After the release of the RBI’s annual report on August 30, the government stated that the rationale behind demonetisation and GST is digitisation and initiating behavioural change in the economy. While pertinent questions have been asked about black money recovery, the government’s shifting goalposts, impacts on informal and agriculture sectors, one needs to ask: How does seeking a change in the ways people conduct transactions increase sovereign power over currency?
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Mughal imperial mints (darl-ul-zarb or the place of “striking”) were tightly-controlled. New mints would receive dies from the ateliers in Agra and Delhi, delivered by a ranked official, with ceremonial pomp. It was as if, in the ritual of accepting the die, the minter had put himself under personal obligation to the Mughal padshah himself. The mints employed sarrafs, or bankers, to check for the purity of coins, determine proportions of alloy and metal and recognise counterfeits. After Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, as the empire faded away, Mughal dies were used by the Marathas and smaller polities like Awadh, Benares and, later, the East India Company. The histories of currency and sovereignty are thus intertwined. Even the infamous chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda introduced plastic coins in “his area” as a marker of his self-styled sovereignty.
As anthropologist David Graeber has argued, for the last 4,000 years, money has been a creature of the state. The relationship between currency and citizenship, however, remains largely forgotten in history and in the present. Even though currency is at the core of the relationship between the state and the citizen, what claims can the citizen make on currency? A currency note is a state artefact, and the state marks every financial transaction with a promise or a guarantee of the transaction’s veracity. While currency secures national identity and economy, it can also envision what anthropologist Gustav Peebles has called a “new, fluid citizenry” — as in the case of the Euro.
The nudge to digitise currency and subsidies has been ongoing in the last couple of decades, and is not peculiar to India. Bill Maurer, an anthropologist of money, shows how a range of actors — development experts, industry analysts, entrepreneurs, customers, and increasingly governments — through their repeated actions, financial transfers, and movement of money and people, have solidified the infrastructure on which rests the world of Alipay, Apple Pay, Paytm, M-Pesa and others.
Mobile money is only a slice of this emerging fiscal infrastructure which is increasingly co-opting national ID systems, with links to taxation, information flows and grievance redressals. The state is an active participant in the digital market, as a guarantor of digital money (except bitcoin), as a provider of funds for the nuts and bolts of a digital infrastructure, as a user of digital banking channels, and as an advocate for Aadhaar and digital subsidies.
Experts may point out that successes like M-Pesa in Kenya or BKash in Bangladesh would not have been possible without customer uptake and therefore these initiatives have tangible user benefits. It is true that mobile money has found a large number of users in many parts of the world but the digital fiscal regime is much larger than one financial product. And if the state supports one product, like Paytm, it imposes a digital pathway without providing a choice, and declares that the citizen is not an equal participant in this fiscal infrastructure. The right to privacy debate in India showed that making Aadhaar mandatory does not necessarily benefit all citizens.
If digital infrastructure is indeed a public good and electronic highways connect people to money, welfare, services and information, then users must be free to use a vehicle of their choice on these roads, perhaps walk if they want, or not use the road if it suits them. Also, risks of fraud, cybercrime and poor connectivity in rural areas are problems that the state must recognise while pushing for digitising monetary transactions.
Demonetisation and GST are part of a regime which imagines a new fiscal citizen: The homo digicus, who doesn’t use cash, operates digitally in full government view, and obeys mandates to link biometric data to financial life. The homo digicus, in other words, is a citizen who by conforming to a state-defined fiscal space serves the nation.
Once again, the relationship between sovereignty and currency is being determined by the state. This regime’s value is argued in terms of the state’s efficiency. But claims of digital payments being free of hassle, or corrupt mediators, are yet to be backed up empirically beyond pilot projects. Numbers that dominate the public domain center around governance efficiencies: How many more tax payers entered the fiscal fold after demonetisation? How much did the government save through the DBT?
For a start, there needs to be clarity on the efficiencies accrued from GST, Aadhaar, digital subsidies and banking. Once these savings are clear, in terms of percentage of a budget, we would need to know how much of them were funneled into services like health, education, research, roads, women and child safety. In other words, what and how much does a citizen get by participating in this fiscal regime beyond individual convenience.
The second, and perhaps more important, concern is coercion. If the fundamental right to privacy is inseparable from a citizen’s right to life and liberty, will the contours of this new fiscal space be crafted in dialogue with citizens? A good fiscal citizen needn’t be a homo digicus. And achieving clarity on benefits to the state and a few intermediary businesses is only one side of the coin.