Three-and-a-half months after the launch of the Digital India initiative, there is a feeling of directionlessness in many sections of the government, companies and the community of activists about how to implement the ambitious programme and make the best of it.
In the last 100 days or so, I have met at least 100 people occupying decision-making capacities in the media, industry, international organizations, non-government organizations and, the state and central government. In all the years that the Internet has been in India, I have not witnessed such an urge for digital inclusivity as I am seeing now.
The people I have met in this regard fall broadly into three categories: one, executives from private companies who want to spend corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds in the digital domain; two, government officials in non-IT departments keen on using digital tools for citizen services; and three, non-profit and civil society organisations which want to adopt digital tools, mainly social media, to improve their work. How do these various entities relate themselves to the Digital India programme? Let me narrate a day’s engagements just to show how everyone I have met wants to help with digital initiatives or benefit from them.
On 28 November, I got up at 5.30am, an hour earlier than usual. I had to attend a breakfast meeting at 7.30am with some senior executives at one of India’s largest IT companies. We discussed how we could use various digital tools to improve the developmental indices of our country, especially through mobile and broadband. We discussed a lot about the poor. I felt they wanted to understand the social issues and context of the country, and the intricacies and challenges of working in rural areas. I left the meeting with a thought that there are many other firms interested in working in rural India, but are hindered by lack of understanding. India’s private sector, especially its CSR officials, needs serious exposure and capacity building to understand rural communities, their culture, practices, needs and necessities.
My next meeting was at 9.30am with a government official who works with a ministry that deals with the rural job guarantee scheme, among others. We discussed how to collaborate and learn to create a dependable information dissemination infrastructure to make people aware of their rights; how the centre could create a paid facilitation team for the efficient delivery of the job scheme; and how to create a system of enabling the government infrastructure to work rather than lie idle. From this and several such meetings with government officials, I learnt that there was huge frustration among them that they had an enormous responsibility, but could not translate their good intentions to action due to bad infrastructure and total systemic inertia.
The Centre is also facing a huge challenge due to the rapid spread of technology and digital tools. The adoption level of digital media among people is already many decades ahead of what the government understands of information and communications technology tools.
My next meeting at 11 am was with some rights-based activists, who wanted help with social media. These are very energetic and conscious young people constantly thinking of ways to get basic rights for the poor. They want to reach out to the millions of Indians via social media. Their immediate objective was to engage 20,000 people attending a gathering in Delhi. All of them want to learn the use of social media. I learned from the meeting that many people working in the social sector do not understand the social media, while those on social media perhaps do not understand social issues.
My next two meetings were over the phone. The first conference call was with an international organization based in Geneva working with broadband and telecommunications. The discussion was purely to explore how these technologies could be deployed in remote areas to ensure growth and development through connectivity.
Before I could call it a day, I spoke to one of India’s largest funding trusts, where we decided to establish at least 60 digital resource centres at the village level in partnership with five types of organisations: the funder, the implementer, a local NGO, local self-help group and a telco.
There are no short cuts in adopting digital tools; the challenge is coming out of our mindsets.
Osama Manzar is founder & director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and Chair of Manthan Award. He is also a member of working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication & IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar