The long road to Digital India
Mumbai: India’s low ranking on the Networked Readiness Index (NRI) 2016, a key component of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) The Global Information Technology Report 2016 that was released on 6 July, reveals that the government’s Digital India programme has to overcome steep challenges before it can claim success.
Not only has India been ranked 91 among 138 countries in 2016, but WEF’s figures also show that India has actually fallen 23 places in the NRI ranking in the last four years.
In 2013, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was still in power, India was ranked 68 on the NRI index out of 144 countries. The following year, when the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government took over in May 2014, the ranking slipped to 83 out of 148 countries.
In 2015, India’s ranking fell to 89 out of 143 countries. And this year, it slipped further to 91 out of 138 countries.
One can argue that Digital India’s Rs.1.3 trillion programme—which 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—was only given the green light in 2015.
However, one cannot ignore the fact that the Modi government is simply building on the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) that was approved in 2006 under the previous government.
The NDA government is now 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. But the 2016 WEF report underscores that despite improvements in its political and regulatory environment (78th, up four in 2016) and in its business and innovation environment (110th, up five), India slipped two positions to an overall rank of 91 from 89 in 2015.
The report attributed the drop, in part, to the fact that other countries are moving ahead at higher speeds but it was categorical that lack of infrastructure (Rank: 114) and low levels of skills among India’s population (Rank: 101) remain the key bottlenecks to widespread information and communications technology (ICT) adoption, especially in terms of individual usage (Rank: 120).
On a positive note, one can indeed 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. It’s also true that these e-services ride on a robust GI Cloud, also known as Meghraj, and that over 1,700 government departments and agencies across the country already use the mobile platform, Mobile Seva.
Besides, Bharat Net (earlier known as the National Optical Fibre Network, governed by the department of telecom), the digital infrastructure has components like common service centres (CSCs) for every panchayat. All post offices and the CSCs are being upgraded and expanded.
Moreover, Digital India seems to be picking up pace on the broadband front too.
A July report by Akamai, a US-based content delivery and cloud services provider, suggests that India had an average 3.5 Mbps Internet speed. Yet, it was the lowest average Internet speed in the Asia Pacific region. Akamai’s report revealed that South Korea remained on the top of the list with an average Internet speed of 29 Mbps and a peak speed of 103.6 Mbps. The peak speed in India was measured at 25.5 Mbps.
However, even as so much is apparently happening, mobile calls still drop when having a conversation in Digital India. Besides, many people in villages still do not have an Internet connection or enough content in their mother tongues.
The WEF 2016 report highlights that a third of the Indian population is still illiterate (Rank: 95) and a similar share of youth is not enrolled in secondary education (Rank: 103). Only 15 out of 100 households have access to the Internet and mobile broadband remains a privilege of the few, with only 5.5 subscriptions for every 100 people. This is in spite of the fact that affordability has long been one of the strengths of the Indian ICT ecosystem, with the country ranking 8th this year in this area.
A deep divide persists between well-connected metropolitan hubs and remote rural areas, where even the most basic infrastructure is insufficient. The WEF report, though, does acknowledge that India’s performance in terms of providing online services and allowing e-participation “has so far been in line with that of peer countries”, but “far from the global best (57th and 40th ranks respectively)”.
However, in our enthusiasm to sing paeans to Digital India, let’s also not forget that many parts of our country lack basic electricity to power Digital India.
Execution too, will continue to 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. Besides, 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.
WEF’s network readiness index numbers are indeed a wake-up call for the Indian government.