Oiling cashless wheels

The threat by petroleum retailers to stop accepting credit and debit card payments led to a late-night intervention on Sunday by the Centre, with Dharmendra Pradhan, Minister for Petroleum, declaring that the protest action had been put off till January 13. Fuel dealers raised a red flag on the decision by certain banks to levy the merchant discount rate (MDR) of up to one per cent on card payments. After the demonetisation exercise began, the government had waived the service tax on the MDR surcharge from December 8 for card-based payments up to Rs. 2,000 and got banks to waive the MDR charges on debit cards till December 31, 2016. By Monday, the Petroleum Minister said that neither the consumer nor the dealers, operating on thin margins, would bear the MDR for fuel refills even after January 13. Stakeholders, he said, will absorb the cost, but it is still not clear who will bear the cost of going cashless — banks are not out of line in expecting some revenue in return for facilitating transactions through point of sale (PoS) devices. Since November 8, public sector banks have been advised by the Centre to charge a maximum of Rs. 100 a month as PoS device rentals from small merchants, and the move has benefited 6.5 lakh of the 15 lakh PoS devices. Public sector oil marketers were asked to offer a 0.75 per cent discount to customers using non-cash means to tank up. The Railways, public sector insurers and others have been asked to offer discounts or charge lower rates for cashless transactions; so more such spats could occur, although the Centre has promised to foot the bill for some of these subventions.

Petroleum outlets are particularly important for a cash-lite economy push as they handle nearly Rs. 2 lakh crore of cash a year. Queues at banks have eased, but the weekly withdrawal limits haven’t been lifted. In a situation where people are cash-strapped and the government is nudging them towards alternatives, the uncertainty of the sort created at fuel pumps should be avoided as it could lead to a crisis of confidence. Last February the Cabinet had given the nod for rationalising MDR charges. An expert panel to recommend legislative and other changes was constituted in August and it mooted greater transparency in fees for digital payments, protection for private data of consumers, a mechanism to ensure they will not be liable to pay for unauthorised transactions or system errors, and the creation of a new payments regulator. To build confidence in a less-cash economy, people nudged into a new way of life need clarity and consistency in policy along with a visible road map to secure their confidence. Lucky draws alone won’t suffice.

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