The importance of data cannot be overstated in our day and age when the online presence of our citizens is growing exponentially. Data can be of immense use, not only for private enterprises in better understanding their customers, but also to policymakers in better targeting public policies. Its use in India, however, has been somewhat curtailed amid a heated debate over the privacy risks it poses. The way forward isn’t in keeping completely off data, but in laying down the rules of its use. To that end, the Economic Survey’s discussion on the importance of data and the need to treat it as a “public good" is interesting.

The Survey notes that private entities have been at the forefront of its use. Public policy framers, however, have lagged behind. This presents an opportunity. The government has huge amounts of information on citizens collected through various departments. But much of it is stored separately. The benefits could be enormous, it believes, if all this can be integrated. For instance, if policymakers can collate income tax data with that on subsidy disbursements, it could help detect beneficiaries who may be ineligible on the basis of their income, but still are availing government subsidies. By eliminating such beneficiaries, the scarce government resources could be redirected to serve more needy citizens.

The benefits may be numerous, but an important step would be to set out the rules for data usage, and put in place secure systems to store data and quell privacy concerns. For this, greater engagement between stakeholders to thrash out their differences is necessary. This would entail long-drawn discussions involving private entities, the government and the wider public. The Economic Survey has provided a start. Let’s hope all stakeholders come together to forge a constructive solution acceptable to all.

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