Goodbye, money! Nice knowing you

Radical transformation in governance can only begin when we are pushed to the wall

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | September 29, 2011


Vivek Shukla with villagers after a failed attempt to make the tanning unit follow rules
Vivek Shukla with villagers after a failed attempt to make the tanning unit follow rules

Genuinely transformative ideas always have a strong rustic whiff of the earth. Once Tamil Nadu chief minister and Congress stalwart Kumaraswami Kamaraj was stuck at an intersection near the town of Cheranmahadevi in Tirunelveli district waiting for a train to pass. Gazing out of his car window he saw a young boy grazing goats and cows. He quickly got out of the car, went up to the boy and asked him, “Why didn’t you go to school?” The cocky boy countered. “Will you give me food if I go to school? I can learn only if I eat.” That was in 1955. One year later the innocent question had metamorphosed itself into the country’s first mid-day meal programme. That transformative idea from a humble cowherd is the single reason why India’s literacy levels are steadily rising.

Such moments of epiphany come rarely and from the most unexpected of people caught in the direst of situations. Wading deep into the bowels of Uttar Pradesh and unearthing the ingenious ways in which well-intentioned government schemes with its elaborate system of checks and balances can be subverted by panchayat officials, powerful individuals and sub-contractors fill one with a curious feeling of helpless awe and shock. It’s curious because you want to applaud the sheer ingenuity of the subversion, but are too shocked by the sheer audacity of it all.

Thirty-year-old Vivek Shukla of Unnao has a postgraduate degree in business administration and was widely expected to grab a cushy corporate job in the sister cities of Lucknow or Kanpur. But like all mavericks, he decided not to take the path well travelled and stayed put. Much to the initial dismay of his parents, he told them that he wanted to go into the villages of Unnao and help out the small and marginal farmers. The youngster joined a local non-governmental organisation called Hriday Narain Dhawan Charitable Trust (HNDCT) and started venturing deeper and deeper into the villages. He was 23 years old then. Today, at 30, his wisdom is that of a wizened old man.

For the last four years Vivek and his team at HNDCT have been trying to come to grips with a particularly recalcitrant problem caused by effluents released illegally by leather tanning units and slaughter houses in Unnao. The problem is most acute in a village called Maswasi, around 30 km from Unnao town centre, just next to a massive leather tanning unit owned by an industrialist who has, ironically, been awarded a Padmashri by the Indian government. The 500–odd villagers of Maswasi have for generations depended on a stream of water that has run through the village for irrigating their land and quenching the thirst of their cattle. But over the years that stream has lost its sparkle becoming a dark cesspool of sludgy waste due to the illegal dumping of toxic effluents by the nearby leather tanning unit.

Complaints have been lodged. Officials have come and gone. RTIs have been filed and dispatched by bureaucrats equipped with an uncommon skill for obfuscation. Undercover sting operations have been carried out. Local media houses have cried themselves hoarse. Ostensible surprise raids by the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) have been mounted on the obstinate unit. Everything legal and bordering on the illegal has been tried. But the leather tanning unit keeps getting clean chits, the government machinery keeps turning tricks and the three massive and illegal drainpipes snaking out of the back of the factory keeps dumping its entrails directly into the stream.

What adds insult to the injury is the irrigation cess that the villagers pay the government for using the sludge from the stream. It’s not that the villagers do not have their own heavy hitters. Unnao Member of Parliament Annu Tandon has been waging a pitched battle against the pollution caused by the leather industry, ramping up the war to prime minister Manmohan Singh himself (Refer to Governance Now issue dated June 1-15, 2010, pg 18).  But so deep-rooted is the collusion between the tannery owners and the government machinery that locals have a name for it – Saas-Bahu Ka Milan.

After one particularly harrowing experience of trying to make the leather unit toe the straight line, the desperate villagers were at their wit’s end. In the ensuing discussion with Vivek, his team and the author, they asked a simple question: “Why are we not able to get the leather unit to do what is legal and right?” Vivek’s answer was blunt: “The unit was buying off every single official.” That’s when one of the villagers gave us our flash of epiphany in an impulsive counter. “Why don’t we just abolish money?”

Every single dimension of our life has money directly or indirectly imprinted on it. Our relationship with money is neither objective nor is it inanimate. Money evokes strong emotions in us, determines relative values of commodities, and sometime relationships, and oils the wheels of transactions. Money is the bedrock of our daily life. Sometimes money is life. So money really cannot be abolished.

Every fundamental question is derived from a real human condition. So, in a way, every question has a history and a context, which determines the scope and extent of one’s answer. If such an impulsive question had been asked a couple of decades back, one would have probably laughed at the ‘naivety and idealism’ of it all and moved on in life. But the same question today is no longer naïve or ideal. It has a potential for fundamental transformation, which has already started happening in some aspects of our lives without us even realising it. Take your relationship with the bank. Two decades back you would have had to know not only the dealing clerk’s name but also his idiosyncrasies. Today all you need to know is your ATM pin.

Any crisis where every single factor which can be expected to go wrong not only goes wrong but does so spectacularly is called a Perfect Storm. But if you just take the logic of Perfect Storm and drop its negative implications it fits like a glove to the Indian digital eco-system. Every single factor that has to go right is not only going right but is doing so at a rapid clip. The near simultaneous congregation of affordable cloud services, secure transaction and communication protocols, advances in localisation of content, rising use of voice applications, rapidly falling hardware costs, increasing use of touch interfaces, proliferation of smart- and feature-rich phones, slow, but steady, digitisation of government records and the ongoing pan-India foot-printing of individuals through the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is preparing the ground for a Perfect Digital Storm. It’s a storm that can wipe out our existing relationship with money and forge a brand new one. It’s a storm that can wipe out the physical manifestation of money from our lives – forever.

Let’s first understand what kind of numbers we are dealing with. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) expects payments and banking transactions through mobile phones in India to touch – hold your breath – Rs 15,75,000 crore by 2015. That’s just four years away. It’s almost nine times the notional loss of Rs 1,76,000 crore estimated by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in the 2G spectrum auction. Today more than half of the Indian households — 11 crore altogether — do not have a bank account. Yet, of the households without a bank account, 42 percent have at least one mobile phone. Nearly 90 percent of those phones are capable of handling basic financial transactions. It is estimated that nearly 85 percent of all Indian households will have a mobile phone by the end of 2015. It’s a business opportunity that is luring players as diverse as Nokia, which has teamed up with Union Bank of India and Obopay, into the mobile financial services space. BCG, in fact, expects government payments through mobile-based transactions to touch Rs 1,780 crore by 2015.

Just give it a moment to let it sink in. Not a single paisa in the huge transactions mentioned above will ever be exchanged physically from one hand to another. No one will be feeling the rustle of crisp notes or the engravings of shiny coins in their hands. The relationship with money will be virtual and abstract. It’s fundamental transformation of an essentially subjective relationship.

So how does this answer the Maswasi villager’s question? Put simply, every single monetary transaction is either legal or illegal. Legal transactions include everything from paying the taxi fare as per the meter reading to buying shares worth lakhs of rupees through dematerialised accounts. Illegal transactions include everything from slipping a 100-rupee note slyly into the cop’s hand when caught jumping a red light to sliding across two bags containing a crore of rupees to the seller of a Rs 2 crore flat who wants part payment in cheque and part in cash.

Legal monetary transactions can either be virtual or physical. Parties involved in such transactions actually prefer an identifiable trail. So there are receipts, notified bank transfers and entry into bank statements. But illegal monetary transactions will more often than not be physical as both parties involved will try to minimise or eliminate all trails. The very logic of illegal transactions does not allow for records.

Eliminate money in its physical form and you destroy corruption bred by unaccountable monetary transactions. It’s exactly what the Maswasi resident said. The digital eco-system to eliminate the physical form of money that exists today.  But it’s almost like India’s nuclear weapons status. Everyone knows that we have the capability to make ‘The Bomb’. But, officially, it’s not yet a nuts-and-bolts operation. If we are serious about eliminating day-to-day corruption, we need to begin taking the following steps:

  • Start converting every single savings, current, salary and wage account in both the public and private sectors, including for social welfare schemes like MNREGS, into a virtual account.
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  • Make mobile phones and UID cards as the two primary transaction points and integrate them with virtual accounts. To put things in perspective, Japan has been using mobile phones integrated with a bank account as a swipe card (like a debit/credit card) for over ten years. Closer home, both M-Chek and Obopay have the technology to make every single mobile phone, including a sub-Rs 1,000 low-end phone, into a swipe phone.
  •  
  • Integrate every single customer interface that requires a monetary transaction, whether it’s hiring an auto or a taxi or buying of a property, with either a swipe enabled mobile phone or a UID card. No more haggling with recalcitrant auto drivers. The digital meter shows you the exact amount. You swipe your phone and the right amount gets debited.
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  • Move towards a policy regime with clear-cut milestones to be achieved within a time period of 10 years where every single transaction will require a virtual debit account and a virtual credit account. This will eliminate cash transactions and destroy the physical money market.

What kind of a world will we live in if and when these four measures become a reality? For one, wallets will disappear. For another, officials who raid the leather tanning unit near Maswasi will not find crisp notes seductively lying on the table for them. Of course, there is nothing to prevent the sly ones from bribing the willing with goods and commodities. But then there is the electronic trail to account for and that in itself is a deterrent. In this world, corruption as an arbitrage and opportunity cost becomes unviable. Till then Vivek and his team will have to get up every morning and prepare for a fresh battle.

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