Digital Payment and its Discontents: Street shops and the Indian Government’s Push for Cashless Transactions

Priyank Chandra
Jun 4, 2018 · 2 min read

In November 2016, the Indian government announced the demonetization of the majority of bank currency notes in circulation. This wasn’t the first time this had been done — banknotes had been previously demonetized on two other occasions, in 1946 and 1978. In each of these instances, the government had presented the move as a response to disrupt the underground economy and end the scourge of black money. However, the 2016 demonetization was different in two distinct ways, both invoking patriotism — first, it was aimed at fighting terrorism, and second, and the focus of our paper [1] at the CHI 2018 conference, it began promoting the narrative that going cashless was good for the country. The 2016 demonetization thus became tied to the aspirational discourse of the new digital economy, with Prime Minister Modi its primary spokesperson.

Our study of 200 shopkeepers from Bangalore and Mumbai in India explored the aftermath of demonetization and how the shopkeepers coped with the shock. We found that shopkeepers looked to leverage the inherent flexibility of informal institutions to get around the constraints imposed by demonetization. Thus, while the demonetization move had hoped to reduce the magnitude of the informal economy, informality had ironically become the primary means by which actors coped with the uncertainties of this exogenous shock.

We also find that existing entrenched practices often resist the entry of new technologies, especially when top-down initiatives are driven by powerful actors such as the state. In a similar study on marketplaces in India and Bangladesh [2], we have argued that market practices have inertia, and these relatively stable predispositions dictate the adoption and use of new technology goods and services by actors. Our paper thus discusses the difficulties in transitioning economic actors from a primarily cash-based economy to digital cashless economy. Faced with the stability of existing practices, we see how the state resorts to messages of patriotism and equating technology adoption to modernity and development to persuade the population.

But more crucially, it brings to attention how studying technology adoption and use needs to look beyond individual decisions and user experience to also look at how these decisions are shaped by broader socio-technical forces.

[1] Pal, J., Chandra, P., Kameswaran, V., Parameshwar, A., Joshi, S., & Johri, A. (2018). Digital Payment and Its Discontents: Street Shops and the Indian Government’s Push for Cashless Transactions. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (p. 229). ACM.

[2] Chandra, P., Ahmed, S.I., Pal, J. (2017). Market Practices and the Bazaar: Technology Consumption in Urban ICT Markets in the Global South, In Proceedings of the 2017 SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 4741–4752).

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PhD Candidate, University of Michigan SI, studying informality and technology adoption. Development Studies x HCI x Institutional Analysis

This publication is meant to be a co-learning space for researchers working on human-centered computing, across various borders and intersections. Here we share our stories, work, reviews for others' work, and more. Join us!

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