Jan 25th 2017

What the U.S. can learn from India’s move toward a cashless society

Silicon Valley fancies itself the global leader in innovation. Its leaders hype technologies such as bitcoin and blockchain, which some claim are the greatest inventions since the Internet. They are so complex that only a few mathematicians can understand them, and they require massive computing resources to operate — yet billions of dollars are invested in them.

India may have leapfrogged the U.S. technology industry with simple and practical innovations and massive grunt work. It has built a digital infrastructure that will soon process billions more transactions than bitcoin ever has. With this, India will skip two generations of financial technologies and build something as monumental as China’s Great Wall and America’s interstate highways.

A decade ago, India had a massive problem: nearly half its people did not have any form of identification. When you are born in a village without hospitals or government services, you don’t get a birth certificate. If you can’t prove who you are, you can’t open a bank account or get a loan or insurance; you are doomed to be part of the informal economy — whose members live in the shadows and don’t pay taxes.

In 2009, the government launched a massive project, called Aadhar, to solve this problem by providing a digital identity to everyone based on an individual’s fingerprints and retina scans. As of 2016, the program had issued 12-digit identification numbers to 1.1 billion people. This was the largest and most successful I.T. project in the world and created the foundation for a digital economy.

India’s next challenge was to provide everyone with a bank account. Its government sanctioned the opening of 11 institutions called payment banks, which can hold money but don’t do lending. To motivate people to open accounts, it offered free life insurance with them and made them a channel for social-welfare benefits. Within three years, more than 270 million bank accounts were opened, with $10 billion in deposits.

And then India launched its Unified Payment Interface (UPI), a way for banks to transfer money directly to one another based on a single identifier, such as the Aadhar number.

Take the way that credit-card payments are processed: When you present your card to a store, the cashier verifies your signature and transmits your credit-card information to a billing processor such as Visa, American Express or MasterCard — which works with the sending and receiving banks. The billing processors act as a custodian and clearing house. In return for this service, they charge the merchants a fee of 2 to 3 percent of the transaction. This is a tax that is indirectly passed on to the customer.

With a system such as UPI, the billing processor is eliminated, and transaction costs are close to zero. The mobile phone and a personal identification number take the place of the credit card as the authentication factor. All you do is to download a free app and enter your identification number and bank PIN, and you can instantly transfer money to anyone — regardless of which bank he or she uses.

There is no technology barrier to prevent a UPI from working in the United States. Transfers would happen within seconds, even faster than the 10 minutes that a bitcoin transaction takes.

India has just introduced another innovation called India Stack. This is a series of secured and connected systems that allow people to store and share personal data such as addresses, bank statements, medical records, employment records and tax filings, and it enables the digital signing of documents. The user controls what information is shared and with whom, and electronic signature occurs through biometric authentication.

Take the example of opening a mobile-phone account. It is cumbersome everywhere, because the telecom carriers need to verify the user’s identity and credit history. In India, it often took days to produce all the documents that the government required. With the new “know-your-customer” procedures that are part of India Stack, all that is needed is a thumb print or retina scan, and an account can be opened within minutes. The same can be done for medical records. Imagine being able to share these with doctors and clinics as and when necessary. This is surely possible for us in the United States, but we aren’t doing it because no trusted central authority has stepped up to the task.

India Stack will also transform how lending is done. The typical villager currently has no chance of getting a small-business loan, because he or she lacks a credit history and verifiable credentials. Now people can share information from their digital lockers, such as bank statements, utility bill payments and life insurance policies, and loans can be approved almost instantaneously on the basis of verified data. This is a more open system than the credit0scoring services that U.S. businesses use.

In November, in a move to curb corruption and eliminate counterfeit bills, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked the country by announcing the discontinuation of all 500- and 1,000-rupee (about $7 and $14) notes — which account for roughly 86 percent of all money in circulation. The move disrupted the entire economy, caused pain and suffering, and was widely criticized. Yet it was a bold move that will surely produce long-term benefit, because it will accelerate the push to digital currency and the modernization of the Indian economy.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, that the United States should follow Modi’s lead in phasing out currency and moving toward a digital economy, because it would have “benefits that outweigh the cost.” Speaking of the inequity and corruption that is becoming an issue in the United States and all over the world, he said: “I believe very strongly that countries like the United States could and should move to a digital currency so that you would have the ability to trace this kind of corruption. There are important issues of privacy, cybersecurity, but it would certainly have big advantages.”

We are not ready to become a cashless society, but there are many lessons that Silicon Valley and the United States can learn from the developing world.

The post What the U.S. can learn from India’s move toward a cashless society appeared first on Vivek Wadhwa.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."
Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.
Jul 22nd 2019
It’s worth remembering, then, that we are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Postulating that there is no such thing as happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you human.