Super Six: 6 years of Digital India

Aadhar probably was the most significant achievement, covering 99% of the Indian population, allowing them access to important government digital services.

Super Six: 6 years of Digital India
The platform of Digital India has proved that it can actually turn the billion dreams into reality, catapulting India’s success stories into the next set of Unicorns with support of a conducive policy environment. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

By Dr Subi Chaturvedi, 

As India started its journey towards digital, one important feature set it apart from similar journeys by other nations, and that is the role of the state in the transformation process. India’s road to digital transformation was paved by important Government initiatives that led to new digital platforms for the citizens and improved access to such platforms. Aadhar probably was the most significant achievement, covering 99% of the Indian population, allowing them access to important government digital services. Not only did this improve availability and transparency of social payments, it also helped in providing financial assistance to those in need.

A clearly defined road map

The Digital India programme has three vision areas: digital infrastructure as a core utility to every citizen, governance & services on demand, and digital empowerment of citizens. Today, the ambition program completes its six years, and despite achieving so much, there is so much more than can be done.

This unique flagship programme of the Government of India was launched on 1 July, 2015 with a vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. It started as an attempt to improve access to critical Government services by making the country digitally empowered through improved infrastructure and connectivity. The programme has been enabled for several important Government schemes, such as BharatNet, Make in India, Startup India and Standup India, industrial corridors, etc.

Digital India, an umbrella programme that covers multiple Government Ministries and Departments, is a consolidation of various smaller initiatives and ideas into a comprehensive vision. Each initiative is implemented as part of a larger goal under the overall coordination done by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY). The programme was to provide thrust to the nine pillars of growth areas, namely Broadband Highways, Universal Access to Mobile Connectivity, Public Internet Access Programme, e-Governance: Reforming Government through Technology, e-Kranti – Electronic Delivery of Services, Information for All, Electronics Manufacturing, IT for Jobs and Early Harvest Programmes.

Another significant achievement under the Digital India umbrella was the introduction of Unified Payments Interface (UPI), which introduced the benefits of digital payments in every part of the country. From flourishing businesses to modest street vendors, UPI is helping everyone with payments and transactions. This also encourages a number of private players to provide alternatives for digital payments which completely transformed the Indian economy. In 2021 alone, Indians have made 37.90 billion digital transactions, an increase of 27.9 billion from 2016, the year UPI was launched, when around 10 billion transactions were made.

Along the similar lines, the Electronic Customer Identification System (e-KYC), the Electronic Document Storage System (DigiLocker) and the Electronic Signature System (eSign) were introduced to help businesses streamline their operations. Significant progress was also made in the work of e-government bringing together an electronic procurement platform, an extensive resource of government data and a one-stop-store system for accessing more than 300 public services.

Beyond the JAM Trinity

What started as a simple step to kick off the JAM trinity (Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobile) to weed out leakages in the system, today empowered the entire vaccination drive for COVID, making India only the second nation to USA that administered 20 crore vaccines. Tech solutions empowered by Digital India that has built the infrastructure for years together today serve as a basis for other emerging interventions in the fields of start-ups, digital education, seamless banking and payment solutions, agritech, health tech, smart cities, e-governance and retail management.

In fact, India faced the pandemic as an empowered nation that operated digitally in every arena, throughout the lockdown period to keep the growth clock ticking. It would not have been feasible without the dream of Prime Minister Modi who said, “For me IT + IT = IT” or, as he elaborated, “Indian Talent + Information Technology = India Tomorrow.” Digital India followed by Digital Village successfully bridged the gap between Bharat and India enabling the country to weave it into a dream for tomorrow where technology can be used and accessed by all.

As the platform of Digital India, governance and related infrastructure shaped up the public service of the country, the private businesses which were already transforming themselves by imbibing technology to remain relevant thrived. The speed at which India accelerated into tech enabled platforms for office meetings, schools, entertainment, games, food and shopping during the pandemic led lockdown is a combined result of public internet access programme, information for all and a plethora of accessible hardware.

Every relevant activity of human beings became digitized, including recreation and entertainment. Digital or online gaming saw the highest growth during lockdown in the media and entertainment sector with 365 million online gamers by the end of 2020, as compared to 269 million online gamers in 2018. It is expected to further increase to 436 million in the current fiscal year and to 510 million in 2022.

The Road Ahead

Consultancy firm Deloitte said in a January report that India’s online gaming industry is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 40% to $2.8 billion by 2022, up from $1.1 billion in 2019. Gamification across verticals would be the next logical step for the gaming startups, tapping into a market worth USD 30.7 billion by 2025. Gamification will be a game changer for sectors like education, however, the biggest potential lies in skilling the people to prepare the workforce of tomorrow.

Research indicates that 50% of the 4 million employees of the IT industry need to be reskilled over the next 3 years. Further and ever-changing digital disruption will continue transforming every industry and the way businesses are conducted. Government and industry together aim to reskill/upskill a total of about 1.4 million employees over a period of 5 years. Gamification of skilling and education initiatives will bridge the gap between languages and help lesser educated individuals to also become future savvy, technology empowered.

Such new sectors can be the face of India’s next phase of digital growth as it marches towards the target of a 5 trillion-dollar economy by 2025. India is already the leader in the mobile gaming segment, having seen over 7 billion mobile game installs in the first 9 months of 2020 – 17% of the global total. A progressive policy framework and supportive ecosystem could see India leading the world in gaming and gamification and turning the nation into a gaming and gamification hub. This change starts with identifying and nurturing sunrise sectors like online gaming through a sustainable regulatory framework, which can protect the homegrown startups and ensure their growth. Second, a new approach to skilling and education, where gamification or game-based learning can reach out to more people making them future ready. Third, we need to retain the top talent coming out of premier institutions by encouraging them through incentivized programs and by protecting their interests in the country. Fourth, the government and the relevant stakeholders need to chart out progressive policies that invite and keep new investments into the country. Fifth, continued adoption of new technologies and push for improved access in underserved areas. Sixth, an industry and academia synergy in creating a talent pool which is industry ready.

This progress would not have been possible without the push for pervasive connectivity and access to high-quality internet access. Through programs like Bharat Net, the Government has attempted to connect 2.5 lakh villages through high speed broadband and also inspired private players to lower the data tariffs to make the internet a service for the masses. We currently have 778.09 million broadband subscribers in India and the number is growing and with it the access to services. Access, according to Brandon Fleming, Founder of Harvard Diversity Project, is what keeps people from achieving great things and if that holds true for India, the sky’s the limit.

The platform of Digital India has proved that it can actually turn the billion dreams into reality, catapulting India’s success stories into the next set of Unicorns with support of a conducive policy environment. Government’s target to create hyper-scale data centres and futuristic digital info-way that will connect education, research institutions, government and skilling will all enable the steps in building the ‘Soonicorn’ – the ‘Soon to be Unicorn’ Club which will further realise the dream of “Make in India, Made for the World.” As we celebrate the six years of completion of Digital India, here are the six concrete steps that can aid the digital transformation of the nation in the new normal for Digital 4.0 contributing to India’s success story and fulfilling the five trillion-dollar economy dream. Firstly, inculcation of scientific temper, where perception doesn’t drive policy, access to data and lower costs of devices especially smartphones, high speed technology and seamless connectivity (5G, 6G), quality and local language content, a secure and safe cyberspace with clear spaces for redressal, ombudsmen, grievance redressal officers, renewable energy, seamless power supply, green technology and lastly more and more government services to be brought online with more departments talking to each other. That’s one step forward for every year of this remarkable program. We do this right and we’re looking at a truly self-reliant and Aatamnirbhar Bharat where each citizen if connected and fully empowered.

(The author is PhD IITD, is a distinguished public policy professional and a former member of the United Nations, Internet Governance Forum, Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group. She also chairs the FICCI subcommittee on Women in Technology, Policy & Leadership. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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First published on: 01-07-2021 at 13:26 IST