Our prime minister’s vision of one nation, one flag, one language, and one culture is becoming a reality at an accelerated pace. However, this remarkable attempt at “oneness” for India is yet to incorporate a key aspect: financial oneness for the country.
India has been steadily marching towards realising its goal of becoming a $5-trillion economy. There have been minor obstacles to achieving this end, such as the lowest growth rate across sectors in the last five years, highest unemployment in 45 years, agrarian distress, and the auto sector facing its worst crisis in two decades. In an attempt to circumvent these, the Reserve Bank of India recently transferred an unprecedented ₹1.76 lakh crore to the government of India.
Another impediment along this emphatic path to progress has apparently been the poor performance of public sector banks. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has solved this problem by merging several public sector banks. From 27 public sector banks, we now have just 12. It’s a remarkable step that we now have fewer banks to keep track of our non-performing assets.
The finance minister’s bank merger move is also a laudable step to align with the prime minister’s vision of a unique national identity. In other words, it’s a master stroke towards having one big bank for the country “with strong national and global presence”. What could be stronger and more unifying for a diverse country? One nation, one flag, one language, one culture, one bank!
I propose that we extend this notion of unity even further. Now that we have a “robust” digital architecture in place and every person in the country has a 12-digit magic number called Aadhaar tattooed on their soul, we should really be marching towards a genuinely unique financial identity for the nation. There should just be one bank account for the country. The patricians and the plebeians, the princes and the paupers, the ministers and the mendicants — all will have access to the same bank account. The proposed one bank account will significantly reduce the burden of account transfers. The universality of the principle is appealing in that every person will now be within the ambit of some version of Direct Benefits Transfer, where it’s Mukesh Ambani or an NREGA worker.
In its 2018-19 annual report, the RBI said there has been a 74 per cent increase in frauds in the banking system with a time lag of 22 months. The likes of Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and others, who collectively owe banks and institutions ₹40,000 crore, continue to make us angry. It is to prevent such fraud and money laundering that our honourable prime minister made a “bold” and “brave” move in 2016. At the stroke of the midnight hour on November 8, 2016, when the world slept, India awoke to life and freedom through demonetisation.
The original intent of demonetisation was to identify and retrieve black money. Yet even such a noble act had its share of critics. For example, the RBI claimed that more than 99 per cent of the money in circulation came back post demonetisation, slow growth has been attributed to demonetisation, and independent studies claimed that over 55 lakh men (the data on women isn’t out yet) lost jobs post demonetisation. It was, nevertheless, a brave decision.
But with a single unified bank account for every Indian citizen, we would not have to resort to such controversial decisions taken in secrecy that give room to misguided critics. As I outline below, a single bank account will go a long way in streamlining the complexities in catching fraudulent bank dealings and all those indulging in the so-called “black money economy”.
Every individual’s Aadhaar number can be linked to this one national bank account, so every phone number linked to such a national account will get an alert with every transaction. Every time I withdraw money from that account, the prime minister will receive an SMS about that. Every time a rural pensioner is unable to withdraw her pension due to biometric authentication failure, Nandan Nilekani will get a text message. And every time Adani buys land from the government of Jharkhand, a text alert will be sent to Mamata Bannerjee. A peripheral benefit is that we don’t have to walk around with phones held high or climb atop bamboo trees for OTPs to authenticate transactions.
In a nutshell, we would reach the enviable position of being able to keep track of every other person’s financial movement. Whether it is Bofors or Rafale, the Aadhaar-linked digital infrastructure will leverage its true potential of unparalleled transparency, leading to more financial savings than currently claimed.
This will not just instil a culture of collective accountability and nationhood, but also foster constitutional principles of equality and fraternity. India will finally be one big family with multiple Aadhaar numbers linked to a joint national bank account. It serves an attractive set of purposes: a completely linked digital India to reduce corruption, universal income, democratic watch on financial wrongdoing, boost consumption leading to higher growth rates in a slowing economy.
Of course, every good decision has its share of cynics. Some fringe groups will create a ruckus that this is at odds with the right to privacy and that it’s an abuse of democracy.
I beg to differ. The governing party has continuously demonstrated an admirable culture of democratic decision-making by implementing constitutional provisions and laws. To illustrate their democratic actions, take the manner in which the BJP implemented the Right to Incarceration (RTI) Act. By genuinely agreeing to people’s right to be incarcerated, the benevolent government has even abrogated a constitutional article to ensure that millions of people in Kashmir successfully exercised this landmark right. It’s been more than 65 days and people of this region — willingly exercising their RTI, of course — continue to be locked down.
This government has even amended the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, or UAPA, to make it easier for common people to exercise their right to be incarcerated. And now, with the plan of NRC detention centres all over the country, the right to be incarcerated is being univeralised.
Despite such people-centric efforts, some people (obviously Urban Naxals) would scream that the “I” in the RTI is not “Incarceration” but “Information” and that the Right to Information is meant for government transparency. So the question to them is: what will you do if you discover that our prime minister does not have a degree from Delhi University as claimed? What next? Will somebody ask for useless things like how many people are unemployed today, or how many people are denied their rations in rural areas because of Aadhaar-related failures? Such people should realise that transparency means that citizens should be transparent to the government and not the other way around. This will make it easier for the government to keep track of what we eat, where we sleep, what we think while twiddling our thumbs, and so on.
Given such positive and transformational examples of governance and their powerful use of technology, I am confident that the unification of all bank accounts will be easy. Indeed, the finance minister recently said that the major thrust will be on “next gen” technology features and that “the integration of fintech operations that these banks are into, will be such that there will be no disruption to customers”.
We are at the cusp of a dream India. An India where the idea of oneness is not just preferred but celebrated. Whether history will be kind to us as a nation is debatable, but there is no doubt that the march to “one nation, one flag, one language, one culture, one bank and one bank account” will be a formidable bridge towards unity. We will finally not just eat the same food and but also have the same money.
Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas is now just one unilateral policy decision away.
The author would like to thank Anumeha Yadav for some suggestions.