How Digital India can save itself from doom
The success of the project depends on taking e-governance to all citizens and to bring the government closer to people.
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Every campaign is required to have a vision, an assessment of the resources - financial, human, technological or otherwise - and a viable roadmap in order to be successful. Otherwise, just like planets cannot be reached by building staircases, the campaign will fizzle out without achieving any significant result. Only the halla bollahs of the campaign will remain.
The Digital India initiative is nothing new. India has been digital for quite a long period of time and that includes access to government services by technological means. What was Bhagidari in Delhi? So, significant steps had been taken everywhere across the country to provide the citizens access to technology and to make their lives better. But the magnitude and scale of the campaign of the Modi government make it an ambitious project. The objective of digitally empowering the citizens is good but the Digital India campaign launched by the prime minister has many loopholes that need to be plugged by the respective stakeholders to achieve the desired goals. The excitement of the industry is well understood as returns on investment on communications and information technology (IT) tend to accrue sooner and demands lesser outlay in comparison to heavy capital-intensive infrastructure. But the industry alone cannot make this grand initiative a success. The role and preparedness of the government, as facilitator and regulator, is equally important. Constraints on this front have the potential to seriously damage the enterprise.
We need to assess where do we exactly stand and what steps are required to make the initiative a grand success. Despite being an IT superpower, India is ranked 125th in the world, below Bhutan and Sri Lanka, in terms of broadband penetration and 110th on the availability of latest technologies. The rank is 75 in terms of household penetration in developing countries. Voice connectivity is only about 60 per cent and data penetration far lower about 20 per cent. India has been categorised among the Least Connected Countries in a group of 42 countries that fall in the low IDP group. According to the World Economic Forum report, India has slipped to the 89th rank among 143 countries in successfully leveraging information and communication technology for social and economic impact. Such a critical situation should compel us to pause and explore specific solutions instead of ignoring them and moving forward without any proper institutional support mechanism.
The success of the project depends on taking e-governance to all citizens and to bring the government closer to people. Therefore, for the overall vision of Digital India, it is highly imperative to create the digital infrastructure for all citizens so that they can have easy, cheaper and user-friendly access to technology. We need end-to-end connectivity, without any rural-urban bias. Mobile banking, even though has the potential of augmentation, cannot alone bring about a digital revolution. We need to promote the use of fixed line broadband also and with the present avatars of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), Mahanagar Telephone Nigam (MTNL) and National Informatics Centre (NIC), the task is not only gigantic but almost impossible to achieve. The multi-layered structure involved in decision making in the sector needs to be overhauled. The financial challenges of the telecom companies and availability of good quality spectrum also need to be taken into consideration. Otherwise, the programme could get derailed. The NIC needs immediate restructuring. At present, they are highly ill-equipped to meet the challenges.
Net neutrality is another issue that demands immediate solution. To say that we cannot wait for the physical infrastructure to be set up to start the process gives an impression that we intend to move in a half-baked manner which will be nothing but disastrous. If building a robust information network is the objective, setting up of adequate infrastructure is a must. Otherwise, how will we translate a vision of 650 million internet connections against the present 200 million and an internet speed of up to 2 Mbps against the present 512 Kbps into action by 2020? Given the level of digital connectivity India has and the purchasing power of citizens, we need an India-specific net neutrality solution and not a copy-paste one from another country with different socio-economic and technological background. The free flow of information in the web domain is a prerequisite for Digital India to be a success. Here, the role of the government as a positive regulator is very important. In this context, we need to understand that the Government of India had blocked 2341 URLs in 2014 which was 73 per cent more than that in 2013. We need filtering but that should be transparent and not discriminatory. There should be a level playing field. Consequent to the scrapping of Section 66 of the IT Act, the government should seriously consider bringing about legislative measures to streamline the flow of information on the web medium.
An ambitious plan for making India's place firmer on the digital map of the world is definitely a great idea but we need infrastructure, implementation and monitoring strategy and safeguards against intrusion into privacy. The limbo between the goal and the state of resources needs immediate redress. After the prioritising and setting of goals, these detailed steps are very essential and need to be articulated before taking the first step on the Digital India initiative. Absence of a roadmap will only damage the prospect of the ambitious plan.