Decoding the nitty-gritty of Digital India initiative

  • Ranjeet Rane, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 10, 2015 14:28 IST
Launched on July 1, 2015, the Digital India initiative aims to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. (HT File Photo)

On his recent visit to the Silicon Valley, Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacted with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and emphasised among other things that his government is now moving away from being in the business of business and instead calling upon private organisations to tap into the immense possibilities offered by the Indian market.

Modi added the government plans to be a facilitator, working towards creating an enabling business environment and removing bottlenecks that have historically throttled their entry into India. He presented the idea of a “Digital India” to the IT industry leaders in the United States and asked them to invest in this initiative.

Here is all about PM Modi’s push:

What is the Digital India initiative?

Launched on July 1, 2015, this initiative aims to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. Digital India is a framework that brings together a large number of ideas and thoughts into a single, comprehensive vision so that each of them is seen as part of a larger goal. It is designed such that each individual element stands on its own but is also part of the larger picture.

Digital infrastructure

Provisioning of high-speed broadband connectivity as a utility to citizens with priority for rural areas. It envisages citizens with a unique digital identification that is lifelong, online and can be authenticated. This will be aided by the push for a secure and safe cyberspace in the country.

Governance and service delivery

Provisioning of all government and citizen-facing services through an always-available online platform. Promotion of service delivery in Indian languages for inclusive and active participation.

Digital empowerment

Giving the power of information in the hands of the citizens, digital empowerment will entitle digital literacy and universal access to digital resources.

How will this be achieved on the ground?

To implement this initiative, nine pillars (plans) have been proposed. These are essentially quantifiable outcomes of the policy and present a road map as to how each of the above three visions can be achieved.

Broadband highways – While the focus is on providing broadband connectivity to 2.5 lakh gram panchayats by 2017, urban areas will also see a change of existing regulations to mandate inclusion of communication infrastructure in new real estate developments. Integration of existing programs like the National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN), State Wide Area Network (SWAN) and the National Knowledge Network (NKN) is being proposed to create a unified National Information Infrastructure (NII) by March 2017.

Universal access to mobile connectivity – Increasing mobile network penetration and covering gaps in present mobile connectivity by bringing 42,300 villages under mobile connectivity by 2018.

Public internet access programme – Taking forward the broadband connectivity to villages under a separate National Rural Internet Mission with additional funding of Rs. 4750 crores. It also aims to convert 1.5 lakh post offices into multi-service centres in the next two years.

E-governance – The plan is to improve the existing processes and delivery of citizen-facing services by integration of UIDAI, payment gateways, mobile solutions and focusing on electronic data interchange over the paper transactions happening today. It aims to transform existing government processes by adopting work flow automation and implementation of real-time public grievance redressal systems.

E-Kranti – Electronic service delivery scheme focused on education, health, agriculture, financial inclusion, legal, security and planning processes. Notable among these are plans to ensure broadband connectivity to all schools, pan-India patient information exchange, real-time market inputs for farmers, mobile banking, provision of e-courts and a National Cyber Security Coordination center. E-Kranti is a restructuring of National e-Governance Program (NeGP) with a focus on above mentioned sectors.

Information for all – A move aimed towards transparency and accountability in government-citizen interaction, it aims to provide citizens open access to government documentation and data. It promotes two-way communication between citizens and government with a provision of online messaging to citizens on special occasions.

Electronics manufacturing – It sets an ambitious goal of net zero electronic imports by 2020. This calls for a coordinated effort in areas of taxation, skill development, procurement policies and ensuring a business-friendly policy environment.

IT for jobs – With a target of creating jobs in IT sector for one crore rural youth this programme aims to provide vocational training to people in smaller towns and villages. It also calls for setting up of BPO operations in the northeastern states coupled with training of delivery agents to run viable businesses delivering IT services. The telecom service providers within the country are also expected to train a predominantly rural workforce to enable expansion of mobile services in rural areas.

Early harvest programme – Aimed at enhancing connectivity with government departments as well as with citizens, there is a plan to develop an indigenous email application to facilitate government communication. It also calls for biometric attendance systems to be implemented in all government departments to ensure efficiency of government employees.

What makes Digital India different?

The main difference between Digital India and the programmes in the past is that there is a sense of understanding of the need for implementing it holistically. The policy document moves away from the sector-specific programs and envisages a framework that covers the entire digital ecosystem in the country. It aims to address the issue of the presently stressed infrastructure and strengthen connectivity at the grass roots to enable the spread of information to the yet unconnected (about 60 crore citizens).

The initiative aims at addressing the lacunae in the existing programmes like NOFN and NeGP while makes provisions for subsuming them under a single programme. The policy document also lists down the expected challenges in implementation like the need to restructure the National Informatics Centre (NIC), recruitment of programme managers, chief information officers (CIO) and chief technology officers (CTO) from outside of the existing government setup and most importantly the need to actively engage the private sector to provide the scalability and resources that the government may not necessarily have at its disposal.

What about net neutrality?

The Digital India initiative aims to address the fundamental issue of access as situation in India is different than that in advanced societies where net neutrality debates are mainstream due to “fast lanes” proposed by service providers. We have a weak broadband infrastructure, spectrum is available for a high premium and power supply is unreliable. On the other hand direct bank transfers, biometric identification and financial inclusion are being pushed through digital platforms. The provision of access takes priority over the unverified concerns of neutrality in such a scenario.

The fact that the most vocal critique of Facebook’s program is happening on Facebook itself speaks a lot about how the need for access triumphs over fears of internet censorship in India at present. To hold back the Digital India initiative over unfounded fears would amount to a lost opportunity for a large section of society that needs to be empowered with basic access to begin with.

Why roll out Digital India when issues of malnutrition, open defecation, farmer suicides are still not resolved?

Budgetary allocation for social sector schemes is not being diverted towards funding of Digital India, so the funds for programmes that aim to address malnutrition, open defecation and agrarian distress to name a few will still be available. The funding pattern for this initiative is such that approximately Rs. 1 lakh crore will be taken from existing schemes under DeitY and DoT and remaining Rs 13,000 crore will be allocated for new schemes. It is clear that the government will primarily engage in viability gap funding and create a favorable environment for private investors to drive the projects. Such comparisons were earlier drawn for the Indian space programme, with each satellite launch being compared with the absolute number of BPL population in the country.

Why engage the private sector in the implementation of a government scheme?

If we aspire to become a global leader in the not so distant future then we need to ask ourselves as to how long do we want our governments to be in the business of business? Why does the government need to own stakes in bakeries as well as in a nuclear power plants? Are we not stretching the working capabilities of our government by expecting it to make provisions for every utility that we aspire to avail access to as citizens?

Digital India, with an active participation of the private sector and regulatory oversight by autonomous institutions, can become a template for participative policy implementation in the country. Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that platforms like Facebook’s, Google’s Loon project and Microsoft’s White Spectrum project will be at the forefront of taking internet access to the yet unconnected across the globe and not governments.

To conclude, Digital India subsumes many existing government schemes, restructures them for implementation in a synchronized manner with a focus on improvement of processes with minimal cost overheads. The common branding of the programme as Digital India is to highlight its transformative impact in the long term. As citizens of the world’s most vibrant democracy, we should put our weight behind the programme and ensure that we contribute to its success by any and every means possible.

Views express here are personal. The author works with Symantec Software on digital certificates and encryption and is a contributor for the strategic affairs think tank, Takshashila Institution.

Read: For Digital India, fix the tech gap in the government first

How e-learning is evolving to meet the Digital India challenge

It’s important to get net neutrality debate right in India: Facebook

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