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An informed choice

Technological innovations can help the UPA government deliver on its social agenda for the poor, writes Sachin Pilot.

india Updated: Oct 28, 2012 22:50 IST

We live in the information age. Today, more information reaches us than at any other time in history. New information added to the internet in a month now amounts to more than the content of the Library of Congress in the United States, the largest library in the world.

It is said that from the dawn of civilisation till 2003 humanity accumulated about five exabytes of data; today that much is added in two days! As per a recent forecast, by 2016, the global internet traffic will reach an annual rate of 1.3 zettabytes per year, in a layman’s term that amounts to roughly 38 million DVDs per hour. This means that more traffic will traverse the global network in 2016 than all prior “internet years” (1984-2012) combined. About 3.4 billion people will be online in 2016, half of whom will be in the Asia-Pacific region. Nineteen billion connections will dot the planet. Already, there are 919 million mobile subscribers in India, thanks to low tariffs resulting from intense competition.

Internet penetration in India at present is at 120 million users, but this is rapidly increasing. In 2016, India will have about 400 million people online, most of them on mobile devices. The reason why I am citing these statistics is because though these numbers are impressive, they would mean little unless they can be pressed to serve a larger social purpose.

From a public policy perspective, technology is what technology does. I believe we are at the threshold of a paradigm shift in our governance and delivery structures.

Technology has sown the present with seeds of opportunities that can be leveraged to reap not just economic but also social benefits. I believe now is the time when our efforts at providing UID numbers (aadhaar), direct cash transfers (of subsidy, pensions, scholarships) to the needy, broadband connectivity to panchayats, e-governance initiatives can be clubbed to truly take advantage of our nation’s inherent strengths in the space of information and communication technologies.

Such powerful connectivity would carry huge growth potential globally and nationally. Our economy would become ever-more tightly coupled with the world economy. A closer interplay between domestic and global economic forces would boost growth and create additional economic opportunities.

To the extent that electronic access through information and communication technologies (ICTs) becomes even more ubiquitous in India, it would also be the predominant platform for achieving inclusive growth. Our justifiably proud IT growth story is tempered by humbler achievements in tackling issues like poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and illness. As a nation, we have to continuously marshal political will and resources to address these issues. Historically, these have taken the form of legislation, subsidies, reservations and financial support like pensions and scholarships for those with deprived backgrounds. The Right to Education and Right to Work are new entitlements with the potential to transform the lives of millions of our citizens. A food security Bill is also pending parliamentary approval.

These constitutional, legal and policy prescriptions converge upon individuals and families in terms of delivery of benefits and access to government services. Multiple agencies, levels of intermediation, and uneven monitoring have translated into gaps between allocations and outcomes. These gaps lead to squandering of precious resources and take the edge off many development efforts. This requires a large IT infrastructure reaching down to the village level and an identity for every citizen of India.

Our extensive telecom connectivity, our postal system with over 1.5 lakh post offices, and the proposed R20,000 crore National Optical Fibre Network for every panchayat plan to implement these physical resources. Our IT and telecom policies place digital inclusion at the heart of our sectoral efforts. The new electronics manufacturing policy seeks to ensure that our IT and telecom growth is significantly serviced by a homegrown hardware sector. The national e-governance plan has over 30 mission mode projects that address different Union and state services. Our statewide area networks and state data centres are already mostly in place. Large capacities also exist in the private sector.

The other part, of assigning a unique identity to every citizen of India, is being addressed through the aadhaar project, which aims to provide biometric identification for everyone. Over 210 million aadhaar cards have already been issued. When the exercise is complete, even the most deprived Indian can aspire to having a driving licence, a passport, and a host of government and private services. She can open a bank account, access credit, buy insurance, and receive her entitlements, pensions etc directly. A physician in Delhi can access the vaccination status of a tribal woman residing in the most interior and rural parts of our states and see if she was properly tracked during her pregnancy and childbirth, has received her cash and non- cash benefits, and so on.

The system will become more efficient, transparent, and accountable, at a fraction of the existing cost. This will enable a more targeted and dynamic deployment of the government’s efforts and would ensure the roughly R3 lakh crore we have earmarked for our social sector agenda reaches the ones who are in the most need of this help.

Sachin Pilot is minister of state (independent charge) for corporate affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal