By Jaikrishnan G
The increasing volume, velocity and variety of digital payments in India has brought in discussions on the economics of payment systems, including the cost incurred by payment processors and system providers along with the affordability of payments for end customers. It is in this context, RBI is coming up with a discussion paper on charges relating to various channels of digital payments, with the objective of studying the economics of payments and setting it at the right band to drive the next phase of growth digital payments.
It is safe to expect that the discussion paper on various charges in the payment system will take a holistic view of the issues involved and possible approaches to mitigate the concerns regarding affordability of digital transactions. While other payment systems are also under the purview of discussion, retail digital payments would be a major focus. Review of zero charge-out regime for UPI and Rupay will be prime focus, given the surge in volumes in these systems. Amongst other factors, zero charges for UPI and Rupay has clearly supported the rapid adoption of digital payments in India. While it took more than four decades for physical card acceptance network to reach 57 lakh terminals in India after the launch of credit cards in 1980, it took merely five years to deploy 7.5 crore QR terminals. Zero cost of transactions and not having to spend on physical infrastructure has led to the rapid adoption, apart from the incentives provided by the payment system operators to merchants and customers.
For the common man, digital payments have brought in a lot of convenience. Simply put, with UPI, one does not need to scourge for change, carry lot of cash or even visit ATMs for cash withdrawal. Cashbacks and rewards have benefitted the customers. With all payments getting logged and statements available, one does not need to keep a meticulous record of how much is paid to who and when. With clearly recorded of payment history, credit will also become more accessible.
For government and regulators, formalisation of payments adds more muscle for transaction monitoring and tax collection. India has 36% of its population between the age of 10-25 years. While the rest of world, including China, is slipping into aged population with lower birth rates, India remains young and will have large working-class population in the world. It is no surprise that we have adopted smartphones and digital payments faster than anywhere in the world. The sheer size and scale at which India’s digital payments operate equals to 1.5 times that of China and 20 times that of US. As we speak, we have 4.2 billion transactions on monthly basis getting processed through UPI systems and one billion transactions through other payment systems. With such a strong share of young population that would largely comprise of digital natives, it is imperative for Govt. to urgently develop comprehensive frameworks for a digital economy.
While payments system such as UPI looks simple to a consumer, it is highly complex with many moving parts and several ecosystem players. Banks, PSPs and solution providers have absorbed a lot of complexity and cost to make things happen at the backend. Banks and PSPs are spending hundreds of crores in a year on processing these transactions in the areas such as reconciliation, settlement, disputes, and risk management. There is tremendous pressure on infrastructure required to support the expected growth in digital transactions. Now the question is, how can RBI make sure these transactions continue to be secured, protected, and follow regulatory norms if the revenue model is not sustainable enough to cover the expenses and create surplus for investments? A classic case would be the slowdown in ATM deployments after 2017, where among many other factors, lower interchange combined with higher compliance costs stifled new deployments and replacements. With increasing requirements for data privacy, data localisation, cyber security etc., digital payment service providers will have to invest more on governance and risk mitigation mechanisms. Though some parts of these costs are already taken care by government sponsored digital infrastructure, the ultimate responsibility compliance and risk management lies with the Banks and Payment service providers. Add to this the necessity to spend on consumer awareness, the economics in the sector is a threat to further innovation and risk management. It is therefore critical for India to have a well-balanced, transparent charge-out framework that can be adopted by these players. The discussion should consider then eed for further penetration of digital payments, keeping payments affordable for consumers and merchants and healthy revenue and surplus for ecosystem players for investments.
A well-framed charge-out framework should facilitate healthy market competition, thus pushing the PSPs to further optimise their costs and continuous improvement on efficiencies. There are other issues also to be addressed such as compensation to customers in case of failed transactions. Given with the pragmatic approach from regulator and government on inclusive digital growth, we can certainly look forward to RBI having a series of meaningful engagements with experts in the payments space to come out with an enabling charge-out framework. A well-orchestrated framework with focus on affordability, growth and sustainability of ecosystem is undoubtedly the need of the hour.
The author is Partner (financial services) Grant Thornton Bharat