India’s government gave nearly early household a bank account offering app-based digital money transfers, reports the Economist. But that’s just the beginning:

Take a walk on Mumbai’s Juhu beach and little has changed in five years — except for the QR codes adorning every food stall. Go to São Paulo in Brazil, Beijing in China, or many other cities across the emerging world and you find something similar. “Most people only want to use UPI,” says Govind, a seaside-snack vendor at Juhu, referring to India’s fast-growing payments network. The Unified Payments Interface (UPI) is a platform that allows free and fast account-to-account transfers using fintech apps such as PhonePe or Google Pay. Unlike Alipay in China, it is open, so users are not locked into a single company and can take their financial history to competitors, notes Praveena Rai, the chief operating officer of the National Payments Corporation of India (NpCI), which manages the platform. And it is facilitated by QR codes or easy-to-remember virtual IDs.

UPI is drawing attention from across the world. “Look at what India has accomplished with the UPI, Aadhaar and the payments stack,” Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, has marvelled. Overall, it processed over $1trn in transactions in 2022, equivalent to a third of India’s GDP. It was bolstered by the government’s surprise “demonetisation” of 2016, when multiple high-denomination banknotes were discontinued. UPI also benefited when covid left consumers scared of cash. It has grown from around 17% of 31bn digital transactions in 2019 to 52% of 88.4bn transactions by 2022. “India leads the world in real-time digital payments by clocking almost 40% of all such transactions,” Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has boasted.

The Indian model is inspiring others. Brazil’s Pix, which facilitates bank-to-bank payments with a small fee, was launched in November 2020. It now accounts for some 30% of Brazil’s electronic payments (credit and debit cards take up around 20% each). Such open instant-payment systems are an alternative both to the bank/card model in the rich world and to the closed fintech one in China… The hope is that UPI and similar systems might now let some poorer countries leapfrog the West… Mr Nilekani hopes UPI will eventually be used everywhere. “If I go to Lulu in Dubai or Harrods in London, I should be able to make a payment with UPI.” That would surely create new competition for the bank/card behemoths in the West.


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