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To be meaningful to our large population, a digital transformation in India has to be about addressing the unmet demand for basic goods and services. Such a revolution must deal with and indeed target, the high level of inefficiencies that abound in most segments of the economy. Sector-wise, healthcare, financial services, energy, education and skill-building, agriculture and food, and infrastructure are all examples of the vast opportunities that exist and are waiting to be tapped into. Doctors per capita in India are much lower than in say China or Brazil; approximately 120 million rural households do not have access to bank accounts; 300 million people do not have access to electricity; 500 million are without secondary education; millions of tonnes of foodgrains lost every year because of inadequate warehousing facilities and supply chain inefficiencies; not to mention the traffic snarls that choke most of our cities. These are big problems, even for a large democracy of our size and diversity, and unlikely to go away very soon. Yet, these are the very gaps that represent opportunities of incalculable magnitude for ICT (Information and Communications Technology) to focus on, and in the process help create the new India that the term “Digital India" has come to represent.

Studies indicate that these opportunities can be put under three distinct categories. These are: digitizing life and work, building smart physical systems and the whole new thinking pertaining to energy. Mobile technology, cloud, automation of knowledge work, digital payments, IoT (Internet of Things) are examples of disruptive change that we are already seeing around us. In all these areas, from what we see today and what is being envisioned 5-10 years from now, there’s a clear growth multiplier between four and nine times. For instance, the number of mobile Internet users today is between 100 million and 130 million. Ten years from now this number is estimated to be anywhere between 700 million and 900 million. The kind of services that can then be dispensed to this huge base will have a telling effect not just in terms of numbers, but also on overall economic growth and thereby our quality of life. This digital transformation envisages and indeed requires that millions of workers would have to be imparted the requisite skills on a continuously upgraded basis, in order to run operations. Tech-enabled vocational training can be imparted at an affordable cost. Economies of scale would kick in due to the sheer numbers that technology handles with ease and relish. Millions of potential jobs will be created in the process. For instance, community-based health workers using remote systems to deliver health screening, diagnostics, treatment and follow-up services or even teachers and trainers using simple e-learning kits to provide high-quality education in remote and far-flung areas where even today school buildings and good teachers are vastly deficient. These ideas, seemingly futuristic or revolutionary, will also face their own set of challenges in terms of availability of (digital) infrastructure, affordability, lack of digital literacy, local language content and incentives to make that much-needed shift. This is not merely a challenge to be faced by the government. These areas present significant opportunities and challenges for the private sector.

The master plan to make all this feasible flows out of these imperatives. The core objectives are about providing digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen, making available governance and other services on demand, and digitally empowering and enabling citizens. Providing effective digital infrastructure would encompass broadband highways, universal mobile coverage, public Wi-Fi Internet access and focus on e-manufacturing. In most cases, a combination of PPP (public-private partnership) models and contractor-vendor arrangements is likely to bring about the desired results. Digital governance and services would mean e-government, electronic service delivery and information for all. Much progress has already been made here, but the challenge lies in harmonizing and integrating various platforms and standards prevalent. To digitally empower citizens, first and foremost ICT must create jobs, train youth to be tech-enabled, and foster a culture where there’s an increased eagerness and ability to shift to ICT.

Given our ethos—diverse yet bounded together by history and destiny—Digital India cannot be an imposition. We need to create suitable platforms that provide level-playing fields to attract and influence people to make that shift willingly. Information highways are very different from our national highways, and as far as possible this ecosystem should remain open and not fall victim to usurious “tolls". While ICT itself represents a growth opportunity, of far greater significance and import is the multiplier effect that it has on growth and access across each and every sector.

We are at the cusp of a very big change. This window may not last for very long. If we are to remain globally competitive and do justice to our potential and our destiny, then as a nation we have to collaborate. This journey has already started in a small way with PPP and BOT (build-operate-transfer) models that have seen some success and many problems. Wherever governments have built successful partnerships with the private sector, it has raised the outcome several notches. At all times, governments and businesses alike must remain deeply sensitized to the digital divide that persists, and aim to address it at every possible touch point, aided by technology and business innovation. The spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation is a new wave that’s sweeping our society. Technology has become easier, cheaper and faster to adopt and adapt. This combination of democratization of technology and blossoming technology-based entrepreneurship is the wave that we have to ride to usher in our digital future. It needs to be nurtured and guarded zealously. A focused and collaborative approach backed by a clearly articulated strategy is now required to turn these ideas and plans into action. The devil, as they say, lies in the detail. The journey has already begun. Time to step on the gas!

R. Chandrashekhar is president of Nasscom

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