India’s Social Revolution

India’s digital leap via Jan Dhan, Aadhaar, mobiles and GST is generating deep social impact, writes Ridham Desai.

India’s Social Revolution

India’s digital leap – consisting of a combination of Jan Dhan, Aadhaar, rising mobile penetration and a Goods and Services Tax regime – is generating deep social impact, promising reduced income inequality, increased financial inclusion, better quality of life, and higher agricultural productivity.

India’s Starting Point

India is in the midst of a transition from an annual per capita income of $1,700 to $4,135 (our projection) over the next 10 years. Just to put in context what low per capita income signifies, we note that some Indian companies talk about how basic necessities, such as fruit, are still classified as discretionary consumption, with the biggest competition to such consumption being non-consumption, suggesting that affordability remains low in India. These two examples illuminate the backdrop for this article:

Reliance Industries – Q4FY18 investor presentation: “Fruit, a completely discretionary item, is consistently showing high growth in Reliance Fresh and Smart.”

Pidilite Industries – Bharat Puri, CEO, in a May 25, 2018, interview: “My job on water-proofing is to compete with non-consumption. Two out of ten homes in India do proper water-proofing when they construct. If that goes from 2 to 4, we double the category.”

Reducing Income Inequality

The growth in India’s output over the coming years is likely to be the key source for a reduction in income inequality. Apart from the benefits of reduced costs and improved efficiency in doing business leading to higher productivity as well as creating new growth channels, digitisation is providing three shifts that could reduce income inequality: improvement in public finances, greater efficiency in government benefits transfers, and a boost to trading across various income classes.

Higher tax-revenues-to-GDP and lower public-debt-to-GDP ratios

The GST should help boost the tax-revenue-to-GDP ratio, consequently reducing the public-debt-to-GDP ratio. A rising tax-to-GDP ratio favours lower income strata, as it entails the transfer of income from higher- to lower-income groups, although such transfers have to be accompanied by good governance standards. India’s ratio of tax revenues to GDP is lower than the average for emerging markets, and this has been a key reason why India’s fiscal deficit has been relatively higher versus peers. GST will likely increase compliance on both indirect and direct taxes, even while the tax rates are, in and of themselves, revenue-neutral. If India’s primary deficit becomes a surplus as a consequence of higher growth and greater tax compliance, there will be a rapid fall in debt/GDP.

Such a fall would give the government greater flexibility to undertake infrastructure spending, which, in turn, would boost growth and jobs. It is via this channel that GST is likely to help narrow income inequality.

Greater efficiency in government transfers to low-income people

The other source of potential reduction in income inequality comes from direct benefit transfers, which, in turn, are linked to two pillars of digitisation – Aadhaar and Jan Dhan. Hitherto, government transfers were conducted physically, through government networks and agents. But India’s digital identity initiative has increased state capacity to expand the beneficiary base for public goods and services, and it is reducing corruption and ‘leakage’ from fake or duplicate beneficiaries. Leakages to intermediaries were common and thus intended beneficiaries received only a fraction of the targeted benefit from government programs. Jan Dhan has led to the opening of nearly 300 million bank accounts since 2014, bringing a completely new class of previously unbanked people into the banking system. These are the people who are largely the intended beneficiaries of government transfers.

Now armed with bank accounts, they are in a position to receive benefits directly from the government, bypassing agents and avoiding leakage. 
A female who owns five acres of land, signs at a rural office of ICICI Bank in Chincholi, India (Photographer: Santosh Verma/Bloomberg News)
A female who owns five acres of land, signs at a rural office of ICICI Bank in Chincholi, India (Photographer: Santosh Verma/Bloomberg News)
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Aadhaar enables such transfers, since it can uniquely identify beneficiaries. Over the past three years, the government has significantly scaled DBT. 433 government schemes are now conducting their transfers via DBT. In FY18, 124 crore transfers were affected, involving Rs 1.9 lakh crore ($28 billion). Since FY14, DBT transfers have amounted to Rs 3.88 lakh crore ($58 billion). This breadth of delivery is unprecedented in India’s history. Its impact on inequality could easily be underestimated, in our view.

The DBTs represent two kinds of flows:

  • Conversion of existing subsidies given in kind to cash, and
  • Subsuming of several other government benefits (such as pensions) into the Aadhaar system, thereby reducing leakage and corruption.

The net effect is that intended beneficiaries are receiving their due without middlemen, and all of it in cash directly into their bank accounts. This, in turn, opens up an opportunity for the recipient to decide how to spend the cash – rather than the government deciding.

Thereby, the government has saved Rs 90,000 crore ($13.4 billion) by targeting the right people for transfers.

DBT and other governance reforms have led to the removal of duplicate/fake beneficiaries and plugging of leakages, helping the government target intended beneficiaries. More detail can be found here.

Greater intra-country trading, driven by e-commerce

Trading and specialisation are key to economic progress. The two are interdependent. Most of India has been deprived of access to the market because of archaic physical infrastructure, barriers to entry to marketplaces created by large businesses, and inefficient government intervention. These constraints are breaking down as India goes digital. Growth in e-commerce is facilitating this.

We are expecting e-commerce sales to grow to $200 billion by FY27 from $15 billion now.

E-commerce opens up supply chains, taking them deeper. This brings several small suppliers into the marketplace. These suppliers are otherwise not competitive, as they lack distribution channels and because of poor physical infrastructure to transport goods. For example, Amazon in India has 160 million products listed on its platform, growing on a daily basis. This growth in trade helps increase specialisation, in turn combating income inequality. In addition, several merchants on e-commerce platforms in India are finding customers abroad. This further improves terms of trade for these small merchants and enterprises, deepening and broadening job creation. As per Amazon India, 50 percent of its sellers come from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities, and more than 65 percent on the customer side are from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities.

Employees walk past stacked palettes in the warehouse at the Inc. fulfillment center in Hyderabad, India. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
Employees walk past stacked palettes in the warehouse at the Inc. fulfillment center in Hyderabad, India. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
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Broadening and Deepening Financial Inclusion

Household balance sheets likely to increase exposure to financial assets

On the asset side, financial inclusion driven by digitisation is set to alter the household balance sheet towards financial assets, and likely boost overall saving. As saving rises – also as a consequence of India’s demographics – investments will be facilitated, leading to improved growth rates. As noted, the Jan Dhan scheme has led to the opening of 30 crore bank accounts, boosting financial penetration by an estimated 100 percent. This means that almost 85 percent of Indian households today have a bank account versus 45 percent in 2014. These bank accounts are showing impressive growth in balances, which have risen from Rs 4,200 crore in 2014 to around Rs 78,500 crore in FY2018. The bank accounts will facilitate saving into deposits, insurance, small savings schemes of the government, and eventually into equity markets.

Liabilities to see a big shift in coming years

Still, the big story in financial inclusion is what could happen on the liability side of household balance sheets. Digitisation, through a combination of digital payments and GST, as well as regulatory changes, will likely increase the share of lending to micro and small enterprises (also boosting investment) and to households.

The digitisation of the economy enables smaller loan sizes because of the accompanying lower cost of customer acquisition and broader dissemination of credit arising from an enhanced capacity for credit assessment.
A woman receives a micro-loan during a meeting in Sadasivpet, India. (Photographer: Adeel Halim/Bloomberg)
A woman receives a micro-loan during a meeting in Sadasivpet, India. (Photographer: Adeel Halim/Bloomberg)
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Historically, India’s banking system has primarily catered to large corporates and wealthy individuals. The costs of taking banking to the masses had been fairly elevated, driving banks to focus on areas in which revenue generation was high. However, this is now changing for consumers by:

  • Reducing the cost of opening accounts and hence expanding the reach of banks. Aadhaar and the associated electronic know-your-customer measures have cut the cost of opening a deposit account by 90 percent. In FY18, eKYC-based verifications rose to 13.8 crore versus 4.8 crore in FY17.
  • Enabling faster loan delivery. We think consumer credit could expand at around a 17 percent CAGR over the next decade. Even after such growth, total consumer loans would still be low, at 25 percent of GDP.

For micro, small and medium enterprises, GST is playing an important role: MSMEs account for 80 percent of employment generation in India. Hitherto, because of a lack of reliable financial data, MSMEs were largely excluded from the formal banking system for credit, and thus accounted for around just 14 percent of credit from banks, we estimate. But the online infrastructure of the GST Network enables any taxpayer to securely share tax payment records (and therefore cash flow data) with anyone else.

For the first time, India’s banks can obtain reliable data on MSME cash flows. Combined with the rise in the use of digital payments (and their data trail), a credit provider can now make a much more informed decision on the creditworthiness of such small borrowers.

We expect lenders to reduce spreads on MSME lending by up to 300 basis points as they get access to reliable and better-quality data. We think this will drive MSME loan growth at a high-teen CAGR for the next decade. 

Improving Quality Of Life

There are three ways in which quality of life improves as a result of India’s digitisation program:

  • Income growth: As India’s growth story – which is premised on favorable demographics and reforms – gains traction, we think per capita GDP will rise from its current level of $1,700 per annum to $4,135 in the coming decade. The average Indian currently spends a disproportionate share of income on food, given the low levels of income. But, as India’s per capita income rises, subsistence spending will fall, lifting the disposable income among lower-income households to spend on things such as education and health.
  • Penetration of insurance: Digitisation facilitates increased penetration of both life and non-life insurance, bringing affordable healthcare services to more households.
  • Other benefits of Aadhaar: One example is the Ujjwala program that has provided new liquefied petroleum gas connections to nearly 4 crore poor rural women over the past four years. These rural women had been using polluting fuels that were both more expensive (given the time consumed in accessing them) and a health hazard. Such changes are likely to bring about significant change in the quality of life for people on the lower end of the income and wealth curve. India aims to increase LPG usage to cover 80 percent of its households by March 2019, against 72.8 percent in 2017.
Still, we note that India’s demographic dividend, from a status quo standpoint, could morph into a demographic threat, based on the current lack of skilled workers, healthcare issues, automation, and large-scale migration of unskilled labor from farmlands to urban areas.

But while India is still solving these problems, the likely improvement in the quality of life that is expected from digitisation should mitigate some of these risks. Nonetheless, more work remains to be done.

Workers carry an iron pipe on their shoulders at a steel and iron market area in India. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)
Workers carry an iron pipe on their shoulders at a steel and iron market area in India. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)
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