Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Special PERSPECTIVES Series on Demonetization in India – Insights, Challenges, and Ways Forward

By Ursula Dalinghaus, Nima Lamu Yolmo, and Janaki Srinivasan

Demonetized  ₹500 and ₹1000 notes
Source: Frontera News

On November 8, 2016, India demonetized two major banknotes in circulation. According to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) figures, the denominated notes accounted for 86% of the value of currency in circulation. Importantly, the 500 and 1000 demonetized notes have been replaced by new denominations of 500 and 2000. All of this took place before ATMs were even configured for the new notes! The most visible effects of demonetization were the long queues and cases of numerous casualties and deaths in front of ATMs and banks. With the issuance of the new notes of 500 and 2000, demonetization (“notebandi”) has largely taken the form of replacement, aimed at targeting counterfeiters.

While some see the demonetization move as part of the quest for transitioning to a more digitized payment system, the timing and procedures for the replacement did not take into account factors related to basic infrastructure, coverage, digital financial literacy, and knowledge about the ways in which payments function within formal and informal sectors, social networks and relationships, and barriers related to caste, gender, and literacy, among others.

What lessons does this exercise hold for research on digital financial inclusion in India going forward? 

In our Special PERSPECTIVES blog series on Demonetization in India, we asked IMTFI fellows to provide some preliminary reflections on these issues. In this post, we wrap up our series, highlighting key themes and questions raised by our contributors.

Series Overview

As Vivian Dzokoto (Before Money isn’t Money Anymore…) reminds us, India’s demonetization exercise is neither the first nor the last exercise in changing money’s material form. Monetary authorities guarantee what will count as money and its value, but they can also alter or even revoke it. Money objects are tied up with social relations, cultural repertoires of use, and a larger ecosystem of monetary practices. A change in money must take the user into account. Failure to do so results in loss of trust and social disruption. These outcomes can negatively impact the goal of financial inclusion and undermine the credibility and longevity of payment infrastructures.

Janaki Srinivasan (Demonetization and its Discontents) creates a roadmap for identifying gaps between user experiences on the ground and the categories and visions driving the demonetization experiment in India. Policy efforts to advance the project of greater digital inclusion are not necessarily helped by suggesting one is either for or against cash. Instead, the promise of digital platforms is their flexibility in providing choice among payment options. The user must be at the center of product design. For example, categorizing all unreported cash as “black money” risks putting into one policy basket the multiple (and legally valid) contexts that lead people to keep money hidden and store value in cash form. In particular, a large section of women, including many belonging to the middle class, have had good reasons to hide their small savings in rice bins and cosmetic jars, away from husbands and other family members. This cash is more than money – it is “women’s agency, built through years of under consumption and self-exploiting sacrifices” (Tara Nair, IMTFI financial inclusion workshop, 2016, Bangalore). Demonetization has suddenly compelled women to reveal to men their secret cash stashes, bringing women’s savings practices to the attention of their husbands - with potentially negative consequences for women’s autonomy.  Like Dzokoto, Srinivasan reminds us that one should be careful of “desirable solutions” that bypass the user.

Debashis Acharya (The Recent Indian Demonetisation and Cash Exclusion, Part one and two) gives a first-hand account of the demonetization move as it unfolded. He recognizes that this “policy-induced cash exclusion” has been experienced by particular segments of Indian society as a crisis. But he also suggests it is a positive shock - by being compelled to use digital alternatives, people may encounter positive dimensions of these tools. Success and sustainability will depend on the supporting infrastructure – technological and financial. In a follow-up post, Acharya and his colleagues Subbarao, and Venkatachalapathy test these propositions. They review data-supported trends in uptake and recount a visit to a village participating in a cashless village experiment near Hyderabad. Acharya and his team find that village bank representatives’ ("Mitras") role as intermediaries has become even more important. For grocers, new challenges have erupted with regard to PoS (Point of Sale) devices. How will cost-incentives be structured? Who will/should share the costs? How will the infrastructure be built out? User-centered answers to these questions will be essential to sustaining this digital drive, long-term.

Isabelle Guérin, Santosh Kumar, and G Venkatasubramanian (The Dangerous Liaisons between Demonetization and the Indian Informal Economy (Part one and two) also raise critical questions about the impact of digitization on informal economic practices. In North India and Coastal Tamil Nadu, these have provided a primary safety net for the poor. In part one, they discuss widespread distrust of banking and digital transactions. Demonetization has impacted financial circuits and strained social relationships in these communities. The move – as an instrument of formalization – raises new questions about who will benefit. Far from fighting the informal economy, demonetization is strengthening it. In part two, they outline some crucial questions: What measures can be taken to ensure social protections, fair pricing, and privacy for the poor? Like Srinivasan (and Nair, see above), Guérin and co-authors underscore how cash has been instrumental for women in creating "micro-spaces of freedom" in the household, but also for men, who have their own social networks. How will the move to digital payment forms take these existing strategies into account? Will it facilitate greater financial inclusion?

Disruption. Inclusion. Ways forward…

To conclude, we call attention to some productive dissonances in how contributors approach the implications of this demonetization policy move. Srinivasan is critical of the compulsory nature of this demonetization policy and emphasizes the importance of preserving choice in payment forms. Guérin and co-authors point to the significant technical barriers to implementation of digital finance, which, combined with widespread distrust of formal banking, have the potential for severely disrupting the informal, cash-based networks of social security and exchange upon which the poor greatly rely. In contrast, Acharya folds demonetization into a broader move toward cashlessness and streamlining of payment forms, to the possible exclusion of cash at some point in the future. Pre-paid card projects and other digital experiments are introducing people to the benefits (including security) of e-payment forms, while the need to establish trust in these new technologies remains an ongoing challenge.

These “different takes” on the demonetization move remind us of the politics of payment infrastructures, most visible at times of disruption and change (Rea et al, 2016). Dzokoto’s recent work on currency change in Zambia, where both currency redenomination and the introduction of mobile money were taking place at the same time, shows that a technical change in money always has political implications for policy makers, providers, and for users. For research going forward, it is therefore important - particularly in the wake of this major policy and technological shift - to attend to the interplay of specific payment forms in everyday social practices as a variety of social actors and institutions in India come to terms with these changes.

Insofar as demonetization, as a state policy, has been proclaimed as a move toward greater financial inclusion, there is a need to attend to the crucial question of what do we mean by “inclusion”? By definition, ‘inclusion’ means the involvement of more components and participants. What practices and networks of financial transactions are people being “included into” or “excluded from” by such policy shifts remains a vital question. Have we identified criteria that will help us understand whether a policy or technological intervention is financially ‘inclusive’ or ‘exclusive’? These are questions worth considering every time we encounter a disruptive innovation.

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