Digital India is one of the most exciting initiatives taken up in recent times. It has the potential to usher in a truly participatory democracy by providing access to information for all and ensuring accountability and transparency in governance. Financial inclusion, health care, education, skill training and employment will all be greatly facilitated. Not all of this is new. In fact, substantial parts of Digital India were initiated in the past years. However, they did not get the attention and thrust that they deserved. One example is the very ambitious project of providing broadband connectivity to 250,000 village panchayats. Initiated many years ago as the National Optical Fibre Network, its progress has been dismal in relation to the planned (undoubtedly optimistic) timelines. While some of the delays may have been unavoidable, the biggest problem was managerial, worsened by poor technical design. Today, I-ways are the new highways, capable of carrying information, and much more, to every home. The broadband network is, therefore, the key infrastructure underpinning the dream of Digital India, and one hopes that the proposals of the committee that reworked the original plan are not only accepted, but executed with energy.
E-governance is another vital component. Aimed at “providing government services at your doorstep” through digital means, this effort has sort of ambled along over the last decade. Lack of enthusiasm within some government departments and inadequate coordination among them slowed the pace, while poor connectivity and dependence on computers further stymied its progress. Yet, this is one area in which there can be immediate and visible benefits to the common man. The new incarnation has to now transform—in today’s scenario— in “providing services at your finger tips” (on a mobile handset) and must be executed with a sense of urgency.
Broadband connectivity can enable the delivery of education and health services to all—even in remote areas— at high quality and affordable prices.
But this requires content that is in local languages and of local relevance.
Similarly, agriculture can greatly benefit from first-rate and online extension services, weather information, advice, and crop and input prices. This will also correct the unequal relationship between small farmers and the middle-men who buy their produce.
Livelihood and skill training, in conjunction with entrepreneurship and digital marketing, can transform the rural economy through rural production for all-India (even global) markets, while creating rural employment.
Dreams of rural IT outsourcing centres
may well become a reality.
What is now different is the synergy that is possible through various initiatives. The JAM triad is one example: a combination of financial inclusion (through the Jan Dhan Yojana), Aadhaar and the mobile opens up vast possibilities for a host of applications ranging from direct benefit transfer (payment of subsidies or pensions/schol- arships directly into the beneficiaries’ bank accounts) to money transfer. Similarly, there is a synergy between the proposed broadband network and the skills mission, with the former being the means for taking skills training to millions. With the scale of the Digital India effort, there is obviously going to be a huge market for digital hardware, and this goes with the Make in India mission.
All these possibilities will, however, remain mere possibilities if critical steps are not taken. The first and foremost is a mechanism to get the various arms of government to work in unison and with a sense of urgency. Realistically, this cannot happen unless there is a strong leadership and the ability to enforce decisions. In the Indian context, this means the involvement of the prime minister. A mission council, chaired by the PM, which meets once a quarter is essential. In the past, such a body was ineffective, but with a PM who is very committed to driving this forward, one can hope that it can provide the leadership and push that is essential. Similarly, there is a need for a body to involve and coordinate with the states. This could well be chaired by the communications and IT minister, on the model of the Central Advisory Board of Education.
Indian industry has great capability in this field. A contractor relationship between it and the government will not be able to fully tap into the rich talent and managerial capacity of the private sector. Since public-private partnership is no longer a fashionable model, new terms of engagement will have to be crafted. As part of tapping into talent, it is essential to bring in some outside talent (professionals). There are generally serious integration issues with this and such people are effective only when they are independent, eminent in their field and, most importantly, perceived to have backing from the top. Aadhaar is a good example of utilising outside talent and integrating it within the government to deliver successfully.
One hopes that the potential of Digital India is not lost due to poor planning and feeble execution. The possible benefits demand that the government looks at new and innovative mechanisms to achieve the very ambitious targets.
Kiran Kamik is chairman, CI1 National Committee for Digital India Mission, and former president, NASSCOM
The possible benefits of Digital India demand that the government looks at innovative mechanisms to achieve the targets.