Prime minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s mega campaign to go cashless may, in the long run, lead to transformation like his much-needed Swachh Bharat initiative. We are a cash-based economy; over 68% of transactions happen in cash and the push to get, at least, urban, educated Indians to switch to cashless payments is necessary and long overdue. Starting with his radio talk (Maan ki Baat), the PM’s slogan of ‘My Mobile, My Wallet, My Bank’ has been amplified by leading bankers, e-payment companies, Union ministers, NITI Aayog officials and high-profile bureaucrats. But people won’t change just by being shoved in a particular direction. Moreover, in the short run, the pain in accessing one’s own money is very real. The government needs to work harder to make the switchover easier, by providing adequate infrastructure (telecom coverage, Internet connectivity), safety and ease of transactions and proper grievance redress. Unfortunately, the effort to push e-payments seems driven by the need to hastily correct the massive failure of currency management after demonetisation, rather than a genuine desire to bring about a paradigm shift. Let’s look at a few decisions that are urgently needed to ensure that the switch to cashless transactions is both, safe and permanent.
1. Beneficiaries Must Pay: The first step is to encourage and incentivise e-payments by scrapping ‘convenience’ charges and transaction charges. So far, it has been a sellers’ market. So ticket booking agents (makemytrip, cleartrip, etc, or Bookmyshow) and even principals (Jet Airways) conveniently turned the logic on its head and decided that we, the consumers, must pay for the ‘convenience’ of getting tickets online. Airlines used to offer hefty commissions to travel agents who did the hard work of selecting the best route and the lowest fare option; the customer did not pay. Today, there are no travel agents; the consumer does all the hard work of searching and selecting; and also pays for the alleged convenience. We need to ensure that beneficiary companies, at least, share the convenience. But what about movie theatres and airlines which are able to save on ticketing and box-office costs? This is the best time to do it because they need our business at a time when discretionary spending has dried up substantially.
2. Regulation of E-wallet Companies: Information technology experts will tell you that most apps and e-wallets collect a lot of sensitive customer data by seeking omnibus permissions from not-so-savvy users. According to a report by medianama.com, leading payment apps get access to your Internet history, bookmarks, and even really sensitive data such as IMEI number, saved Wi-Fi network info and the MacID. They record audio info, modify contacts and even use call logs to make calls. Many e-wallets will save credit/debit card details used to transfer money to the wallet without your permission.
This increases the security risks for users, without their knowledge. If the data is hacked, we, as individuals, are in no position to track the source of the leak and we have no access to easy grievance redress either. We need to have clear rules on what information can be collated by apps and their liability spelt out, in case there is a large-scale data breach or even if an individual consumer has a complaint. Will every minister of the NDA government, who is dutifully promoting e-wallets, take up the issue of regulation as well?
3. Grievance Redress: This is an issue that we have been agitating for several years through Moneylife Foundation, our not-for-profit entity involved in advocacy and financial literacy. At a social gathering, recently, a leading industrialist and a retired police chief were narrating interesting stories about how their domestic helpers and cooks had adapted to technology, using it to transfer money to their village in Bihar and Odisha through ATMs.
While this is, indeed, very heartening, it is also a fact that ATM PINs are easily shared with the family because of ignorance. In one case, a domestic helper’s account, which had her precious savings of over Rs70,000, was hacked. The hacker, pretending to be a banker, claimed that the account was being tested to ensure that a link to her mobile phone was working effectively and she should read out the number received in an ATM. The unsuspecting woman ended up giving her OTP (one-time password) six times, until the bank itself noticed something amiss and blocked her account. A well-known consumer activist, who is helping the lady recover her money, related this story to me; how many are so lucky?
As Dr KC Chakrabarty, former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), told me in a recent interview, “You may push a person to do digital transaction; but once a person has lost money at an ATM or in a digital transaction, he will stay away for 10 years. All over the world, unless the bank can prove that the customer is at fault, his money should first be credited to his account. That is a global rule. This is not yet implemented in India.” The reason for not notifying consumer protection regulations is rather perplexing, especially when RBI deputy governor,
SS Mundra has publicly acknowledged that the increase in online transactions has led to a manifold surge in customer complaints. Addressing a public meeting on 23rd May, he had said that these complaints relate to electronic transactions, unauthorised fund transfers, fraudulent ATM withdrawals using duplicate cards, phishing, vishing, etc. And yet, on 31st August, RBI only issued a draft regulation proposing to limit customer liability instead of notifying formal rules. These regulations propose to shift the onus of proving wrongdoing or carelessness on the part of the customer to the bank. They will also ensure that the money lost is immediately credited back to customer accounts pending investigation. Isn’t it strange that RBI has not been asked to notify these regulations even while a nationwide campaign to go cashless has been launched from the highest office in the land? RBI must also be asked to notify its much-touted consumer charter and take responsibility for its implementation. The charter must prescribe clear penalties for banks’ lapses and amend the banking ombudsman regulations to empower it to initiate stringent action. Instead, an unworkable consumer charter has been put out in the public domain and RBI seems to have no intention of holding banks strictly accountable for treating customers fairly.
4. Financial Literacy: The buck for spreading financial literacy also stops at RBI’s doors. The central bank, as is its style, works at an excruciatingly slow pace on most issues; it is probably the slowest on consumer protection. Two years ago, RBI took charge of over Rs3,500 crore of unclaimed cash deposits that were lying with banks and set up the Depositor Education and Awareness Fund (DEAF). This money could have been put to excellent use today to spread financial literacy using modern tools to spread the message.
Two years later, DEAF has little to show. It took a year to grant accreditation to a few NGOs and another year to sanction small sums to be spent on workshops to a few of them. Worse, DEAF will simply not engage with people in the field. Another effort to reach out to rural consumers under the aegis of RBI and with support from banks is similarly chugging at a snail’s speed. This is not the pace at which the PM operates; but then, why doesn’t someone push RBI to act, or take away these responsibilities and allow it to remain India’s monetary authority? At a time when people are going through enormous hardship to access their own hard-earned money, being pushed into driving along the digital highway without a safety belt will be even more insensitive.