Brave New World: The Virtual Economy and Beyond


Amitabh Kant, Aruna Sunderarajan, Mihir Sharma and Ashok Wadhwa in conversation with John Elliott


By Jules Evans, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Guest Blogger


Within three years, cash machines in India will be completely irrelevant. This bold prediction of Amitabh Kant, CEO of the government body NITI Aayog, was greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and scepticism by the audience at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival.

‘We’re in the middle of a major disruption’, said Kant. ‘At the moment, 85% of transactions are in cash, which creates more opportunities for ‘black money’. But we have seen extraordinary growth in mobile phones, meaning the infrastructure for a cashless economy is there.’

Aruna Sunderarajan, newly-appointed secretary of the Ministry of Information and Technology, said: ‘Once the four big telcos swing behind digital banking, which will happen next year, the cashless economy will grow exponentially. Look at the example of Kenya – it’s less banked and less advanced technologically, yet 50-60% of financial transactions happen on phones.’

Mihir Sharma, opinion editor of the Business Standard, was more sceptical. ‘It’s true that mobile phone usage has grown exponentially, but that was because landlines didn’t work. The government took the wrong lesson from this. It never forced people to use mobile phones. Government got out of the way; it let people choose to use them. It happened naturally, not by government pushing it. That’s how to leapfrog forward technologically.’

Ashok Wadhwa, banker and CEO of Ambit Holdings, was also sceptical about the pace of transition to a cashless economy. ‘No question that’s the destination, but things don’t always happen that quickly in India. It took a decade to open up the stock market in the 1990s. I personally think the transition to a cashless economy will also take longer.’

Moderator John Elliott, author of several books on India, was also sceptical. ‘I can’t even get internet in central Jaipur. How is this going to happen in three years?’ Kant retorted: ‘It will happen because the technology will make it so easy; even you can use it, John.’ Sharma interjected: ‘If it was so easy to use, why did the government have to take away 85% of all cash?’

Was the shock of demonetization really necessary? ‘It enabled the push towards a digital economy in a much quicker way’, argued Kant. ‘Disruptive policies have been responsible for rapid change before in India’, agreed Wadhwa. ‘But we need to get the right internet infrastructure in place. And we need to remove the bureaucratic paperwork for people to set up new accounts.’

Is the cash economy really so dirty, asked an audience member. ‘India has a $2 trillion economy, and a $1 trillion black economy’, said Kant. ‘If you want it to become a $10 trillion economy, you need to smash the black economy. Around 98% of Indians don’t pay tax. That restricts India’s ability to grow.’

The session ended with a poll of the audience – did they think the digital economy had harmed bricks-and-mortar businesses in India? The final result: 57% thought it had.


Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor


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