The Digital India Dream: Promise, Progress and Challenges

The concept of a Digital India might be new of paper but in ethic, it has been around for decades. India’s use of technology for governance is not a wholly new idea; As far back as 1985, Rajiv Gandhi had started compiling a rudimentary data bank, wanting Congress MPs to digitise and formalise their work through computers.

This was the year that Microsoft released the very first version of Windows and personal computing was far from mainstream. The idea was met with resistance, with many party members and national dailies raising privacy concerns. A Times of India editorial called it “wrong and dangerous”, while India Today felt that the move implied a lack of trust within the party.

We were vastly more familiar with computers and technology by the time the current government’s Digital India initiative was announced in 2015; India was set to overtake the US as the second-largest internet user base in the world, and making technological infrastructure the fulcrum of India’s economic and social growth was only the next logical step towards inclusivity.

Towards Digital India: The Introduction of Aadhar

India’s unique biometric identification system, Aadhar, is at the centre of this inclusive vision with its ability to authenticate a person’s identity quickly. The Aadhar team has also developed India Stack, a set of code that allows developers to build applications and software that use the Aadhar platform as a base. With over 1.18 billion cards already issued, the platform is crucial to cashless and presence-less service delivery across the country.

With the Aadhar programme already underway, demonetisation and the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) only served to accelerate India’s appetite for digital integration; approximately 10 million e-Know Your Customer (eKYC) verifications are done every month using the Aadhar platform. Over the last year, digital payments using mobile wallets have risen to roughly 15% of all electronic transactions while close to 13 million government documents such as PAN cards and driving licences were uploaded to citizens DigiLockers in November 2017 alone.

The ecosystem enabled by India Stack is already increasing service efficiency. A traditional KYC done by Airtel to acquire a customer would normally take a few days. With eKYC, a small fingerprint scanner links to the Aadhaar database via a mobile connection and the verification is done in minutes.

Endless Possibilities

Mutual funds are another example. The usual cost of acquiring a customer is Rs1,200 to 1,500, including physical document collection, manual verification and redoing the process if there were errors. This cost was covered in an agent’s commission, which indirectly meant that only people who were able to invest significant amounts were approached. With an Aadhar eKYC, the cost could be as low as Rs 10, bringing new customer demographics into the fold and providing a huge boost to the banking and finance sector.

India has over a billion mobile phones; mobile broadband and its potential reach is therefore vital if Digital India is to bring every citizen under its umbrella.  The arrival of Reliance Jio means that data is now available at extremely cheap rates, giving subscribers the ability to watch video content anywhere. On an individual scale, this could mean ‘how-to’ tutorials allowing people, especially those living in conservative environments, to learn skills which can eventually be monetised.

The proliferation of video-based learning could also have a profound impact on India’s education system. The government in July 2017 launched Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM) in partnership with Microsoft, an online portal and app that provides students with free study material. Covering school subjects to post-graduate topics, courses are taught via interactive ‘digital classrooms’ across science, humanities, engineering and technology. This could potentially offset the poor school infrastructure that is a barrier to education, especially in rural areas.

Effect on healthcare

Access to affordable healthcare is another benefit of digitally-powered infrastructure. Lazarus Hospital in Hyderabad uses SMSs, digital cameras and mobile connectivity to remotely monitor patients undergoing peritoneal dialysis at one-fifteenth of the cost of a hospital stay.

In the United States, telemedicine allows doctors to record and access a patient’s vitals without them being physically present. Preliminary advice and investigations take place over the telemedicine platform, and a patient need only visit the doctor physically in case of follow-up treatments where required. Widespread adoption of telemedicine in the future would lower the cost of healthcare for patients living in rural or remote areas. Without having to travel to the nearest clinic, people could access doctor profiles and consult with professionals over video.

Challenges to Digital India

While the Digital India vision holds promise, India must overcome challenging hurdles to realise that vision. Technologically, quality internet connections are still in short supply; India ranks a lowly 109 for mobile internet speed in speed testing service Ookla’s rankings, with an average download speed of 8.80 Mbps compared to the global average of 20.28 mbps.

Universal reach is another issue. Despite large-scale adoption, rural internet penetration is still only at 16%. It is hoped that the Centre’s plans to increase the minimum mobile and broadband speeds to 2 mbps from the current 512 kbps announced last October as well as the ambitious Bharat Net programme – which aims to provide high-speed broadband to over 2.5 lakh gram panchayats – can together increase internet adoption in India’s villages.

For Digital India to be a success, we must complement its new infrastructure with the necessary human effort. Digital interventions can only amplify what we do; making children digitally literate and giving them access to online courses serves no purpose if they haven’t learnt how to apply that knowledge. There must be a teacher to guide them.

The bigger test for Digital India, however, is sociological. Most parts of India are still staunchly conservative; women are not allowed to use phones in the evenings, or in some cases cannot use them at all. According to Unicef, only 29% of India’s internet users are female. That figure dips to only 12% in rural areas. This gap – and the underlying mindset – must be addressed if a digitally-inclusive nation is to be built.

 

 

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