The period 2014-19 is set to witness a transition in political governance in India’s democratic landscape. A new transformation in wider governance areas and intervention, with new ideas, vision and milestones, is discernable. The country’s digital landscape for its billion plus population is set to build upon existing strengths and learning over the past decade and more.
The indications from political manifestos for the first time reflect the visionary expansion of accepting information technology as a change factor. While one vision talks about the democratisation of information and connect all 250,000 gram panchayats with high-speed broadband services to improve service delivery, then there is vision of generating information technology based jobs in rural and semi-urban areas, bring weaker sections within the ambit of IT-enabled development and make every household digitally literate.
Then there is the commitment to end corruption and devolving power directly to the people. These digital promises augurs well and show that we are on the right track on political and governance commitments to see digital transition from exclusion to inclusion for the vast majority.
As a staunch advocate of digital inclusion, a foot soldier like this author has a wish list of things the next government must and can accomplish. While the country’s IT industry contribution to national economy has seen steady, the fact of digital exclusion is real and seeks serious attention. A vast population, majority in rural areas, remains excluded from digital opportunities. More than 635,000 villages, 250,000 panchayats, 6,000 blocks and 672 districts still require digital intervention to serve communities till the last mile. More than 3 million non-governmental organizations, more than 85,000 public and community health centres, 26 million small businesses, more than 1.2 million government schools, more than 50,000 public and rural libraries are yet to see digital transformation to serve constituencies in real time. More than 100,000 departments and public agencies still require fundamental push in adopting information and communications technologies and service delivery of entitlements to users.
With a mandate to serve their constituencies, the people’s representatives are endowed with resources to fulfil public service needs as well. However, the digital representation of the constituencies, representatives, the activities under constituency development funds and governance are out of digital purview. The more than 5 million panchayat and urban local bodies functionaries are either digitally illiterate or disinclined to use technology to discharge responsibilities efficiently.
Imagine, if all the 1.8 million anganwadi health workers are equipped with digital tools like mobile phones to impact social and behavioural changes in rural India among mothers, children and adolescent girls.
In this regard, the creation of a National Digital Inclusion Mission 2020 could be timely. Such as mission could focus on four key areas of digital exclusion—access, information, services, and training and livelihood.
The mission has a wide area to focus on—all 250 backward districts, all tribal-concentrated districts, all minority concentrated blocks, all hilly areas, slums in cities and all rural clusters. The affordability challenge shall call for specific support in Internet cards (as access cards) subsidized by the government for the low-income population (akin to ration cards).
The mission can also have the following policy focus. A national online policy on digital presence of all public representations including people’s representatives at parliamentary, legislative and panchayat levels and public agencies will drive a robust and informed society with wider information and communication networks. An open and informed government and governance will receive a fillip.
One way to address funding sources could be creating a corpus while associating corporate social responsibility contribution and Universal Services Obligation Fund. The idea of a digital inclusion cess can serve resource needs. As an approach, adopting a model of implementation and delivery that calls for partnership of the government, private firms and civil society organizations for time-bound outcome will ensure inclusive national participation and responsibilities towards a robust India.
Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of mBillionth Award. He is also a member of the working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication and information technology. Follow him on Twitter @osamamanzar