While we were not looking, India won some battles
A call from a political party scare-mongered me into checking if my name had indeed been struck off the election list. A visit to the Election Commission site for Delhi told me that all it needed was an SMS to check if my name is on the list—I message at 7738299899, write EPIC space my voter ID number. Thirty seconds later, I get a confirmation that my name is there and it gives me the booth address where I will vote.
After the sheer delight at this super smooth process, I remember that I had got my Provident Fund (PF) balance on SMS too. Also, the passport and visa processes is mostly all automated and keeps us well-informed about the progress of the process. So I began to count what else works in India. We know and are vocally critical about what does not. So what works? Well, the metro network where it exists, as it does in Delhi, is superb. Do we hear of strikes or regular breakdowns in the cities in India they operate in? We don’t. Travel to Europe and see what breakdown of such services means. France especially is constantly on strike.
Getting or renewing a passport used to be a total nightmare a decade back. Enter private sector plus technology and the average time it takes for the passport application process is 30 minutes to under 4 hours. The passport reaches home by courier in a couple of days. At every stage, you get an SMS informing you what will happen next. In a country this large, there will be anecdotes of mis-service, but the average experience is now ahead of global standards. Take another area full of rent-seeking, long waits, harassment and bribes—getting a driving licence. At least in Delhi, the process is mostly painless—online form filling, and 30 minutes to three hours of time in the local office. The licence reaches home in just a few days. Property registration used to be a nightmare. That again is a breeze. Again a mix of technology and processes has reduced transaction time and pain hugely.
Payments is the other huge success story. Forgetting your wallet at home is no big deal anymore. The money is in the phone. In a wallet, on an app or available through mobile banking. Riding on the backbone built by the National Payments Corp. of India (NPCI), transaction options and ease are both world-class.
So how long does it take you to get a Wi-fi connection? How long does it take you to open a bank account? At least in the big metros, a Wi-fi connection happens within a day. Opening a bank account takes lesser time. The average time for these services in most developed countries is much longer. In most of Europe, for instance, it takes at least a month to get both these services. I have not heard of a faster initiation to completion time taken anywhere in the world than in India. Click on “buy” at 11pm and hear the door bell ring at 9am the next morning. That’s home delivery of stuff for you in big-city India. Want to return? Tap, tap, tap. They pick it up in the next few hours. Food delivery is transformed. We were popping golgappas at the local chaat wala when I caught a hand-written sign that said they deliver at home with Swiggy. Minimum order? Nope, one patta of bhel, he said, is happy to travel the 5 km to my home. Super good!
Friends and relatives in other parts of the developed world tell me that many of these services and speed are unique to India. While we were busy cribbing in India, a huge shift happened in the last 10-15 years in services—both public and private—that we’ve failed to notice. A mix of technology, cheap labour and super competitive firms have unleashed this service boom in the private sector. Technology, political will (across parties and governments) and the failure of the human government interface in public services has driven the public service boom. Just on the services metric, India will soon plunge ahead of most of the developed world. Take a moment and reflect on how far we’ve come in just a decade.
Monika Halan is consulting editor at Mint and writes on household finance, policy and regulation