(GIST OF YOJANA) Towards A Digital Future [DECEMBER-2018]


(GIST OF YOJANA) Towards A Digital Future

[DECEMBER-2018]


Towards A Digital Future

India’s move towards its digital future began several decades ago. However, unprecedented acceleration in recent times has brought sharply into view both the enormity of the benefits that have already accrued and the immense opportunities that beckon. It is equally clear that the challenges that must be overcome while traversing this path are not trivial either. Today, we stand at a confluence of several synergistic progressions both in India and globally, that have collectively created an incredible springboard for highly accelerated economic development as well as far more equitable growth. This endeavor is and will remain, a key determinant of India’s future growth path.

Early efforts at digitization in government were largely government focused: how to improve efficiency, record keeping and data storage and processing especially in number crunching departments like finance, taxation, Statistics, etc. Substantial efforts and progress were seen in departments that dealt with large numbers of beneficiaries like rural development, PDS, etc. Their efforts were largely spread over a couple of decades during 1976-1996 and almost entirely based on NIC support, barring a couple of states like AP where NIC efforts were augmented by state technology organizations like APTS.

It was in 1997 that the first steps towards citizen focused e-governance program were taken, initially in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Later, thanks to a strong push by the Central Government and the birth of the annual National e-Governance Conference series, the movement rapidly spread to several other states. The next decade saw the emergence of several e-governance initiatives in diverse areas like land records, transportation, land registration, urban local bodies, PDS, etc. at the state level and Income Tax, Excise and MCA at the national level. Towards the end of this period, State Wide Area Networks were created under a scheme funded by the central government. Some of this project was implemented in a PPP mode, thereby drawing the country’s technology industry into the nation-wide effort and opening new approaches to rapid deployment of comprehensive e-governance solution. These sporadic, but highly visible were widely appreciated and hailed as truly path breaking changes in systems of governance in the country. The foundation for a comprehensive National e-Governance plan had been laid through these efforts.

Potential of Digital Economy

The advent of the present Government in 2014 was marked by a clear recognition of the huge potential of the digital economy. The Government took the digital push in the country to unprecedented levels with many spectacular initiatives that attracted global attention and drew praise. The Aadhaar project was taken to its logical conclusion by a vigorous drive, the JAM program saw over 200 million people benefitting from financial inclusion through bank account and direct benefits transfer. Linkage of mobile telephones and bank accounts with Aadhaar gave Government and businesses the ability to deal with a vast population individually and without leakage individually and without leakage caused by non-value adding intermediaries. The CSC program has expanded to 2,50,000 panchayats and now provides employment to nearly a million people in the rural heartland. Technology can indeed be used to distribute economic opportunity and job creation more equitably.

Digital Services Delivery

E-commerce, transportation, payment wallets, hotel/accommodation/cinema booking, local food and provision delivery services enabled by mobile apps are now familiar to most urban citizens and increasingly smaller towns as well. Global products like IBM Watson already provide a range of medical services across countries including treatment recommendations based on patient’s records. But within India, well known products in healthcare such as Practo, Portea, Lybrate, etc. are connecting doctors and medical professionals to patients in ways that make it easy to reach the right person from the comfort of your home. Apps like Byju’s are making high quality educational content and services easily accessible at highly affordable costs. Similar established a product albeit in smaller numbers exists in the agriculture sector too. But there are more new exciting efforts in the pipeline in social sectors like healthcare, agriculture, fintech/financial inclusion that hold the promise of scripting India’s future, riding on the back of and reinforcing the Digital India program.

AI and Internet of Medical Things are transforming healthcare. Similar transformation in the agriculture sector through technology interventions that enable precisions farming, early warning of pest attack in cotton farming for example, are available through AI-powered systems to lower risks and costs while increasing productivity. It is interventions like these and hundred of other such innovations that are going to help deliver desired outcomes like doubling farmers incomes, health coverage for the poor through Ayushman Bharat and similar programs.

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Challenges

It needs to be recognized that these exciting trends should not be taken to mean that progress is assured. McKinsey has estimated that India’s Digital economy could grow to 1 Trillion US$ by 2025 with focused efforts but could end up at about half that level with a business-as-usual approach. Regulatory facilitation and debottlenecking by Government are critical across sectors for rapid progress necessary for full realization of the potential. Example abound. Map Policy of the country was an impediment to growth of location-based services. Lack of a drone policy stymied use of drones and growth of a drone services ecosystem in the country. Some people have welcomed the recent drone policy, while others feel it is still suboptimal. Even as we formulate laws and regulations on data privacy, we have to strike a careful balance to ensure that innovation is not stifled by unduly restrictive regulation. The recent Supreme Court judgement on Aadhaar appears to bar use of Aadhaar by the private sector even with the consent of a citizen. Thereby constricting opportunities for innovative, convenient services in many areas. Regulatory facilitation of consensual use warrants fresh consideration by stakeholders. Conservative regulations in healthcare that disallow remote treatment by doctors are retarding the growth of commercial eco system in this field. There are many, many more example of policy and regulation which needs to be tweaked to enable and not retard Digital India. But we are all learning, as is the rest of the world. The new era requires speed: in thought, in action, in governance and regulatory changes. These are not easy. But we are fortunate to have a Government that has recognized the imperatives and has prioritized Digital India.

While all of these developments are hugely encouraging and give rise to well-founded optimism about the future of India’s digital economy, the path is not easy. Availability, power and affordability of technology are not longer the limitation. It is our imagination and our ability to assimilate them into the ordinary tasks of everyday life, normal business and governance. Equally, it is well-recognized that the power of technologies has grown at a pace far exceeding our ability to leverage them in key social sectors. This, even though we are beset by monumental problem that have defied solutions for decades since independence: poverty, employment, education and skilling, healthcare, increasing agricultural productivity and mitigating risk, financial inclusion including access to credit without collateral. There is an old saying: When an irresistible force meets an immovable, object, something gotta give! I’m betting on technology winning this battle. What about you?

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