13 June 2016

Meet George Jetson!

I’m that person who never has cash — I don’t mean I'm broke, I just mean that at any given time, my wallet will only have an assortment of change and the occasional lonely Rs 1,000 note, which no one ever has change for. I was sold on the idea of cashless transactions long before it became an Indian government goal. However, I’m still more old school about it than my yoga teacher (who continues to bring me news from the outside world). This week, he told me how he had paid at a petrol pump using Paytm. Now, my only experience with Paytm is using it occasionally on Uber cabs. For everything else, I’ve linked my debit card and use that. But, thanks to Paytm’s recent round of investments from Chinese superpower Alibaba, they’re practically giving away money on cashback and rewards schemes. So why not jump in while the going’s good?



However, I’m not so sure India is ready for a cashless economy. Think of all the people you pay by cash. My list includes, but is not limited to: all the people we employ (housekeeper, gardener, press-walla, garbage collector), stopping at a local store to buy bread or whatever, taking the occasional auto and also buying the occasional single cigarette from a local paan shop. I can’t see myself whipping out my mobile phone to scan their bar code just for Rs 12.

Not to mention, older generations — like my grandmother for example — are used to having cash on them. They barely ever go to the bank (I doubt my grandmother has ever used an ATM in her life) and they pay everything with the wad of cash they pull out at the beginning of the month and lock up in their Godrej almirah safe. Feeling confident when all you have on you is your debit card is very much a younger gen thing.

I also recently read an article saying that thanks to the Modi government’s crack-down on black money, people were pulling out more cash than ever, because they couldn’t be taxed on it. This is an old tax-saving ploy, which everyone knows about and it’s unlikely anyone’s going to stop doing it just because it's more convenient to have your card.

Now, however, with the new unified payment interface (UPI) that’s just been rolled out, it’s going to be a lot more secure to use your mobile phone to make payments. Rather than bank details, UPI basically assigns you a code, and you use this code to make and receive payments. This takes away one more huge thing that worries people about online payments — how safe is it to leave my bank details online?

Also, a lot of residential colonies don’t have nearby handy ATMs—or if they do, they don’t work. The last neighbourhood I lived in had one ATM to service what was technically three areas and it was out of order a lot of the time. Not surprising, because according to a recent survey by the RBI, a third of India’s ATMs don’t work at all, which means you have a one in three chance of having to wander about until you find one that does. That, my friends, is a frustrating exercise. Take it from me.

Personally though, I find that when I don’t actually have physical cash, I wind up spending a lot more money. Money as a concept doesn’t really work for me, except in the vaguest way. I see numbers, I spend numbers. I have no way of knowing what those notes feel like, how weighty a certain amount of cash is meant to be in your palms, how something I do translates into bank notes. For that, I feel at a bit of a loss.

On the other hand, I’m all about rewards, so I might just sign up for this cashless boom after all. 

(A version of this appeared as my column on mydigitalfc.com)

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