What is Digital India? It is a government programme that envisages smooth and efficient governance, by leveraging internet technology and by taking an inclusive approach so that the people of the country become the real beneficiaries. The goal of this programme is visualised in the form of nine pillars.
Digital India encompasses broadband highways, mobile connectivity, public access to internet, governance, e-delivery of services, information availability, manufacturing, job opportunities and short-term goals such as common Wi-Fi access, biometric attendance system and e-books for schools.
Modi is looking for external support for the Digital India programme. There is an apparent frontier here, between the concepts of Digital India and Make in India - another ambitious project of the government. Why cannot we build a digital India by turning our own entrepreneurial skills to good account?
All goals of Digital India can be achieved locally without much external support. Government establishments and Indian entrepreneurs can be engaged for their development. Upgraded but local versions of Mark Zuckerbergs and Sundar Pichais would be the attractive by-products of this initiative. It is in this context that we need to measure the prime minister's Silicon Valley visit.
It is to be seen how inventively the multinational giants like Facebook and Google can participate in the Digital India programme in its present form. "Internet privacy" has become an oxymoron today. Facebook has been facing remonstrance from the public about its specious definition of net neutrality through internet.org, which is nothing but a set of rules imposed on the way people use the internet.
Companies like Facebook and their partners want to take odious decisions about what sites their users see, what contents they access, through what ways and when. A half-closed world being Facebook's schema, I do not quite understand how its involvement is going to help us meet the objectives of Digital India, which foresee an open world. Modi's call for active involvement in social media is not giving any clarity on how the platform is going to help us. There are obvious limitations in the ways in which a social medium can get involved in governance.
Google announced its partnership in Digital India by promising to offer free Wi-Fi in important railways stations in the country. According to its announcement, 500 railway stations in the country will get the benefit of high-speed internet service over two phases. Google offers only the service. Most likely our own government (read taxpayers) will have to bear the costs of infrastructure development and the associated facilities. At this time, there is no clarity on the contract terms.
People who want to use the internet in railway stations are already doing that through their own mobile devices and internet data plans. Hence investment in infrastructure means an immediate realisation of something that should have found a lower place on our list of priorities. I am not of the opinion that scientific development can happen only after the basic needs are realised. But at least, with respect to the railways, we had more important items on the waitlist.
Google's eye for business is evident from the number of people they can potentially offer their services to. They are targeting one crore daily travellers in the first phase covering 100 stations. They can collect a trove of personalised information from this user base through their own Wi-Fi service, which will, through targeted advertisements, prepare way for manifold business conversions than what their own apps and services can currently generate.
Nobody needs to teach Google how to do business. It would be asinine to even think they would offer their services in a vast country such as India for free. What most of us did not read is what Pichai has written clearly in the Google blog. He writes, "Best of all, the service will be free to start, with the long-term goal of making it self-sustainable to allow for expansion to more stations and other places…" In other words, Google got the monopoly of the service without having to bid for it. In effect, the free broadband service was the green flag Google waved to make its entry to our railway stations. They know how to make the service self-sustainable, after the honeymoon period.
The proposed internet services in railway stations will be beneficial to the passengers initially, but to the service providers at a later point of time. One cannot expect the domestic IT industry to get any boost through such steps. Google also announced that its Android operating system will support more Indic languages, including Modi's Gujarati. Google's love for local languages cannot be read along with their support to the Digital India campaign. Localisation is something all corporate companies have adopted to expand the scope and acceptability of their service offerings.
Indian governments (current and past) have attempted several times to make the internet a confined space - one which cuts privacy dead. Not long ago, the Supreme Court had annulled Section 66(A) of the IT Act, in favour of freedom of speech, but Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had stated sometime back that the Centre was planning a new version of the cyber law.
Drastic steps that would kill what is left of internet privacy are being mooted at the highest level. The government wants to read even our private conversations. While the prime minister enjoyed a meet and greet with the tech giants in Silicon Valley, back home, the people of Jammu and Kashmir were deprived of internet access for three days, through an e-curfew. The government should stop such self-embarrassments first, and declare responsible independence in the digital space.
The assurances by the Silicon Valley companies are promising at face value. But it is to be seen how they are going to be implemented. I hope the companies will create more job opportunities here. For that to happen, we should attract them by showcasing our capabilities. The capabilities should not be limited to the educated, English-knowing, bright human resources alone. We should be proactive in ensuring that the companies are smitten by our land acquisition policies and facilities for transportation, electrification and water availability. The boundless red tape that prevent or decelerate the establishment of new ventures should be disposed of.
By giving the necessary backing, our government should be able to encourage domestic entrepreneurs to thrive in all the areas of Digital India. We should focus more on getting consultancy services and expertise from companies like Facebook and Google, so that our entrepreneurs will not have to start developing from the stone age. Digital India should be an indigenous programme; corporate leviathans should be invited to create more jobs.