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Transactions have been revolutionized with technology

Cell phones, drones, cash transfers and much more

Kiran Karnik

Published: Jan. 30, 2024
Updated: Jan. 30, 2024

THOSE were the days, sang Mary Hopkin, many years ago. The nostalgic lyrics refer to good times in the past, implying days that were better than the present. Yet, for many, the here-and-now is best reflected in William Wordsworth’s words: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven.” 

These contrasting lines come to mind when one looks back two decades and sees the impact of contemporary technology on sociology, economics, and the tremendous changes in daily life.

Few things have driven this change as much as information and communication technologies (ICT), and cell phones in particular. At the beginning of this millennium, there were four million cell phone subscribers in the country; a decade later (in 2011), it had increased, at mind-blowing speed, to 750 million; now there are well over a billion. The effect this has wrought on a host of areas is truly radical and has redefined concepts of distance and geography, bringing people closer to one another.

The impact is amplified when mobile communication technology is used in combination with other developments. One amongst them is a unique identity for every Indian, signified by the Aadhaar number (1,380 million now have this identifier), an exercise that began as recently as 2009. Another is a bank account: the number of those with one has grown rapidly, with over 500 million Jan Dhan accounts now. The synergizing of these with the other two (Aadhaar and mobile phones) has made for the JAM trinity, which has facilitated a range of other initiatives.

What is special about Aadhaar is that it is based on biometrics and has a database that can be accessed online to verify or confirm one’s identity. This has made possible remote or e-transactions. Thus, if the ration card is linked to one’s Aadhaar, the person should be able to go to any ration shop anywhere in the country and get her due rations with just the biometrics. In fact, with the JAM linkage, all subsidies can be transferred directly to the targeted beneficiary, doing away with the need for ration shops. Other transactions too do not need intermediaries.

Financial transactions have been revolutionized with technology. In times past, withdrawing money from one’s account could only be done for a few hours a day, only on working days and required a trip to the bank. Computerisation and telecom connectivity, through ATMs, made possible cash withdrawals 24x7, and from any ATM location. Today, one can do most banking transactions from home or office, obviating the need to go to a bank.

Platforms like Unified Payment Interface (UPI) have driven fintech applications, and peer-to-peer payments via mobile have brought unimagined convenience to money transfers. This has made life easier for hundreds of millions of individual consumers, including those dependent on remittances from afar. Thousands of small and micro businesses or vendors can also benefit through digital records of sales, enabling easier grant of loans.



Social interactions have changed radically. Messaging, talking to anyone practically anywhere on Earth, video calls, and multi-party videoconferencing — for both work and socializing — are commonplace, having become easy and cheap thanks to the mobile phone, connectivity, inexpensive data transfer, and new apps. Apps, in conjunction with innovative business models, are widely used for delivering food and goods, for getting a cab, and various other purposes.

These are particularly helpful to those who are home-bound. Some of these apps are also business facilitators, enabling MSMEs and others to vastly expand their potential geographical and customer base. Like UPI, other digital public infrastructure (DPI) platforms continue to spur many new and innovative applications.



The mobile handset has become increasingly versatile, encapsulating an almost unbelievable range of uses. Today, it is a powerful computer, a camera, video recorder, radio, television, audio recorder, watch, alarm clock, stopwatch, calendar, appointment diary, photo album, compass, torch, and so much more. Almost incidentally, it can also be used for calls! As an access device, cell phones — now ubiquitous across the socio-economic spectrum — highlight the transformation in daily life brought about by ICT. Apart from these, areas like health and education are being transformed. With Covid lockdowns and the necessity of moving to online mode for education, this sector has become, like fintech, a major user of ICT.

Online consultation became common during Covid, pushing the envelope of tele-medicine. Other technologies too are playing a role with health tech — part ICT, part medical, part electronics —  emerging as a wave of the future. Multi-disciplinary convergence is revolutionizing diagnostics. New methods combine the latest in medical science with electronics and artificial intelligence, resulting in quicker, better, and cheaper testing, while enabling superior and more effective treatment by individualizing it. Led by start-ups, these new innovations provide better and inexpensive healthcare in remote and under-served areas.

Technology has also made possible self-testing by those with no medical knowledge. Twenty years ago, the only “home test” instrument was a mercury-based thermometer. Now, many homes have a digital, infrared one. Oximeters, blood sugar and blood pressure measurement devices, and Covid detection kits — all for use at home by laypersons — became common a couple of years ago. The combination of electronics, biological science, software and AI has triggered on-going progress in ensuring better, more universal, and cheaper healthcare. 

An important aspect of “intelligent automation” is that it enables the skill of a lower level to be used onsite, while facilitating access to specialists located elsewhere. This is crucial for rural India, which has a shortage of medical personnel and an acute scarcity of key specialists. It can transform primary healthcare centres and small rural clinics, ensuring almost the same level of medical advice to villagers as may be available in the best urban hospitals.

Much remains to be done, but over the past two decades health tech is making a difference to people at large, with developments now beginning to move from lab into practice. Advancement in varied technologies is synergizing to transform healthcare through non-invasive diagnostics — imagine a test for TB based merely on coughing into your cell phone, or a sensor-based  haemoglobin test, new and personalized treatments, and low-cost vaccines that do not require a cold chain or refrigeration. Knee replacements are now common, and more organ replacements are not far behind. The dream — or nightmare! — of living to 100-plus or even near-immortality is now on the horizon.



The ease of remote work due to high-quality and reliable telecom connectivity, combined with the AI-enabled lowering of the onsite skill requirement, makes decentralization possible and economically viable. This could change many things, from migration patterns to urbanization. For the first time in history, we may well see a reversal in rural-urban flows, affecting the very structure of the country’s economy and society. Already, especially post-pandemic, we see early signs of this, with people continuing WFH from hometowns or preferred locations like Goa.

Transportation is being transformed with the increasing use of electric vehicles in the past few years. Commuting has become far more comfortable and efficient with Metro services now in many cities. Major upgrading of the railways is underway, with new tech for passenger safety, comfort, and high-speed trains. This may transform inter-city transport in the way that Metros have eased intra-city movement.



Drone technology has made its way from military and limited recreational use to functional civilian uses. Still in its early stages, this technology is already being used for delivering medical supplies to remote areas and for a wide range of mapping and monitoring purposes. Its application in agriculture — especially precision farming — is immense and only just beginning. Home delivery of goods, circumventing road traffic, is yet being experimented with, but next year your biryani order may routinely be delivered via drone!

Other technologies too have seen great progress. Some, like renewable energy, are of great significance in terms of their long-term effect on our lives (by reducing global warming and the risk of climate change). However, despite the large potential for household solar generation, there is yet limited large-scale use. Others, like space tech, are of strategic importance to the nation and provide immense benefits and applications, generally in conjunction with other technologies. Biological science, including genetics and gene editing, have made great strides, but the impact on daily life is just beginning to manifest itself. The same applies to materials science and a number of other technologies.

Tech has transformed our lives as never before, with the past two decades improving the comfort and ease of living, exemplifying the wonders and benefits of tech. Yet, there are worries about their deep downsides and collateral damage. Concerns about privacy spring from the widespread use of Aadhaar, as also from mining and analysing other massive databases; CCTV cameras and drones threaten privacy, and enable intrusive surveillance; generative AI, rapidly-evolving artificial general intelligence (AGI) and robots could lead to joblessness and, it is feared, even threaten the ascendancy of humans; genetic engineering may unleash unknown viruses and epidemics.

 In many of these, governments could be the hero or the villain. There is also growing anxiety about the role of the private sector, particularly large tech companies. Simultaneously, burgeoning energy needs could lead to runaway temperature rises and climate change, resulting in one more threat to human survival.

Human wisdom — a trait yet to be matched by any form of AI — could help us make the right trade-offs (even compromises) that best serve all of humanity and the planet itself. 


Kiran Karnik is a public policy analyst and author. His most recent book is ‘Decisive Decade: India 2030, Gazelle or Hippo’.


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