Column: Achieving Digital India

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Published: August 27, 2015 12:22:51 AM

Its vision is very government-centric, rather than focusing on the wider potential of IT in India’s economy

How can the government’s vision of a Digital India be achieved? In my last column, I suggested that the conceptualisation of the vision has some basic flaws. But actions and implementation can diverge from initial ideas. This column provides a possible set of priorities and an implicit action plan.

The obvious foundation of Digital India is the requisite infrastructure, but the government’s conception of infrastructure is somewhat lopsided—too broad in some aspects, while not emphasising others enough. The first step has to be to create a robust and extensive fibre optic network, and to make more spectrum available for wireless connectivity. The latter, in particular, with the use of smartphones and smaller tablets, will make expensive projects such as Common Service Centres almost unnecessary. Privately-run kiosks, or desktop computers in post offices, might be an adequate supplement to personal access devices (which can also be shared).

A nationwide digital network will require robust software, especially for security. The continued instances of security breaches in developed countries with supposedly advanced digital infrastructure reinforce the view that security is a paramount concern for a potential new digital infrastructure. But cyber-security seems to be peripheral in the conceptualisation of infrastructure. The role of digital infrastructure in supporting Indian business firms also needs attention.

After digital infrastructure, the second priority has to be training. Developing and installing software for a national digital infrastructure can be done with relatively little labour, but maintenance, repair and technical support for the hardware and software of digital infrastructure are skills which are already in short supply, even without extensive coverage. It is not clear that the government’s vision fully realises this need, even within the “pillar” of “IT for jobs”, but implementing Digital India will require both public and private effort for this dimension of skilling.

A related aspect of training is imparting skills in using various kinds of application software, including more generic examples such as word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, but also more specialised software for accounting, website design, graphic design and more. The government’s own documents speak of skilling in the context of the IT or ITeS, but they do not seem to realise the potential scope of IT for all aspects of the economy: Even a cloth merchant can use accounting software.

When one thinks about applications in particular, the issue of language becomes central. The need for availability of software in multiple Indian languages does not seem to be recognised in the government’s vision of Digital India.

Educational content also needs to be available in major Indian languages. Health applications, information for farmers and financial services, to be truly accessible to the masses, ought to have local language versions. One can think of this as an aspect of infrastructure, something that does not matter for a country like the US, but is taken for granted across Europe, where each country uses its own language.

The final aspect of implementing a vision of Digital India should be digitising the internal workings of government, not just at the national and state levels, but all the way down to local governments. This is obviously a huge undertaking, when even basic aspects of operations such as accrual accounting are absent from sub-national tiers of government. It is not clear that the existing vision acknowledges the enormity of the implementation task, blithely listing a wide range of government services to be provided by digital means. As in the case of cyber-security, the experience of developed countries is a reminder of the potential difficulties of building IT systems.

If Digital India is to be achieved, there needs to be a clear prioritisation of goals. The most fundamental goal should be to create a robust and secure infrastructure. The second priority is to make sure that there is enough expertise to maintain this infrastructure. Third, basic software applications and educational content should be made available in multiple Indian languages. These three goals are not specific to the workings of government. The fourth implementation goal should be to digitise the internal operations of government at all levels. This task alone is an enormous one, even before citizen-facing IT-enabled government services can be provided.

Many of the specific activities and services listed in Digital India documents are miscellaneous in nature, and of secondary importance. They illustrate the laundry-list approach to government, which spreads attention and effort in ways that can prevent almost anything specific or substantial being accomplished. For example, progress on the national fibre optic network has been pitifully slow. The entire Digital India vision as publicised is very government-centric, rather than focusing on the wider potential importance of IT in India’s economy. A truly Digital India will need to be developed in a manner that is quite different from what is implicit in the government’s current vision. It is not too late to rethink the vision and create a sensible action plan for implementation.

The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz

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