Home / Opinion / The difficulties of doing business in a Digital India

New Delhi: Whenever the second generation joins a family business, it does so with a certain idealism. Having a newly minted lawyer in the family meant that we were determined to improve the way our family business of paint manufacture interacted with the authorities. Instead of hiring a bevy of consultants for compliance—who would file the paperwork and occasionally “buy peace"—we were keen on doing it by the book. Our dad smiled beatifically and gave us free rein, almost as if to say “have at it, kids".

He knew that dealing with compliance requirements for manufacturing units was the ultimate character-building exercise, having endured year upon year of licence raj from a wide variety of “inspectors". In our case, from 11 departments: labour inspectors, pollution control inspectors, and fire inspectors, among others.

The fact that this compliance was dependent on scraps of paper that need to be maintained over decades made it that much harder for a small business unit such as ours. So, when these departments started touting online compliance systems and using terms like “single-window clearance", we were cautiously optimistic.

That optimism didn’t last very long. To know why, we must visit each and every government website which claims to offer an online solution to a compliance requirement. So let’s do just that and begin with the big one: GST.

Going to gst.gov.in is a bit like watching the Indian contingent at the Olympics: you’re most likely to be disappointed, but on the odd occasion, you’ll witness a semblance of competence. In the event the website somehow loads, our troubles don’t end there. There are numerous issues with the useability of the GST portal including: (1) having to make a payment by manually calculating tax liability before being able to file returns, (2) Inability to add or modify uploaded invoices in the offline tool without encountering terms like “generate fresh JSON", and (3) E-sign requiring the latest version of Java, on Internet Explorer 11+ with the right service pack edition of Windows.

These are just a few of the issues with the portal, and the story only gets worse for other websites like the department of factories and boilers, which has the distinction of having a URL that was purpose-built to frustrate a layman.

If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, registering as a new user on this platform is a security nightmare. There is no option to choose your own password at the time of registration. Instead, you enter your email ID and a password is emailed to you. Worse still, the password generator seems to employ some absurdly childish method, e.g. I chose “sahilkini" as my username, and the password that was sent to me was “SahKin998". Cutting edge stuff indeed.

http://labour.kar.nic.in/ is another gem. Twenty percent of the screen real estate is dedicated, in shameless sycophancy, to a photo of the state labour minister. Another 10% to a flash player which of course won’t load on any self-respecting browser. And each link only leads to websites that should have died a painful death in the early nineties, with no sign of a login screen.

These issues are symptomatic of a much larger IT problem currently undermining the government’s aspirations for a digital India. Currently, a government department uses one of three options if it needs to get any software made: (1) Use its own department-level IT cell which means it’ll have to create an island of competence in an area where they have no expertise, (2) Deal with the NIC, which can’t even make an email service that anyone wants to use, which is why everyone in the government uses Gmail, or (3) employ a tendering process which results in software being built by the lowest bidder yielding wonders like the GST portal.

None of these work. And the problem will only get worse with the push for digitization. So what should Bharat sarkar do?

One answer would be to look to models employed by other governments. For example, the US government in the wake of the healthcare.gov catastrophe, created 18F—a fast-moving government agency for digital services modelled on lean start-up principles. It’s now a 200-person team of engineers, designers, and product managers that serves as the US government’s captive software start-up.

The UK government also constituted something similar—Government Digital Service, a 300-person team that tackles tech projects.

An IDS or Indian Digital Service might just be the answer. However, any organization is only as good as the people that staff it.

And since technology is such a fast moving target, engineers and others staffing the organization must be equal to the task. This cannot be achieved through a life-long appointment like in the case of the IAS.

Instead, imagine an organization staffed by the digital equivalent of the Indian Army’s Short Service Commission led by a senior technocrat. A 3- to 5-year fellowship with the government where elite engineers from every tech company and IIT commit to building the digital infrastructure of the nation under the condition that their technical and design decisions will not be second-guessed by babus who don’t know the first thing about technology. Instead, public accountability driven by extreme transparency will be their review mechanism.

Each department would write a short document detailing their requirements and the team would be at liberty to design the system so that it fits into the larger digital infrastructure underpinning the operations of other ministries and departments. They will be required to use open standards and open source code available for public review. Their performance would be measured by the standard engineering measures of uptime, latency, daily active users, and so on, all published live on a public dashboard. Lapses in performance could then be spotted by civil society and reported instantly, thus driving a constantly improving system.

If we somehow manage to get this right, maybe, just maybe my family business won’t have to deal with paper scraps and site counters ever again. And then, we can finally say that it’s a little easier to do business in a new digital India.

Sahil Kini is a principal with Aspada Investment Advisors. Sulaj Kini is a director with Bell Paints.

The Bharat Rough Book is a column on building businesses for the middle of India’s income pyramid. Sahil Kini’s Twitter handle is @sahilkini

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