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Column: Conceiving Digital India

The current lack of conceptual clarity can carry over to poor planning and prioritisation for implementation

A year has passed since the prime minister announced the “Digital India” initiative, on Independence Day 2014. By July 2015, the initiative had begun to take conceptual shape, and received international attention, with stories on the BBC and in the New York Times. More importantly, India’s captains of industry had thrown their support behind it, promising R4.5 lakh crore in investments related to the ambitious programme. In several previous columns, I have argued that digital technology is important for industrialisation in the 21st century, and from that perspective, Digital India is an important vision for the country. In this column, I examine the government’s specific conceptualisation of Digital India, with challenges of implementation being considered in my next column.
The vision of Digital India has been described by government agencies as centred on three areas: digital infrastructure as a utility for all citizens, governance and services on demand, and digital empowerment of citizens.

This is a plausible and appealing categorisation, although it seems to omit the role of digital technology in business, focusing on government and consumers. But visions have to be concise. Further, the description does highlight the provision of digital government services for making doing business easier, but this only addresses the government-business interface, and not the internal workings of business.

The next level of detail in the conceptualisation of Digital India lists nine “pillars,” and here one can begin to understand the scope of the vision. The first three pillars come under the first vision area: broadband highways, universal access to (mobile) phones and a public internet access programme address different aspects of infrastructure, with the third pillar referring specifically to an ongoing effort to create rural “Common Service Centres” as well as extending the services of post offices in this direction.

The next two pillars are e-governance and electronic delivery of services (e-Kranti). These both fit within the second vision area, with e-governance referring to the use of digital technology to re-engineer internal government processes and functioning. These pillars are complementary, although the first is in some ways more important than the second, since citizen services can only achieve cosmetic improvement without a fundamental internal re-organisation of government. The range of services listed is impressive but daunting, including health, education and finance, but conceptual coherence starts to break down when target groups are also listed (especially farmers), and there are references to e-prisons, e-courts and e-police. The latter group seems to refer to portals for those law and order functions, but their presence and presentation is incongruous. Cyber-security, which is a fundamental and vital aspect of digital infrastructure, is clearly misplaced in the e-Kranti category.

The sixth pillar has the sweeping designation of “information for all.” This would potentially come under the third vision area, digital empowerment, though empowerment implies much more than information access. There are three components of this pillar. One is clearly laudable and important—making government data open and accessible to citizens. But this is really a corollary of the fourth and fifth pillars. A second component is a platform for citizen engagement,, supposedly “engaging with over 9 lakh citizens for enabling and empowering them to participate directly in policy formulation and program implementation.” This seems to be mostly cosmetic, unless it is part of a major overhaul of government functioning. The third component simply consists of a plan to digitally push government-generated messages at citizens. The sixth pillar is therefore conceptually weak and unclear.

The last three pillars do not even fit into the three vision areas, although they still matter. The seventh pillar, electronics manufacturing, has an explicit target of zero net imports. Developing domestic capabilities in the design and manufacture of digital devices, including writing the software that they use, is clearly an important objective. But “zero net imports” is an unrealistic, unnecessary target. This so-called pillar ought to have been conceived of more broadly, and at the higher level of a vision area. This would also bring business more squarely into the vision.

The eighth pillar is “IT for jobs”, covering a broad range of skills and types of jobs. Aside from the failure to acknowledge the enormous challenge and ongoing failure to provide all kinds of skills (not just for IT) to India’s population, this pillar does not connect well to the existing vision areas, although it could fit with a broadened “digital capabilities” area that includes manufacturing, software development, IT maintenance and IT-enabled services.

The last pillar, “early harvest programmes” is a grab-bag of completely miscellaneous programmes that are already under development. But there are so many aspects of the other eight pillars that are ongoing or specific that separating a long list of random programmes in this manner is conceptually meaningless and a worrisome suggestion of lack of hard-headed thought.

Ultimately, the Digital India programme will stand or fall on how well its most important components are implemented, and vision areas and pillars will not matter. But lack of conceptual clarity can carry over to poor planning and prioritisation for implementation. This is why questioning the organisation of vision areas and pillars is an important exercise.

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

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