When Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Digital India Week last week in the presence of a galaxy of big industrialists (and strangely, none of them except Azim Premji was predominantly from the field of information technology), the headline grabbing fact was the Rs 450,000 crore they promised to planned to invest in digital initiatives -- with no clear time-frame or indication on the source of funds.
And there were questions, some of them justified, wondering what was new in Modi's scheme of things. India has been digital for quite a while now -- and that includes government services. The public Internet took off in India only in the mid-1990s, like most of the world, as the world truly changed only after the arrival of the Web browser. But India had positioned itself well in e-governance with the setting up fo the National Informatics Centre, an ambitious wide area network that linked district administrations, as early as in 1976 -- a year before India threw out IBM!
We have also had e-governance initiatives such as digitisation of land records in Karnataka and elsehwere, service portals in states in which N.Chandrababu Naidu-led government of undivided Andhra Pradesh was a pioneer, and the Bhagidari (partnership) scheme of then chief minister Sheila Dixit in Delhi. Above all, taxpayers have been blessed with e-filing of returns for a while now.
However, what sets the Modi government apart is its systematic, broad-based approach to participative governance through its MyGov (www.mygov.in) initiative. It is truly an ambitious platform that makes governance inclusive from below across a range of activities. Think of it as a "chai pe charcha" happening 24/7, for 365 days a year, on the Web.
What's more, it coincides with the explosion of smartphones in India into hundreds of millions of hands. When historians look back, what this does to governance might matter most in making India truly digital. To use geek slang, this is the killer app to watch out for, more than big talk from tycoons.
What we need to watch out for, though, is whether the "charcha" truly influences "kharcha" (government spending). If opinion polls and utility apps are made truly responsive and pervasive, this can happen. Digital lockers for documents used by common Indians and e-signatures for day-to-day government activities can potentially revolutionise India and lead to a "paperless sarkar" or sorts.