India on path to become most digitised economy- Bill Gates

Billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates has said that India is rapidly progressing towards a cashless society and will become a totally digitalised economy within seven years.

Bill Gates was presenting a lecture on “Transforming India” at Niti Ayog (National Institution for Transforming India). The lecture was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and senior government officials.

“The Prime Minister’s bold move to demonetise high-denomination notes and replace these with new ones with high-security features is an important step to deflate India’s shadow economy,” Gates said while delivering the lecture.

Gates praised the Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana scheme which has helped connect the disadvantaged to the banking system in India. Getting a billion people on Adhaar was an effort unprecedented by any government worldwide, he said.

Now, Adhaar forms a basis for delivering all kinds of personally identifiable services. Gates said: “India has all the pieces in place for a compelling vision for digital financial inclusion. Aadhar will convert a cumbersome, paper-based account opening process into a 30-second all- digital system.”

The Aadhaar Unique ID system will also create a centralised data repository, he added.

The rollout of Unified Payment Infrastructure has made financial transactions easier than ever before, he said. Gates also praised the Startup India initiative which has been important for cultivating entrepreneurship in India. Startups are booming in India, and there is more venture capital available than ever before.

Gates also praised the Digital India mission, and particularly the Mygov platform for increasing citizen participation in governance. It was a good way to get rid of paper forms, and prevent people from feeding in the same information multiple times.

All of this allow for technology and services to be delivered easily and swiftly, where it is most required. Banking, eCommerce, healthcare and education are just some of the services that can now be delivered more easily, with the help of technology.

Gates spoke about how technology could be one of the biggest drivers for social transformation. He talked about the various ways in which technology could bring about improvements in education, sanitation, health care, agriculture and governance.

Gates gave an example of how technology could help transform agriculture in India. He spoke of rice crops that were infused with genes that made the plants resistant to floods. The new variety of crops is being used by farmers in South Asia.

Gene editing, he said, is a new technology that can accelerate the process of trait creation in plant varieties. Satellites or drones could monitor crops for diseases, and to check if they had enough water or fertiliser.

Gates said that India should prepare for a major technological shift. Over the course of the last few years, artificial intelligence (AI) has improved enough to approach human like capabilities.

Going forward, there are expected to be rapid improvements in artificial intelligences. Automation, cloud services and AI are poised to eliminate manufacturing jobs. This is an opportunity for the IT sector in India.

Gates called upon India to embrace these new technologies, despite the fears that are naturally a part of rapid transformation. Retraining and adapting talent is necessary as innovation in AI accelerates.

Gates, who co-runs the world’s largest private foundation, believes digital transactions will be a game changer, reducing inflation, interest rates and transaction fees and increasing smart savings.

Aiming to work with the government on various issues including e-payments, digital health, digital literacy and e-agriculture in India, Gates held a meeting here with IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Thursday.

Speaking to journalists after the lecture, Gates asserted his belief that digitisation will be good for every sector be it finance or healthcare. He explained, “If you want Rs 50 transaction to have less than 2% overhead, to be able to send money to relatives, get money when you sell crop etc., digital platforms will let us provide greater financial services than non-digital systems will let you do,” he said.

“Digital world lets you track things,” said Gates, pointing out that Nordic countries use very little cash and are now moving debit cards to cell phones. “The world as a whole will go cashless, but predicting for any country when that will happen is very hard,” he said.

“I could be wrong but I will make such a prediction,” said Gates. “Once digital payment banks are enabled in India, which should be any day, as there are eight applications from companies like Paytm and Airtel, combined with other things like direct benefit transfers, universal payments interface and Aadhaar, I think India will go digital quite rapidly. And I think it will be incredibly beneficial.”

Citing examples of Kenya and other countries where digital payments have increased, Gates said, “The number of shops in Kenya that accept mobile payments has gone up super high. There are places in America where you can’t park your car even if you have cash. They will only take mobile or card payments. These things do take time, but when you have inflation, digital is very advantageous.”

On biometric identity Aadhaar, Gates said, “Today, Aadhaar is not being as widely used as it will be in 10 years from now. If you want to identify people in a way that it is hard to lie (like to transfer digital payments), Aadhaar is the foundation for that.”

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