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Demonetising and Cashless Economy: a difficult alliance rooted in compromise

This is a brief intervention on the aspect of Demonetisation and India likely to go a cashless economy. Though, a lot of oral debates and narratives are being featured around the topic, what saddens is the fact that cashless economy is hardly understood and then used as a tool to pare this whole exercise. The disclaimer from me is to be once again stamped: Demonetisation undertaken is a huge implementation failure, whereas the mechanism itself has pros weighed in favour. Anyways, the pros have been discussed elsewhere and in plenty and thus I feel no need to get to it at the moment, while a post on it could be in the making in the near future. On to cashless economising then....

The thing with cashless economy is it is rarely understood in its complexity. And what really goes missing from discursive narratives about it are what governments do about the loss of seigniorage: the profit the government makes from making money. To a large extent it is thought through as letting gone of, which is what governments would rarely engage in due to fiat currencies. Minting coins and printing money is an expensive affair and is further aggravated with circulation costs. These things are to be carefully thought out:

1. Getting rid of fiat currencies and thereafter bringing on cashless economising means governments ridding themselves of fiscal policy responsibilities and rippling through central bank that would be ridden off setting of monetary policy frameworks. This is extricating the government of its sovereign rights and it is a bit hard to believe minimum government maximum governance would be a realisation of it. Thus going cashless is expensive and hence best avoided.

2. Going cashless is beneficial as a chimerical thought process from tech and now fin-tech companies. Well, chimerical is a strong word here and thus needs moderation. What such industries conceive of, and google wallet is a prime example of it is economising through taking paper (and mint) out of circulation by minimising it evolutionarily. They think success comes through transaction costs and network permeability, which is indeed a revolutionary thought in itself as both networking and permeability are the pillars of such companies. Moving aside from such mundane as-a-matter-of-fact propositions, cashless transactions are built upon security systems enacted through multi-layered secured biometrics (strangely, these are effective as escrow) enabling remote logins and logoffs when threatened securely. They have their logic and it works like a charm, and the best example I can cite here is Blockchain technology, the template behind bitcoins or even diversified into humanistic sciences. Such escrows are secure and breaching them is difficult or impossible precisely due to labour that goes into it and the prospects of technological archiving that is humanly impossible to achieve as it would disturb the entire foundation of going cashless and no one really has the resources to go behind it.

India is a cash-strapped economy and keeping it that way is an expensive affair. Going cashless would in fact mean reducing paper + mint in circulation, which is done or at least imagined to be brought in via demonetisation. Value of volume in circulation remains the same, while the carrying capacity or carriers in the form of paper + metal (mint) is reduced. This would retain the status of fiat currencies and still have governments + central banks decide fiscal + monetary policies respectively.

Would this be achieved through demonetisation in our case is debatable as what is seemingly the case at present is the process has stimulated calling upon orgs like Paytm circumventing a sudden cash shrinkage in the economy. But, with payment banks no more remaining a distant reality, a tie up between such could spell a further cash crunch to be effectuated. That'd be getting us closer still to the ultimate Platonic idea of cashless-ness, which still needs to have its Aristotelian content (Sorry guys, philosophy still is my dying language). Add to that the spice of Aadhar and we would inch closer to cashless-ness, but never into pure digital economy. This is my bold claim and I'd only defend it vehemently.

Himanshu Damle


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