In November of 2016, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an announcement that sent the country’s population into a tailspin.
Overnight, 86% of the country’s currency became invalid, as the 500 rupee ($7.30) and 1,000 ($15) rupee notes ceased to be legal tender. It was a bold move to combat corruption by reducing the country’s reliance on cash for business transactions. But there was also another factor in play.
India wants to become a digital society. By removing the most commonly used notes, and forcing those with cash stuffed under their mattresses to deposit it in a bank, the country hoped that people would be persuaded to move their financial transactions onto digital platforms.
It’s just one of many ways the Indian government wants to transform the way it does things.
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Before the assault on cash, India had already taken steps to become an e-government. For the last few years, it has steadily been enrolling its citizens onto a national database. Aadhaar is the world's largest biometrics database, with 1.2 billion Indian residents enrolled so far.
As the fastest-growing economy with the second-largest population in the world, India has much to gain from opportunities provided by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Its path towards digitization has been given a further boost by the new Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution recently opened in India by the World Economic Forum.
The Delhi-based Centre, part of a network that includes the USA, China and Japan, will work in collaboration with the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) to co-design new policies and protocols for emerging technologies with leaders from business, academia, start-ups and global organizations.
Artificial intelligence, blockchain and drones will be its initial focus.
The programme has already partnered with several leading AI technology players to implement AI projects in critical areas such as agriculture and health.
“One of the most important things which governments can do is create a National AI Strategy,” explains Kay Firth Butterfield, Head of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at the World Economic Forum.
“India has been one of the world leaders in doing so and, as the world’s largest democracy and one of the biggest internal markets, is well positioned to have considerable influence.
“The government, in its strategy document, has addressed significant areas where AI can advance the human condition, such as healthcare and the environment. It did not neglect the concerns which have arisen around AI, including data privacy, transparency, accountability and bias.”
Making blockchain mainstream
According to PwC’s Global FinTech Survey 2017, financial services companies in India believe that blockchain - the technology behind cryptocurrencies - will shortly move into the mainstream.
More than half (56%) of those in the financial services industry in India aim to engage with blockchain in some form and eventually make it a part of their core business.
The three key areas that blockchain will have a notable effect on are payments/funds transfer infrastructure, digital identity management and post-trade settlements. But the technology also has many wider uses.
Blockchain has brought transparency and greater efficiency to financial transactions, and could do the same to global supply chains, cross-border data flows and land records, as well as the future provision of government services and natural resource management.
Sheila Warren, Project Head of Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology at the World Economic Forum, believes that blockchain use in India could inspire other countries:
“India has already engaged in significant and unique experimentation in the identity and payments spaces, both of which are areas of deep interest for the blockchain community,” she says.
“Leveraging the lessons learned from these experiments will pave the way for an inclusive, comprehensive approach to the deployment of blockchain technology, which we hope will include and better the lives of all Indian citizens, as well as prove to be a model for other nations around the world.”
The power of drones
Prime Minister Modi wants to double farmers' income by 2022, and drones might help him get there. The Indian Directorate General for Civil Aviation last month issued its first policy allowing for commercial drone operations.
Although they will be used by a small number of trained operators, the benefits of drone technology have the potential to touch the lives of all 1.3 billion Indian citizens. Agriculture and public health are just two of the areas where drones could make a lasting impression.
The Indian state Government of Maharashtra, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is planning to undertake the largest drone mapping operation in history, initially covering two districts of the state.
These maps will be completed during the winter Rabi cropping season, with the data housed in a utility that will be used by government departments and private sector companies to help provide precise information about crop yields, soil health, pest outbreaks and potential irrigation upgrades to farmers and others working in the agricultural economy.
In addition, delivery drones could help bring vaccines to remote clinics to support public health campaigns on a just-in-time basis while maintaining necessary temperature conditions.
Rising up the ranks
More broadly, India is rising up the ranks both in terms of innovation and competitiveness.
Since 2015, India has consistently improved its Global Innovation Index (GII) rankings. Last year, it moved up five places to rank 57th out of 126 countries, while coming first for ICT service exports. It has a high number of science and engineering graduates and demonstrates a remarkable innovation capability relative to its GDP per capita.
In addition, India has moved up the Global Competitiveness Report’s rankings on technological readiness - to 40th out of 137. That is largely due to improvements in indicators such as internet bandwidth per user, mobile phone and broadband subscriptions and internet access in schools.
The country also has scope to build on its tech start-up scene, which already boasts more companies than anywhere other than the US and UK. And it has scored highly in the Inclusive Development Index on access to finance for business development.
India’s readiness to embrace new technologies is set to inspire the rest of the world.
Projects developed at the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution India can be scaled across India and then more globally, while project teams at Centres in San Francisco, Tokyo and Beijing can work with their Delhi counterparts to share findings and accelerate impact.