It was December 2016. I had been visiting my family here in India for a short trip from USA. The shock of the year, ‘Demonetization’ had just happened back in November 2016. We had planned to go to Andaman islands, and so I was quite excited as we had never been to those beautiful islands. Few days before our planned trip, I had to visit the local bank in my locality for some banking transactions. While I was writing a check, suddenly a middle aged woman, who was wearing a traditional sari and a ‘kumkum’ on her forehead, came and asked me if I could help her in filling out the deposit slip. I was surprised, as why would some unknown person ask me for filling their payment deposits. I looked at her, and she seemed to be from a family with limited means. So, I said yes to her, and took the deposit slip and passbook from her, to fill her details. While filling the details, she told me that she did not understand how to fill the deposit slip, and that’s why she asked me. I said okay to her, and gave her the filled deposit slip for her to sign.
As per the old saying, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I thought it would be better if I can teach her how to fill the form, so that she can do it herself. As I started telling her about the details, she suddenly replied, that she would not be able to learn, and she went away. I was stunned! I felt bad as she was not even ready to uplift herself, and rather was willing to depend on others.
Anyways, fast forward to December 2020….
I recently moved back to India, and had to visit the same bank on multiple occasions. One afternoon, a man who might be in his late 40’s approached me, and asked me if I could fill the details for him to write a check! I looked at him, and he seemed to be from a rural background. I could not say no, and started writing his check. Suddenly, I could recollect the similar experience with that middle aged woman in 2016. I thought to lets give a try to teach him how to write a check. So, while writing the check, I started explaining him the details to be filled. After listening patiently, he told me that if he could know how to read and write, he would have never asked me to write for him. I was stunned, again!
I got the same experience, in the same bank, just 4 years after.
After coming home, I could not stop the train of thoughts which had started coming in my mind. Since 2016, there had been some of the biggest changes in the financial and political landscape in India. Be it demonetization, or digitization using UPI, apps like BHIM, PhonePe, PayTm etc. Quite a few banking corruptions were exposed, and the culprits like Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya even fled the country. The ruling party won another election in 2019, and finally, Covid-19 happened this year.
But it seems the financial literacy of quite a few people, more so especially in the rural regions seems to be the same. Its very perplexing to comprehend the fact that if many people are not comfortable with depositing money, or writing physical checks, how are they going to adapt to the emerging and fast moving digitization in the financial sector? How will these people learn about internet banking, cashless wallet, or UPI?
The need for digitization has never been so high before as seen today, mostly due to covid-19. India has rapidly deployed its fintech industry with a wave of online payment apps and digital wallets. The urban areas have seen a massive usage of online and digital payments, and this is a good news for India to become a cashless economy. Our PM Narendra Modi has been a strong proponent of digital economy, as per his motto ‘Say, Yes to digital payment, no to cash!’
But I am afraid that as long as there are people like I met in the above two incidences, who are not only financially literate, but also their mindset to adopt to new technologies is negative, it is going to take a while for India to become a truely cashless economy. The need to teach the rural people about financial awareness, and make them comfortable for adapting digitization seems to be the need of the hour. I observed that even senior citizens are not yet comfortable in adapting to these new technologies, and hence the transition from a cash economy to cashless digital economy will happen only when awareness and education about these technologies is widely spread. Especially, I feel youngsters of my generation should come forward and try to guide senior citizens, and rural people in order to make them a part of this new economy.