The government is gearing up for its next big mission, a Rs 113,000-crore plan that aims to usher in a digital revolution by moving everything online, from education to public services to bureaucracy.
Aptly called ‘e-kranti’, it comes under the Narendra Modi government’s ‘Digital India’ initiative and is quite simply the world’s most ambitious broadband project — but one that will have to overcome countless hurdles, big and small. It seeks to provide digital access to all citizens, from the rural and elderly to the poor, according to the government blueprint that HT has viewed.
As a rapidly modernising India embarks on a drive to move governance online, bridging the so-called digital divide is essential. State entitlements, such as pensions, and public services, such as passports, will move to cloud, a computing term for universally accessible online storage space.
The public distribution system (PDS) that supplies subsidised foodgrains under the National Food Security Law will be completely integrated with Aadhar, the cradle-to-grave digital identity card that every Indian must have. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh already have online PDS systems.None of this can happen without expanding digital access. So, the Centre aims to expand its rural internet coverage to 250,000 villages by 2017 from the existing 130,000. In two years, 150,000 post offices will be transformed into multi-utility centres (providing a range of government services, banking for instance, and not just postal services). Some 250,000 government schools will get broadband and free WiFi and all schoolbooks will have e-versions.
The disadvantages of not being digitally included are much bigger today than they were in an earlier era.
In emerging nations such as India, “people who do not have access to the Internet are much more likely to be socially and economically excluded”, according to the Economic Intelligence Unit report that prescribes best practices for digital inclusion.
For the government, the digital push could bring immediate benefits in terms of cost savings in delivery of public services. Cash transfers of pensions alone could trim delivery costs by a third, according to a study commissioned by the previous government.
High-speed broadband is already a critical infrastructure that will transform emerging economies in decades to come. According to a 2009 World Bank report, in low- and middle-income countries such as India, every 10% increase in broadband penetration could increase GDP by 1.4 percentage points.
The digital drive is also integral to the government’s plan to create 100 smart cities. Under the plan, all cities with a population of more than a million will get public WiFi hotspots. All government communication will move to a universal secure email client.
The ‘Digital India’ blueprint revolves round ‘nine pillars’ — broadband highway, e-governance, electronics manufacturing leading to ‘zero import’, universal phone access, electronic delivery of services, jobs, rural internet, information for all and ‘early harvest’ programmes. And the plan, which sets specific deadlines for some of these ‘pillars’, will not be easy to achieve.
For instance, India will need a smart payment system that works for government services, experts say. According to a 2012 report, 25% of attempts to book a ticket on the Indian Railways website end in failure. Investment is another big test. Some of the more difficult challenges are cultural: one-fifth of Indians who have smartphones don’t think it is a reliable way to transact.