks”? Now, if in the future, let me say that the shopkeeper does accept my debit card for something less, let us say moderately less than the stipulated bill, we know the loss, a notional one it may be, is being absorbed by the shopkeeper. Why should he? Supposing I do not mind paying a premium for the comfort of paying through my debit card, do I have the right to change my preferred mode of payment at a later date for some specific transactions, where I recoil from paying this implied/hidden cost? If not, when would I have given up this right?
Is less-cash economy in danger of becoming cash-less economy, and to whose benefit? I do not know whether these are uncomfortable questions for the prime minister to address. But, I believe the nation’s voice needs to respond.

Raghuram Ekambaram

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