The Digital Consumer in Demonetized India

By Prof. Anindita Paul

Prof. APaul

End-to-end digital world is the vision that the Modi government is putting up in the post-demonetization era. The journey has been a rough one so far without any hopes to improve sooner. How much of the vision can be made feasible in a diverse population like India is still a question that the providers and users are grappling with. A lot has been said and speculated already. However a lot needs to be seen and said on how can the end-to-end digitization be made practical. Experiences that maybe temporary are pouring in about the inconveniences being faced outside the ATM and the banks, however, there are more layers to it. The layers that lie closer to the consumer, user and receivers of goods and services who will play a major role in this digital transformation has not been reported as much. Everyday lives are full of instances on what a digital push may mean for the consumer. I have experienced some instances in the last month or so of going digital and am sharing some reflections of the same.
Let me start outright with the first experience that came as a shock to me from the Indian Railways. One cannot help but wonder the contradictory message those “tender exact change” boards hanging proudly at the railway station ticket counters send across to the public. Some of these tickets which are short distance unreserved cannot even be bought online not to mention the extra charges that one has to pay for tickets bought online. This certainly sends mixed signals about the government’s intention. Also talking of an end-to-end digitized world, should not the ticket checker in the train be equipped with all the gadgets that allow passengers to make electronic transactions? Railway transactions are just one but big enough to question the governments’ intention and seriousness about going digital.
Another of my reflections come from movie theatres that are places for frequent transactions and often a place where families would like to spend their leisure time. Are these theatres of entertainment digitizing? In a recent experience I tried to book tickets digitally in order to avoid paying by cash at the counter but that had an additional 15% service tax. This apart from other inconveniences as waiting for the theatre to open the online booking on the day of the show points to the need for businesses to relook their processes in line with a digital-friendly environment. These are businesses that need not be tutored about digital world, they need to polish up their processes and make it more consumer-friendly. The idea of going digital was convenience but cannot be successful unless businesses look at the value it gives to the digital user.
The titbits of cash encounters here and there also leaves you worrying about getting digital. You name it – parking fee, toll tickets, chai wala (tea seller), doodh wala (milk seller), kirana shops (mom and pop stores), fish market, beauty parlours etc. All the cash slips through these transactions again questioning how one deals with being cashless. One would think that once the providers adopt to e-wallet transactions things are going to be fine but even e-wallets need considerable upgradation. So far for me e-wallet use was mostly restricted to quick recharges for my phone and digital TV subscription. However, as more and more people try to use e-wallets more and more inefficiencies are being reported on social networking sites. Having experienced quite a few of the issues with e-wallets myself there is no doubt that more needs to be done to improve e-wallet services some of which are service delivery, security and make it more user or consumer-centric.
The half-hearted intentions to go digital reflects in the day to day dealings of the consumer. I haven’t encountered as much faulty swiping machines now as I would have before the demonetization. This has been the case in the digitally-enabled places as high-end restaurants, café and food courts in malls. One cannot help but question how reliable the digital world is going to be. Being a proponent of digitization I wonder when can I stop worrying about running out of cash as a consumer.
Apart from all the above, there are many more things that one deals with on a daily basis – paying your domestic help, the plumber, carpenter, electrician, raddi wala (scrap materials dealer) etc. There is lot more to be done to help these digital illiterates to adopt the USSD or UPI. It is time that they be hand-held into learning to use their mobiles or Rupay cards for payments. But that will also require these transaction systems be designed to suit their users who are likely to be illiterate or maybe non-English speaking.
Much more needs to be done in order for consumers to embrace the digital. User-centricity of services also means understanding the consumer’s mindset in going digital. For the consumer, service charges when transacting online such as those for railways, airlines etc or the extra charges incurred for making payments using visa, mastercard etc. sends a pro-cash message which they are being forced to move away from. Having multiple options that allow consumers to choose a payment mode which will allow them to replace the cash transactions without extra cost would be more acceptable. Incentive schemes for digital adaptation is a temporary solution. Though better infrastructure and change in the mind-set may be required what is also important is a deeper reflection on where the loopholes in digital adaptation lie from the consumer’s perspective. Unless the consumer’s perspective be addressed and consumer-friendly solutions are implemented the journey to digitization may still be long and rough ride.

Prof. Anindita Paul is Assistant Professor  of Information Technology and Systems Area at IIM Kozhikode

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