Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a new digital India that will financially include everyone, from workers in the informal sector to women working at home to our ageing parents receiving a pension. The JAM trinity consisting of Jan Dhan Yojana — bank accounts for everyone, a unique electronic Aadhaar ID, and mobile banking facilitated by UPI — are all in place. Indeed, we have come a long way with 80 per cent of the people with bank accounts, 1.25 billion Aadhaar IDs, and the ever-increasing use of digital payments and mobile banking accelerated by UPI, that has made cash transfers simple, direct and without leakages that were rampant in the past.
Yet, we are far from declaring victory. Just ask yourself how many of you are paying your household help digitally. When we look around, we find that many of our older relatives do not feel comfortable using their smartphones for banking transactions or even digital payments for auto-rickshaw fares, or day-to-day shopping and chores. Cash is still king.
There appear to be two major missing features in financial inclusion — convenience and safety. Even as digital payment apps are becoming simpler to use, they are still not as intuitive as using cash. Further, after a digital transaction, many users are afraid whether the transaction really took place or not, especially when it comes to receiving a payment in one’s bank account. Fear of fraud and tampering with one’s hard-earned money is a severe deterrent for many.
When I attend conferences on financial inclusion, most participants are sophisticated and understand these issues. The solution that is offered is that we need to create digital literacy. But that is easier said than done. How do we do it effectively enough so that the fears and misgivings many people have are not merely alleviated but are, in fact, eliminated? We certainly cannot offer classes in digital literacy.
I propose a solution. My proposal is to employ an army of young women in high schools and colleges, let us call them Digital Didis. A Digital Didi would be easy to spot and identify using some official uniform and badge, who will in effect become a digital helper that anyone could feel comfortable approaching, in malls, in buses and trains, on the street and in stores, to help them with any digital transaction. A helper Didi, a trustworthy Didi — a Didi who would patiently show and help people how to carry out a transaction and assure them of its safety. The transaction could be tagged with Digital Didi’s identity for accountability and incentives.
A Didi who helps many successfully could become a candidate for an attractive job. Didis would be paid a small stipend, by banks or financial institutions, and this would be something Didis would do not necessarily full time, but in their downtime, as they are walking about doing their other daily chores including going to or back from school or college, or shopping, or other leisurely activities. Use of Didis would reduce the need for opening up many bank branches and hiring full-time employees and funds released from these savings could help employ many Didis whose presence will become ubiquitous. Over time, people will begin to know and trust a few Didis, who would become their regular go-to Didis for mobile financial transactions.
The most effective method by which we learn is by imitation. When mobile phones were introduced, no one offered classes on how to use them. People learned how to use them by watching other people. Now mobile phones are being used effectively not only by the rich and the middle-class people but even by many of the poor in villages all over the world. As people begin to build trust interacting with Didis, many would slowly learn how to carry out digital transactions on their own. Also, young women who become Didis will not only earn some money on the side, their experience with helping more and more people successfully will build their confidence and make them stand-out for more attractive formal jobs.
“Chalo Didi se poochho” with Didis everywhere, could help make the digital transformation of India complete.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 11 under the title “The Digital Didis.” The writer is Professor of Finance and Executive Director of Digital Identity Research Initiative (DIRI) at the Indian School of Business (ISB) and a Research Professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).