The government appears to have got its Digital India approach right. It’s imperative that it does so, given that the Rs.1.3 trillion programme envisages a plethora of e-governance services across sectors like healthcare, education and banking, and promises to introduce transparency in the system, reduce corruption and achieve inclusive growth.
I remain optimistic that this will happen. Here are some reasons. To begin with, building on the National e-Governance Plan that was approved in 2006 under the Congress regime, the current Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government is using technologies like mobility, analytics, cloud and the Internet of Things to implement the Digital India programme that dovetails with its other initiatives like Smart Cities and Make in India.
On the surface, we get to see tangibles like the government’s Digital Locker that allows you to store important files and lets you authenticate them online with your Aadhaar number, e-bastas (‘basta’ is Hindi for satchel), and the linking of Aadhaar to bank accounts and availing of subsidies.
At the back end, these e-services ride on the GI Cloud, also known as Meghraj, where government departments have to host their cloud data, and need to seek permission from the department of electronics and information technology (DeitY) if they want to do otherwise. Over 1,700 government departments and agencies across the country already use the mobile platform, Mobile Seva.
More importantly, Digital India policy initiatives include the use of open source software and open APIs (application programming interfaces) to ensure interoperability of software across departments, collaborative application development and cloud-ready applications.
Besides, Bharat Net (earlier known as the National Optical Fibre Network, it is governed by the department of telecom), the digital infrastructure has components like common service centres (CSCs) for every panchayat. All the post offices and the CSCs are being upgraded and expanded.
However, if so much is happening, why is it that mobile calls still drop when having a conversation in Digital India? Why is it that many people in villages still do not have an Internet connection or enough content in their own vernacular languages? Why is it that India still has poor bandwidth speeds? Or why is it that we are still stuck with the concept of Smart Cities when this country should have, by now, graduated to the concept of Smart Villages and Towns?
And, of course, not to forget that many parts of our country do not even have electricity to power Digital India.
One can easily lay the blame on callous and corrupt politicians but the issue is complex. Execution, for one, will remain a challenge since Digital India has to be coordinated by DeitY, but the implementation has to be done by all government departments, state governments and the Union territories.
There are still numerous versions of PDS (public distribution system) applications in states, for which DeitY has developed an application that states can configure and use in their own domains. Besides, the system is cloud-based; so states need not buy their own data centres or servers, etc., for hosting the application. But convincing the states to do so remains a big challenge, unless you are a state like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh or Maharashtra.
Moreover, the government’s plan to set up two semiconductor units in India, and thus raise about $40 billion investment, is yet to see the light of day. By the time these plans our passed (if they eventually do so), the idea of setting up these units would have outlived its purpose of helping the country’s electronic ecosystem by reducing imports, since the technology treadmill moves very rapidly.
Second, programmes like Smart Cities and Make in India will require considerable investments in terms of manpower, technological upgrades, skill development, digital literacy and, most importantly, a plethora of standards to be laid out and adhered to. Besides, if it takes around 30-40 years to build a city, can a smart city be built in five years?
So when will India become a truly digital nation? By 2018, or by 2020, as the government has indicated?
I believe it may take many more years before India becomes a truly digital nation like Singapore or emulates a city like Barcelona. But we definitely seem to be getting there. There are still many honest politicians and bureaucrats who are sincerely trying to implement this vision.
Besides, we have a huge young population that is applying pressure on social media to make India digital. Experienced hands need to join forces with the millennials to keep up the pressure on politicians. After all, Digital India belongs to the millennials now.
Leslie D’Monte is technology editor, Mint.