Digital India plan is a game-changer: Ravi Shankar Prasad

Written by Sudhir Chowdhary | Rishi Raj | Updated: Oct 6 2014, 18:29pm hrs
Ravi Shankar PrasadIndians love to experiment with electronics, says Ravi Shankar Prasad. (Reuters)
Talk about the Digital India programme and IT and communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasads eyes light up with honest excitement. According to him, the Prime Ministers digitising India vision is one of the most exciting initiatives the country has embraced to leapfrog us in the 21th century. It can transform India from a predominantly rural agrarian society to a digitally empowered knowledge economy. The Digital India plan envisages providing digital infrastructure as a utility to every individual, delivering governance and services on demand and enabling the digital empowerment of citizens. One key focus for the government is the development of broadband highways that will cover 250,000 gram panchayats by December 2016. The Union minister tells Sudhir Chowdhary & Rishi Raj that India is on the path to embracing digital technologies and reaping the ensuing benefits especially in the areas of broadband connectivity, electronics manufacturing and e-governance. Excerpts:

What is your vision for the IT and communications sector

I have two objectives in mind. First is to set right the legacy issues; by legacy I mean the way the department was handled in the last four and five years at the political level. The department was in the news for all the wrong reasons. The first thing is to change this image. My instruction to the department is very clear: take every decision based on merit. Every decision taken should be reasonable and fair with twin objectivesconsumer growth and telecom growth. This is the first thing what I have done and I am following this very assiduously.

The second thing obviously is the fact that IT and communications are the biggest areas of growth. I am grateful to the Prime Minister that he has entrusted me with these departments. Telecom and IT are capable of changing the profile and face of India.

Let us talk about the Digital India project What is the government trying to achieve with this

Digital India has been envisioned as an ambitious umbrella programme to prepare India for knowledge based transformation. The project is a game-changer, from the perspective of delivery of pro-citizen good governance, with the synchronised and coordinated engagement of the entire government. India is sitting at the cusp of an IT revolution. The Prime Minister has raised a very important slogan: IT + IT = IT. Essentially this means that Indias talent plus information technology is equal to India tomorrow. There are three basic objectives of the Digital India initiative: citizen empowerment, governance improvement and thirdly, changing the IT profile of India. Therefore, it means empowerment to governance to growth.

The programme was conceptualised in a span of less than three months and consequently endorsed by the Union Cabinet at its meeting held on August 20, 2014. To realise the vision of the Prime Minister, Digital India programme has identified three key areas: Digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen, governance and services on demand, and digital empowerment of citizens.

Have you set any specific timelines for the completion of various projects

I am coming to that. The first and foremost objective of the Digital India project is to make broadband facility available in every village across the country. This would drive up e-commerce business in villages. We are laying the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) in all 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats in the country in a phased manner. We have set a target of 50,000 Gram Panchayats this year, 1 lakh next year and 1 lakh Gram Panchayats in the year thereafter. The government has decided that this project will be completed in the coming three years at a total estimated cost of Rs 30,000 crore. We are following the progress of this project very closely.

NOFN project is planned to connect all gram panchayats in the country through optical fibre utilising existing fibres of BSNL, RailTel and Power Grid and laying incremental fibre wherever necessary to bridge the connectivity gap between Gram Panchayats and Blocks.

This programme aims to provide the required thrust to the following nine pillars of growth viz. broadband highways; Universal access to mobile connectivity; Public internet access programme; E-governance: Reforming government through technology; eKrantiElectronic delivery of services; Information for all; Electronics manufacturing; IT for jobs and early harvest programmes.

As I see it, once the Digital India programme happens, then it will lead to a lot of other services. Like the television revolution was sparked by the proliferation of channels, in a similar manner, I see a lot of retailers joining in. E-education, e-health and most important, e-commerce will get a boost. I see an enormous potential and literal explosion of e-commerce in the rural areas of India where youll have a warehouse and at the click of a button, you can place your order and Flipkart and Amazon will go in these areas. This would drive up e-commerce business in villages.

What are the measures the government is undertaking to provide digital literacy to the masses

The foundation stone of a new Centre of National Institute of Electronics & Information Technology (NIELIT) was laid by the Prime Minister at Ranchi last month. This aims to take forward digital literacy, skill development and capacity building initiatives leading to improved employability for the youth of Jharkhand. Through this initiative, we wish to give 10 hours, 20 hours, 40 hours of literacy in local languages.

That is not all. There will be an explosion of community service centres in the country. We have about 1.5 lakh centres and this will further grow. The most important thing is improvement of IT enabled facilities for land records, birth and death certificates and many more services. Digital India programme is something that the Central government has to work in tandem with the state governments.

How will the Digital India project provide a thrust to electronic manufacturing in the country

There will be a literal explosion of electronic manufacturing in India. The first thing I had learned when I became a minister is that we have got 90 million mobile phones. My question was why is a mobile not manufactured here From mobile phones to set-top-box and smart cards, importing them into India was easier, manufacturing them here was difficult.

Therefore, the first thing to do was to straighten the duty structure, then reinvigorate the entire incentive for electronic manufacturing. By this, I mean the clusters and I talked to the chief ministers myself. I also called a meeting of IT ministers and IT secretaries and a whole presentation was given on what electronic manufacturing is all about.

We import electronic goods worth $100 billion every year. By 2020, it is going to go upto $400 billion. Therefore, the need is felt to initiate electronic manufacturing in the country. Soon I am going to lay the foundation of an electronics cluster in Bhopal and Jabalpur. The other chief ministers are also very excited to have electronic manufacturing clusters in their states and I am grateful to them.

Recently, I had gone to Germany to energise big manufacturing companies to come to India. Soon, I will be going to South Korea to attract their big manufacturing companies to make investments in India.

A lot of spectrum is needed for the digital initiatives you have talked about. But today, the operators hold much less spectrum in India

It is not just the availability of spectrum, it is also about effective use of the existing spectrum. Both will have to work harder. As you might be aware, I have already told my officers to finalise the guidelines for spectrum trading and spectrum sharing. It is being worked out. Here again, I have given a clear mandate which is very clearfirst and foremost is consumer growth and telecom sector growth, and make the entire process fair and reasonable.

India is a major hub for MNC R&D activities. How are you going to attract electronic manufacturing with your Make in India campaign

The Prime Minister has mentioned three Ds democracy, demography and demand. India has abundance of human resources. People are technically qualified, there is good resource and it is amazing to see that 70% of Google traffic outside the United States is in India. All the MNCs are having their facilities in India, employing thousands of people. Many of the technological innovations are being created by Indians. In my opinion, the extraordinary Indian achievements in the IT services sector will become leverage points to further reinvigorate electronic manufacturing in the country. Therefore, they will manufacture in India and they can also export out of India. Also, the smart cities that will come up in the industrial corridors of north, south, east and west will lead to a further explosion of electronic goods.

India is globally recognised for IT services capabilities. Why do you think India doesnt have any great product company

In fact, one of my first visits after I had become a minister was to Bangalore where I met a lot of young entrepreneurs who make software products. We may soon come up with a venture fund where the government will work with the private sector to promote innovation in the technology space. All these things are going together but what is important for me is that I see great excitement among Indians to go for software products other than IT services.

You have also been meeting CEOs of technology firms. What have been their interest levels as far as making investments in India is concerned

Many CEOs, such as those from Cisco and Facebook have already met me. I can only tell you that post May 26, 2014 India is a different country. Mark my words, the way the Prime Minister is driving the change, the way he has appealed from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day to come and make in India, the way I am meeting investorsall this is an indication of the change that is taking place. My take for the global technology and investor community is that if you have any problems, then walk straight into my office and we will address the issues.

Are the technology MNCs keen to invest in India

Many of the MNCs are already exposed to India. What I saw in Germany and other parts of the world is great excitement about India under the Prime Minister Narendra Modis leadership. Indian professional excellence in the world of IT is one of the best in the world. I have seen Indian IT companies doing very well in America and Europe. There are a lot of Indian engineers working very well in Germany. But all the companies want to come to India because of the sheer size of the Indian market which is very attractive to them. And, now they know that the government is creating the right ambience and ecosystem for companies to come to India and do business.

Bulk of the work will have to be done by the private sector The government cant do everything, but once the enabling environment is created I see a lot of private sector involvement in sectors like e-commerce, e-education, e-health and broadband retail. I have given instructions to my department to work out a framework for the opening of BPOs in small towns. I see a lot of potential in the distribution and growth of a digital India.

Lastly, there has been a phenomenal rise in internet and mobile users in India. People are creating and consuming data with increasing ferocity. Where do you see these technologies headedwhat do the next 2-3 years have in store

Indias IT and communications landscape will be enormously exciting, going forward. I am very excited when I see people watching the World Cup Soccer on their mobile phones or people harvesting the benefits of YouTubethats India. Indians love to experiment with electronics.