Since demonetisation the whole concept of cashless society has been attracting a lot of attention. Thus, the current thinking is that as soon as possible, the country must move away from cash payments to those that are digital. Indeed, the government has taken a number of steps to push digital payments. The idea is to wean all strata of populace away from exchange of physical form of currency and move them to digital ones through online payments, credit/debit cards, and mobile-based apps. Besides this, to reduce transaction costs and inevitable leakages, there is also a push for direct benefit transfer (DBT) to the beneficiaries in lieu of various subsidies. And joining these dots is the ambitious programme of `Digital India’ that aims to digitally empower the society at large. Put together, all of these endeavours are really transformative and far reaching. In the recent times concerns are raised about timely roll out of these initiatives taking in to account the ground realities. These concerns pertain to two key enablers, namely, the internet connectivity and penetration of the mobile network. This discourse, however, seems to have missed out the biggest enabler of all that is electricity access throughout the country, including in the remotest of villages and hamlets. The fact remains that without reliable electricity supply, even if we are able to set up the required infrastructure for internet and cellular network, the same will still remain, well, infrastructure only—without any utilisability in the real sense.
The other alternative being diesel generator sets which have many implications other than the costs, the resultant air pollution at the local level as well as increasing country’s emission intensity. Admittedly, the government has fast tracked rural electrification and it is committed to electrify all the households by 2019. At present, out of 18,452 un-electrified villages (as on April 2015), about 34% are remaining.
However, the real challenge is to maintain continuous electricity supply even in electrified villages, and certainly in those that are remote or in forest areas. To cite an example, last week I got an opportunity to visit Bilaput village in Koraput district of Odisha. Though electrified, the electricity supply is extremely erratic and infrequent. Interestingly, the village is very close to Machhkund dam of 120 MW Machhakund Hydroelectric Project set up way back in 1955. And not only the electricity, even mobile connectivity is so poor that one has to travel long distances to get signal. This is the ground reality that must be kept as a backdrop when pan-India digital payments are discussed. So what is the solution? It is evident that if we continue to rely on conventional grid electricity to fuel such well-deserved aspirations, a sizable population will continue to remain disadvantaged for many more years, perhaps. This in essence would render the basic philosophy of empowering the common person totally ineffective. Fortunately the country has reached a stage where solar energy can be utilised to service such demands in very sustainable manner. Thus, appropriately sized—and standardised—solar power packs can be deployed quickly to provide strong backbone to both, internet connectivity and mobile network. This would also address the issues of reliability and timeliness so very crucial for digital transactions. And to top it, such initiatives would also result in creating additional livelihood opportunities for the locals. In fact, many of the merchants that are envisaged to facilitate digital money transactions in villages can also be capacitated suitably to provide installation and after-sales service for these solar power plants.
This would also need developing viable business models in private-public-people mode with the involvement of the service providers and the government. The business models being oriented towards greater public good and socio-digital inclusion, they would necessarily require active government and industry support.