Mumbai: If Union railway minister Suresh Prabhu flagged off India’s digital journey last week by reeling off terms such as analytics, drones and geospatial technology, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley’s budget speech on Monday did not disappoint on the use of technology as an economy booster.

Technology can help the government cut costs, increase convenience and usher in an era of transparency. Jaitley appears to have clearly understood this.

Among other things, Jaitley on Monday underscored how technology will be used across sectors—be it to increase tax compliance and accountability with the help of data analytics, increase digital literacy, strengthen rural markets, improve agriculture, modernise ports and airports or to store digital documents.

For instance, two new schemes to improve digital literacy—the national digital literacy mission and digital saksharta abhiyan—are aimed at enabling more Indians to get connected to, and benefit from, the Internet. Besides, it will also help rural employment generation and skill development in colleges and Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs).

Similarly, the government plans to cover about 60 million houses in rural areas in the next three years and provide digital devices like computers, tablet PCs and smartphones, and Internet usage is aimed at reducing the digital divide. According to Jaitley’s budget speech, of the 168 million rural households as many as 120 million households do not have computers and are unlikely to have digitally literate persons.

The number of Internet users in India is expected to reach 462 million by June, according to a November report by Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and market research firm IMRB. About 70% of the Internet population is expected to access cyberspace on their mobiles. However, about 40% of Internet users are from rural India, so Jaitley’s proposal may help bring more people from rural areas online and also help them participate as consumers in the country’s e-commerce.

Jaitley has also proposed a Digital Depository for school leaving certificates, as a part of its Digital India initiative, to be a one-stop house for storing all education-related certificates of schools and colleges. Given that most people, especially in rural areas do not have proper storage facilities for important documents, the tablet PCs along with an Internet connection and cloud storage can help in keeping these documents secure.

Last July, the government introduced the Digital Locker facility and linked it with the Aadhaar card, permitting users to store scanned copied of their documents such as passports, PAN cards and driving licences. The site is secured and allows users to access their documents using the cloud.

Jaitley also said that 10 private and 10 public educational institutes “will be made world-class" with the digital depository. Further, the government hopes to provide entrepreneurship education and training in 2,200 colleges, 300 schools, 500 government ITIs and 50 vocational training centres through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). However, whether these MOOCs will be respected by employers as valid certificates for jobs remains to be seen.

To strengthen agriculture, the government plans to launch an e-platform for farmers that aims to connect up to 250 agri mandis (local markets) by September 2016 and up to 585 mandis by March 2018. This will allow farmers to sell their produce in any mandi of their choice. Of course, states will have to amend their Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Acts to ensure this.

The proposal for an online Procurement System through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) will also help in ushering in transparency and convenience to the farmers through prior registration and monitoring of actual procurement. In reply to a right to information query in February 2014, sought by a Thane-based activist Om Prakash Sharma, FCI acknowledged that 1,94,502 metric tonnes of food grain worth crores of rupees had been wasted due to various reasons between 2005 and March 2013.

Advanced breeding technologies; the creation of an ‘E-Pashudhan Haat’—an e- market portal for connecting breeders and farmers; and a National Genomic Centre for indigenous breeds will further help farmers.

Jaitley devotes around five paras under the sub-head: ‘Use of Technology for creating accountability’. He said, “Technology is a boon for mankind. We plan to use technology in taxation department in a big way to make life simpler for a law abiding citizen, and also for data mining to track tax evaders."

It was around October 2015 that the government spoke about launching a PAN activity monitoring and analysis software tool that would enable the income-tax department to check the transaction history of individuals across the country and help in effective tracking of black money. The digital and smart platform was called the Income Tax Business Application-Permanent Account Number (ITBA-PAN).

This year, Jaitley said the income-tax department (ITD) will “fully expand the pilot initiative of ‘e-Sahyog’ with a view to reduce compliance cost, especially for small taxpayers". The objective of the ‘e-Sahyog’ pilot project is to provide an online mechanism to resolve mismatches in income-tax returns without requiring taxpayers to attend the income-tax office.

Other than these technology-related announcements, the government also spoke of some reductions in customs and excise duties that are likely to bring in positive headwinds for the sector.

Besides, the talk of having a statutory backing for Aadhaar might help in clearing the air on the likely privacy misuse of the online enrolment number that the government has been putting its might behind.

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