The ministry of electronics and information technology’s (Meity) plan to set up a new body, with private sector participation, to execute the prime minister’s ambitious Digital India programme is a good idea—the plan is to have a professionally managed PPP company. This is critical because, while the plans under the Digital India umbrella are good ones, successful implementation requires an attention to detail and an intensive follow through that government departments may not necessarily be good at. Any PPP, though, has to work very closely with government departments since, without their cooperation, nothing can be achieved.
Digital payments are a good example of this. Though the government analysis—according to a news story in Mail Today—is that demonetisation gave a huge fillip to digital payments, this may not be wholly accurate. For one, digital payments were already rising rapidly even before demonetisation. IMPS transfers, for instance, rose from Rs9,581 crore in FY14 to Rs58,187 crore in FY15, Rs162,226 in FY16. While this rose to Rs411,106 crore in FY17, the monthly average was Rs25,946 crore in Apr-Oct 2016, and this rose to Rs37,836 crore in the cashless period of Nov-Dec 2016 and continued to rise to Rs51,272 crore in Jan-March 2017 when the system was flush with liquidity again.
In the case of debit/credit cards, the jump was from Rs31,049 crore in FY05 to Rs249,436 crore in FY14, Rs311,265 crore in FY15, Rs399,589 crore and to Rs657,707 crore in FY17—while usage jumped from Rs42,177 crore per month in Apr-Oct 2016 to Rs147,915 crore in the demonetisation months of Nov-Dec 2016, this halved to Rs71,615 crore in Jan-March 2017. Given the near-complete failure of Aadhaar-Bhim despite its high-profile launch, clearly, this means a lot of work needs to be done on the ground.
This could be as simple as lowering of merchant discount rates—but the dramatic hike in card payments pre-demonetisation suggests this may not be such a problem—or it could be that, like PayTM, Bhim-Aadhaar also needs an army of marketing people spending days in each market teaching vendors/customers how to use digital payments or it could be the need to develop relationships with cinema halls, etc, to provide attractive cash-backs for users. A corporate structure is more suited to tackle such issues as compared to a government system whose imagination cannot go beyond DigiDhan melas.
Similarly, DigiLocker can be one of India’s most transformative projects with citizens able to, theoretically, store every official document in their lockers, from land records to electoral IDs—and with the facility of sending digitally signed certificates to everyone, this can eliminate the possibility of fraud documentation. Yet, two years after it began, there are just a handful of documents that can be accessed. A corporate structure, suitably incentivised, could do wonders in this case too.