The digital economy did not fare well at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Saturday, with John Elliott, a former Financial Times journalist, taking the advocates of a digital economy in India to task. How did they expect to propel an entire nation to a cashless economy, when a similar system had failed at the JLF in a city like Jaipur, he asked.
The question came in the wake of statements made by Amitabh Kant, the CEO of NITI Aayog that India was well on its way towards a digital economy, and that the nation would become a complete digital economy, which “would not be cashless, but would be a ‘less cash’ economy,” by 2020.
The JLF had chosen to take the cashless route this year, by implementing a free charge system, where you could top up your QR coded ID card with cash and then use it at different food and book stalls to make purchases.
“The cashless payment system... crashed because the internet couldn’t cope. I couldn’t do anything from the hotel or my phone. The system isn’t there. So how quickly can you make the transition (to digital economy) when the infrastructure doesn’t exist? Paytm (and other similar wallets) is a great invention, but how will you make it work?” asked Elliot, while moderating a JLF session titled ‘Brave New World: The Digital Economy and Beyond.’
Aruna Sundararajan, the secretary to ministry of electronics and information technology, conceded that we need an “entire ecosystem in place” to help cashless transactions. “In India, the past is no guide to the future.”
“This is a country that’s transforming rapidly. Precisely because it is tremendously under-banked and underserved, we will have to look for digital tools because that’s the only way 700-800 million people are going to transact,” she added.
She also said that with four of the biggest telecom companies in India planning to open payment banks, digital economy was the way forward.
Though Kant and Sundararjan were both very vocal in defending the digital economy, they could not give any reassuring answers to the audience member who asked about the cyber security and data protection measures that would be taken.
Sundararajan said the government is setting up separate response centres that would monitor unusual activity. However, there were no clear cut plans on prevention, other than a “strengthening of infrastructure.”
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