Idiocy of Automation and Electronic Processing: Are we ready for it?

Automation and electronic processing via net are becoming ubiquitous. E-banking and E-commerce have gained wide acceptance in society, especially during the last two years when mobility was restricted due to the pandemic and periodic lockdowns. Many, especially the young, are trading in shares and investing through the net. Crypto trading is entirely on the net – even youngsters who are not so well-off are into it. Identification via Aadhar is via the net. Income tax return is being filed electronically. Government is promoting digitization in a big way. Businesses in India are following through and moving towards automation and digitization. But is society ready for it?

Getting a passport, a driving license, paying a fine for a traffic violation, etc. are now possible via the net. Some feel that this has reduced corruption. Theoretically, this should displace the middle man who is often a conduit for the bribe to be paid to the officialdom during public dealing. All this sounds great but has it simplified the life of the average citizen? Many educated Indians are still afraid of automation since they are unable to cope with it. It is an unknown and they fear making a mistake.

I have been a science student and first used computers in the mid-1970s when we had to learn Fortran and use cards. Time had to be booked for the use of the then biggest computers, IBM 370. Now hugely better computing power is available on the desktops and the tiny mobile phone. One can instantly do one’s work. In 1986 I started using a desk top when it used the five and quarter inch disk with two drives. So, I am quite familiar with the use of computers and the internet and I am not afraid of using it. Yet, my life has got complicated since much time is wasted because often the systems are poorly designed and not user friendly. Efficiency should have meant that the citizen saves time and effort.

My own recent experience suggests that automation and digitization are taking up more and more of time, leaving less time for the useful work that one is required to do in life. Let me list some of the recent cases that compel me to write this piece.

1. Most recently, Insurance claim under Mediclaim for hospitalization was only partially paid even after prior approval was granted. For the rest, I was told that I have to file separately after paying cash. This defeats the idea of cashless payment and ease of working. The entire paperwork has to be done again. To begin with, getting cashless payment approved required much running around so that admission was delayed. The same thing happened at the time of discharge which got delayed by hours.

2. A payment of installment to ABSLI was due on March 31. I had not opted for automatic deduction of installment from my bank account knowing that things can go wrong. On receiving intimation from the company I made the payment vide credit card and as matter of abundant caution informed the company and the bank through which the policy was purchased. To my horror, on the due date the installment was again deducted from my bank account. I informed the concerned people that the installment has been deducted twice and one of them should be refunded. To my utter surprise, a week later, I received two refunds. Again I informed the relevant persons that this has happened. But, I started receiving notice from the company that the payment is delayed. It took 15 days and repeated calls to rectify the situation. To my disadvantage, it will be treated as a delayed payment and I lost interest since the deduction was made by breaking a FD automatically.

3. One day suddenly a policeman came to the door to serve a court summon. He did not know what it was for. When I asked if I could settle it on line he said that was no more possible. On checking online, it appeared that one and a half year back it was noted that my car did not have the new high security number plate. No intimation of this was ever received. So, now, one day would go in court appearance and payment of the fine.

4. Regarding the income tax return filed the preceding year, I received a notice that certain deductions were rejected and that additional tax needs to be paid. On filing an appeal it was reversed after a few months but much time was wasted. This was not the first time that such a thing has happened. Electronic filing and faceless scrutiny of returns sound great but chartered accountants are a worried lot since getting rectification of orders is not easy. Also, the nation seems to be headed towards much litigation.

5. I have been in the process of having property transferred from my mother’s name to my name after her death. For the transfer of shares considerable harassment was caused by various Registrar &Transfer Agents (R&TA). They all claim to work and respond to queries via net but actually they do not and want hard copy of everything. They also do not inform all at once their requirements and over time ask for more papers.

So, at times even after a year and a half and submission of papers several times, the process remains incomplete. A few examples would clarify what I am saying:

a. R&TA for Colgate responded to my letter commiserating at my death and suggesting that transmission could be done in my late mother’s name.

b. R&TA for L&T wrote back that they were sorry that my wife had passed away when I had only asked them to record our signature, verified by the bank manager.

c. R&TA for Colgate and L&T wrote back that they held undelivered shares since our address had changed. My repeated email requests along with full documentation, like scan copies of PAN, banker’s attestation of signature, etc., to let me know the procedure to claim the undelivered shares were stonewalled. They kept asking for a written request. On sending a written request they sent a few forms that needed to be filled up. These forms are available on the net and other companies had simply sent the forms via email. So, needlessly, several months elapsed.

d. R&TA for Gujarat Narmada wrote back giving the procedure of transmission of name when it had already been done and all I had asked was for them to record the correct bank account number.

e. R&TA for Tata Robin Frazer kept changing the number of shares in the joint portfolio with my mother. Consequently, papers had to be repeatedly filed over one and a half year. Unlike some other companies which had done the transmission for the shares sent to them they wanted to do the transmission for all the shares at once.

f. R&TA for East India Hotels has repeatedly rejected papers for dematerialization of shares on one pretext or the other over the last 2 years. This was most peculiar since Rights shares had been allotted in dematerialized form almost two year back and the KYC for the folio was already done. Even the Rights shares were not initially credited into the demat account and reminders had to be sent. The shares I held were sent for dematerialization but repeatedly returned for mismatch of signature, address, need for affidavit, witness signature and finally new forms were sent for signature attestation. All this could have been communicated in one go.

g. One company returned the shares sent for dematerialization with some objections but a few days later the DP informed me that the shares had been dematerialized. Such confusion.

h. These are only some of the problems that I have encountered since 2019 and many of them are continuing. Problems became acute since due to the pandemic getting papers from banks and getting affidavits became difficult. Some companies did write saying that they were willing to accept scan copies of documents sent via email but finally they asked for physical copies. Some companies did write back saying that their office was not working fully so there would be delay. Enormous amount of time and effort has been wasted in trying to get the paper work done.

i. The requirement of an affidavit on stamp paper notarized by public notary is a scam. The notary does not even look at the person getting notarization done and does not seem to even read what is being notarized. A simple request letter and a verification of the signature by the banker should have been enough. The banker at least knows the client. The Notary does not know the person.

6. I do not pay GST but most small businesses and the Chartered Accountants are pulling their hair out given its complexity. It is entirely digitized via the net but it is proving to be difficult to handle. Any number of court cases have come up and many fake firms have emerged to claim fake input credit. Many small businesses have closed down as a result of the difficulties.

The above points to the time taken up. But more importantly, attention gets diverted from one’s work. So, it is unclear how much efficiency has been brought about in life as a result of the automation and net based instant communication? When this is the case with me who is computer literate and not afraid of using it, I wonder what it must be for most senior citizens and large numbers of those who have little education and are intimidated by the idea of using computers to do their work.

Getting a passport and driver’s license has indeed been simplified for the net savvy but it is not so simple for those who are not net and computer savvy.

Apart from the problem of people’s aversion to using computers and net, the systems are not properly designed. Digitization theoretically sounds great but for it to work, rules have to be simplified, citizens need to be trusted, unnecessary paper work eliminated (like the need for notarized affidavits) and systems designed to be user friendly.

Arun Kumar is a veteran Indian economist. He studied at Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Princeton University, USA, and taught economics at JNU for three decades till 2015. His areas of interest include public finance, development economics, public policy and macroeconomics. Kumar has written widely on these subjects, both in the popular press and for academic journals. At present, he is the Malcolm S. Adiseshiah Chair Professor at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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