Can technology change settled notions?

In light of the arrests made earlier last month over siphoning off of Rs 7 crore from Bank of Maharashtra in Pune and Bhayander through United Payments Interface, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s statement in Parliament on Wednesday in defense of technology is not quite convincing, even after it does stand true. The FM’s reply to Opposition leader P Chidambaram was addressed to the latter’s objection to the government’s decision of making Aadhar compulsory for I-T and bank accounts, arguing that it’d lead to increasing instances of breach of security. To this, Mr Jaitley replied saying, “The fact that technologies can be broken into can never be an argument to say don’t have technology.” Alas, instead of making a case, the argument becomes bedrock for a further argument; the fact that cash can be exploited by the privileged can never be an argument to say don’t have cash.

On this note, I would like to recall an enlightening encounter with a woman selling plums and kiwis in the Mumbai local. I bought some kiwis from her worth Rs 100 but had only Rs 500 of the revised currency. It had been a week since the cash crunch had hit the country starting November 8, 2016 when Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes were banned. Presuming that a fruit vendor wouldn’t have change, just as I was about to return the fruits to her, she produced a thick bundle of Rs 100 notes with a sense of accomplishment and returned Rs 400 to me. Surprised looking at the bundle, I asked her if she had withdrawn the notes from the ATM since PM Narendra Modi’s Jan Dhan Yojana had enabled those under poverty line to open zero balance bank accounts. “Hum gareeb ko kya karna hai ATM khaataa kholke? Humko bas ek sir pe chhatt, kapda, khana aur bachche ke padhai ke liye chahie paisa. Neend toh unki kharab ho gayi hai jinke paas zarurat se zyada hai. [What is the poor to do with an ATM account? We only need money enough for a roof on our heads, clothes, food and education for our children. Rather, those who had more than required are suffering now (referring to the impact of demonetization)],” she replied.

What led me to explore various arguments with regards to demonetization and digitization then was the sheer unintended and innocent conflict in her reply. The positive impact of demonetization had merited her struggle as a working mother, wife, daughter in a crammed, scorching city; but she seemed unaware of the transformation of this impact into a foundation of digitization, which she didn’t deem necessary to live a simple life (referring to her take on ATMs).

rural bank
Credit: Bloomberg

Transparency and privileges that come through technology for those of us literate and privileged enough to operate it, can certainly not be ignored; especially in these times of increasing “living standards” and time-space compression. But for those who have been living a culture of simplicity and necessity, partly because they cannot afford otherwise, it does not add up if this proposed change would ensure security of privacy only partly with no security and scope for progress. Yes it is to merit the hardships indeed, which the less privileged undergo, that technology is required. But if technology will only be as good as that cash which is “exploited by those who can afford it more than others”, then I don’t quite understand how it is a more reliable source of financial, political and social communication.

I welcome counter-arguments to the above in order to widen the scope of understanding.

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