This article was originally published on The World Bank’s Let’s Talk Development blog.
One of the greatest marvels of our times, undoubtedly, is the digital revolution. It has pushed through human limitations to unleash an ‘e’-era of cutting-edge innovations. Be it a student taking an online course, a healthcare worker using medical software to get a holistic view of a patient’s health, a housewife paying bills online, or someone like me with a relentless urge to “google it up”, the technology has had a profound impact on our day-to-day lives. And precisely why, it also offers boundless possibilities.
With an aim to digitally connect all Indians, the Government of India has launched a program to digitize India. Coined as “Digital India,” the program is focused on building digital infrastructure, governance and services on demand, and digital empowerment of citizens. Giving a digital edge to critical focus areas like broadband highways, internet access for all, IT for jobs, electronics manufacturing, e-governance, healthcare and agriculture, the government aims to engage key sectors and industries (India and abroad) to bring in administrative transparency, expediency, and accountability.
The initiative isn’t the first of its kind, but given the institutional mandate & transformational promise, it is a remarkable one. It not only has the potential to leapfrog a nation into the digital age but also level the field for an inclusive society.
With an initial commitment by the government and India Inc to invest about USD 18 billion, the program is a game changer where services delivery in rural areas is concerned. According to a 2015 report by Deloitte and others, “Digital India: Unleashing Prosperity,” usage of of mobile devices and other available technologies can serve as complementary channels for delivery of public services and can have positive outcomes on the quality of life of the users. For example, the program introduces ‘Digital Locker’ facility for citizens to digitally store their important documents like Permanent Account Number (PAN) card, passport, mark sheets and degree certificates. It is aimed at reducing paper work for administrative officials and delivering faster results.
While ambitious, the program also makes economic sense. According to McKinsey, the adoption of key technologies across sectors spurred by the Digital India initiative could help boost India’s GDP by $550-billion to $ 1-trillion by 2025. Through cutting transaction costs, the program can enable more creative and service-oriented businesses and is estimated to create 17 million employment opportunities.
Digital India is also about reducing carbon foot prints as newer technologies reduce fuel consumption, waste, foster environment friendly workplaces leading to a greener ecosystem.
To lend more credibility to the program, the Government has roped in global technology players to formulate the execution of Digital India. For example, Google will set up base for free Wi-Fi at 500 railway stations while Microsoft will take low-cost broadband technology to five lakh villages across India .
Through placing department specific processes online and by using social media, all ministers and their respective departments have definitely brought about a major change in the way the government functions.
And now e-retailers such as Amazon and Snapdeal have also joined the bandwagon by making their website content available in regional languages and setting up kiosks to help rural India shop online!
However, this sanguinity is not without challenges. The overarching challenges facing “Digital India” are digital divide between rural and urban India in terms of broadband internet connections and access to mobile phones; poor quality data services and call drops; cyber security and privacy; and policy framework and regulations. (To know more about the challenges, please read here.)
While some of the concerns are not entirely misplaced, a sustained focus on digital literacy and digital identity will be vital in the making “Digital India” inclusive for all.
A bulk of the government services envisaged via the digital India platform relies on mobile apps. With a literacy rate of 75% and patchy connectivity, digital literacy becomes ever more important.
The National Digital Literacy Mission, announced two years ago, has a target of training 4 million citizens. Recently, the department launched an app called “Disha” to promote digital literacy. However, in the past two years, since, the first target of 1 million has hardly been achieved. Moreover the training is focused on technical aspect rather than on user-oriented digital literacy. Nonetheless, some key private sector players and NASSCOM have shown interests in partnering with the government of India to scale up the reach of the mission.
Under the program, the existing Common Services Centers (CSC) will serve as kiosk and training centers. This is probably the only step by the government in ensuring that farthest most areas are reached. However in reality, the CSCs are mostly understaffed, run by private firms and lack in terms of viable infrastructure. Resources need to be allocated in training and capacity building of these centers.
India is a country of many languages, and even though the program gives importance of bringing services to people in their language, it’s practically impossible for the government agencies to be content generator. A multi-sectoral approach and partnerships at various levels are needed to translate the digital codes into effective service delivery.
Last summer, I wrote about the remarkable initiative taken by the government of Estonia to transform the country in to e-Estonia. By providing each citizen with a secured unique identity, the government integrated all the services and made way for transparent and accountable governance.
In the Indian context, Aadhar (the unique citizen identification) is probably comparable to Estonia’s digital identity system. As of August 2015, nearly 902 million (75% of the population) enrolments have been achieved. Since the launch of the campaign, the government has been aggressively pressing for direct transfer of benefits through Aadhar. For example, the cooking gas subsidy, Jan Dhan Yojana, pensions, and scholarships schemes have been linked to Aadhaar. Technically, one can use the card for opening a bank account, IT returns, etc, but institutions still ask for more supporting documents. Moreover, recently, the Supreme Court of India has directed that an Aadhaar card is not mandatory for direct benefit transfers; but, it can be used as one of the proofs. For many poor people, who don’t have any other a Driver’s License or Permanent Account Number (PAN) card, Aadhar was envisioned as the one point document; that’s still not the case. Since, the government is discussing employing cloud computing to provide efficient governance; giving its citizen a unique identity is crucial to the implementation of digital India. The government also needs to invest in cyber security, as more people start using digital platforms, to check security breach or leakages of citizen’s data.
Going beyond the symbolism of creating new apps, the government has to dedicate part of its resources into facilitating an atmosphere where urban or rural population both can retrieve and consume information in a similar way.
Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Swati Mishra is a communications strategist with more than 8 years of experience.
Image: A passenger plays with his child while waiting to enter a crowded railway station in New Delhi. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee.