As India grapples with a partial lockdown of cities owing to COVID-19, a specific sector has sensed an opportunity to leverage the current environment of national uncertainty... yet again.
The digital payments industry appears to be pushing the #IndiaPaySafe #IndiaStaySafe hashtags aggressively on a day Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to deliver an address to the nation at 8 pm. Digital payments had received a massive boost in 2016, soon after the prime minister’s 8 pm speech on 8 November, where he had announced demonetisation.
Since Thursday morning, scores of Twitter users, many of whom have joined the microblogging site in March 2020 itself, are tweeting videos of themselves with the same message “Payment karna hai? Digital karo, safe raho” (Need to make a payment? Do it digitally, stay safe).
These tweets by users, most of whom have 0 followers and are following 0 users, however, in a consistent pattern, have been retweeted by PhonePe, National Payments Corporation of India’s (NPCI) official Twitter handle, by NPCI’s CEO & Managing director, Dilip Asbe.
Not-So-Subtle Reference to Coronavirus
While the campaign does not mention coronavirus directly, it makes non-subtle, oblique references to the viral disease.
The twin hashtags, #IndiaPaySafe and #IndiaStaySafe, appear to refer to COVID-19, the other reference is the individual joining hands in a namaste with her smartphone between her palms.
As cases of coronavirus mount, Indians and others around the world have been advised to avoid contact and handshakes, and instead greet one another with namaste.
Moreover, while some users are simply uploading videos urging people to go digital during the corona outbreak, others are specifically plugging platforms like PhonePe.
Govt-Private Collaborative Promotion
Other industry bodies like the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) as well as Payments Council of India (PCI) are doing the same. NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant as well as NPCI Chief Asbe have posted a similar video.
Kant and Asbe have both tagged Prime Minister Modi, Prime Minister’s office, Electronics & IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and each other. Asbe, in addition, has also tagged RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das and Union Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal.
This move, however, has come under criticism for two specific reasons:
- Allegedly seeking to leverage coronavirus to promote specific products
- And, the promotion being done by the digital payments industry and the government in collaboration.
Industry observers The Quint spoke with also point out that this could be a coordinated effort to get the hashtag trending prior to the prime minister’s 8 pm speech, and possibly an indicator of the PM himself asking people to avoid cash.
Is Card Safer Than Cash?
#IndiaPaySafe appears to be asserting that cash payments are unsafe. This argument has been made in several other countries as well. In China, the government went as far as to order cash to be sterilised before being released. However, there appears to be no evidence to suggest that is a more potent carrier of the virus than plastic cards.
An article by Masachussetts Insitute of Technology’s (MIT) Technology Review has rejected this argument.
“But the truth is, there isn’t much evidence that quitting cash would make a difference, at least in the case of COVID-19,” the article says.
It would, however, have significant consequences for the many people who rely on cash for access to goods and services, and that may help explain why the WHO was so quick to walk back the line about contact-less payments.
Moreover, other questions around NPCI’s Aadhaar Enbaled biometeics still being allowed to run have also come in the spotlight. “Question to ask is why Aadhaar Enabled Payment System (AePS) is still running. When government offices, PDS shops have discontinued biometrics, why is India's poor being still left vulnerable to biometric payment system?” asked Srikanth Lakshmanan,