On Digital India

What is Digital India?

Digital India is a set of 9 major agendas/programs that the Government has identified to execute under one umbrella. The programs are:

1. Universal Access to Mobile phones - This is largely about connectivity, about towers and related for the yet mobile-unconnected areas. It has a timeline for 2018 and about Rs. 16,000 Cr (~$2.7 Bn) has been allocated to this. Handsets to Rural – This is a sub scheme/area for providing subsidised mobile handsets to rural households. The budget provided to this is Rs. 4,800 Cr (~$0.8 Bn).

2. Broadband highways - A big ticket item and one that has a significant budgetary allocation at about Rs. 47,000 Cr (~$ 7.9 Bn). It aims to connect or link about 2.5 lakh villages, largely village gram panchayats. Its deadline is March 2017.

3. Public Access to Internet. This is what extends from the Broadband Highways’ and aims to primarily to provide rural citizens access to Internet; to also make Post Offices into Multi Service Centres.

4. Eliminate Electronic imports which currently stands at about USD 95 Bn.. and is projected to go to USD 400 Bn.

5. E Governance Services – Online applications to various Gov. services. And transactions for it – from simplification to transparency and enabling payments to public utilities.

6. E-Kranti that is electronic delivery of services – This is the one that includes information services to farmers, digital literacy, mobile banking, etc.

7. IT for Jobs and IT jobs to rural. Its objective is to train people in rural areas for IT sector jobs, BPO activities, etc. This has a budget of Rs. 200 Cr (~$35 Mn). And its timeline is 2019

8. Information for All – Online access of all kinds of govt information, to give open, easy access to all citizens

9. Mass Messaging – An IT platform for messages covering politicians and government employees.

In total it is a Rs 1.3 Lakh Cr (~$19 Bn) effort with different programs having different timelines for completion. And considering the programs are very different and diverse and various bodies will be working together, while I don’t have more information on the sources of funds, more likely than not, they will have different funding mechanisms too.

Digital India’s primary aim is to bridge the rural- urban information divide and bring everything digitally possible, services and information that were hitherto the privilege of urban users, and Internet, to the masses It could be said that this is in some sense inspired from ‘Broadband China’ launched in China last year to cover 98% of China’s villages with broadband Internet by 2020.

"First thoughts on the Digital India vision" & what is the role of Technology and Policy in Enabling this?

Among the first thoughts are those of the benefits of bridging the urban- rural gap, of increased GDP, of better quality of life for more people. But while those are like a 30000 feet high view, at a lower level, it is about giving the rural user more access to information, of the ability to discover, to be informed – and inform… an opportunity of learning, an opportunity to do business in a more informed environment… of being connected, of being a digital leveller. To identify some others:

1. In India, the rural and urban are parts of the same body, where one part cannot become successful or prosper without the other doing the same. We cannot hope to achieve the kind of growth urban India wants or looks forward to without taking our villages along for the ride. A PWC report released a short while ago claimed that India can realise an economic benefit of 64K Cr per year by providing Broadband to the rural areas. Another report suggested that decentralised workflow driven payment systems reduced the leakage of funds by as much as 25%.

2. The Internet in India took more than a decade to move from 10 million to 100 million users and just another 3 years from 100 to 200 million users. However, it took only a year to move from 200 to 300 million users. With this - Digital India, over the next few years, there will be an accelerated pace of Internet users

3. Then it is about a Cambrian explosion. Of Digital services – that could improve quality of life for all Indians. A Cambrian moment refers to something that happened over 540 million years ago, when the sudden spurt of more complex organisms started to take place. It is when life forms started to multiply. Affordable connectivity, access to information and availability of public data will catalyse the building blocks for creating digital products and services and bring about better quality of life for every Indian. It will be about the near real time flow of information from the physical to digital world.

What are some of the toughest challenges in being able to realise the Digital India vision?

Implementation issues, Operational issues and Interdependency issues are some of the biggest challenges. Possible technological and operational limitations are challenges too. Instead of calling these challenges, I would categorise them as opportunities as these are indeed areas of opportunity for innovative minds here to bring solutions for. To list a few

1. Most importantly, we need to look at ‘Why’ we are doing it and communicate it. The Government needs to holistically look at the ‘Why’ of all that it is attempting to do – ‘Why’ should the rural user take to it? A statement saying urban-rural bridge divide or another that claims 64K crore benefit does not mean much to the rural user and neither is it sufficient from the rural user’s perspective. The govt, somebody needs to clearly communicate to the rural user, the villager ‘Why’ he should be part of it, ‘Why’ the government is implementing all this.. It has to build an aspirational story. We have enough material in What we are doing and How we are doing.. But very little on Why we are doing it and Why the rural citizen should use it. Creating awareness is crucial.

2. The other opportunity is obvious if you look at the census numbers - From the 2001 to 2011 census, there is hardly that significant a shift in urban – rural users. Roughly 70% still lived in villages and 30% in urban areas. But other reports released – McKinsey last year, show that by 2030 India will have 590 million urban inhabitants. Taking this number along with the 200 million that live in close proximity to the major cities, it means that in another 15 years, roughly half of India will live in its cities or close to its cities. It is also estimated that 85% of the tax revenues will come from its cities. But this does not translate into uniform urban economic and social prosperity – this 85% tax is expected from only 25% of urban citizens. What does this mean? That there is a denser bunch of people in a smaller region that could be provided solutions, and that should be specifically targeted. That we need more inclusive urban solutions – the urban-urban ratio is itself highly skewed.

3. If you look at the 2.5 lakh (250,000) gram panchayats that we are scheduled to cover… it looks grand.. and a humongous task, but according to the last census, we are close to 6.4 Lakh (6,38,619 to be precise) villages. So the 2.5 lakh villages is roughly only 35% of rural India that we are covering. It is a far cry from providing connectivity to every village, etc. It is a very far cry from China’s 98% broadband coverage. Connectivity or connections is still a big challenge and opportunity.

4. Using gap analysis, it has been arrived that we will need to lay an additional 500,000 km of fibre. I don’t know how much of that has been actually laid, but again estimates say that to meet the deadline of March 2017, it is a pace of laying roughly about 30,000 km of fibre a month. Apparently we are laying 500 km a month. One sixtieth of what we are supposed to do… I don’t think we will ever meet the deadline if this is the pace. Huge opportunity there.

5. Another ground level opportunity.. what we are doing is providing one connection to a Gram Panchayat… One connection of 100 Mbps. There is no clarity on taking it further from there. How will the villagers use it from there?, who will provide?, why should somebody take it from there and provide it to users who want? Can last mile long range wifi solutions come in? What is the model for it to be sustainable? These are all challenges.

6. Power is an interdependent issue - Most places have little to very little power.. which entails that most computers won't work most of the time.. It needs to be complemented with other forms of continuous power. I wonder if the govt has bitten off more than it can chew. It is not enough to launch programs, it is important to build the ecosystem and sustainable models around it. Well these are some of the implementational, operational and technological challenges and opportunities...and opportunities.

And what are the solutions? How can the Industry & Academia join hands with the Govt to realise the Digital India vision?

Besides the opportunity for solutions already spoken about, while we are laying fibre and communication/connectivity network and services, these are also creating networks of other kinds… we need to relook at how the network structures of these flows are broadening and deepening other networks – economic, social and cultural situations and exchanges, and how urban and rural India - villages and cities are positioned in these networks. How can they best benefit, how can they complement the other?

The most important aspect or solution from my view is a Common Information Infrastructure, or a Common Information Grid. I would suggest considering laying out guidelines or a framework for a Common Infrastructure for services. Until now and it appears going forward too.. every department, in every city or area puts out it own technology infrastructure. They make investments independently and solutions or systems are created independently too. What this has resulted is in no sharing of costs and resources, there is a lot of waste or duplication in investment and effort and most importantly there is no sharing of data, information, intelligence. Well, even if they do, a lot of formal process is needed to do so in limited fashion. Right now everything is in silos.

There is also difficulty in scaling the infrastructure. I am inclined to believe that this fragmented approach is inefficient, it is not economical, and it cannot scale. The industry and academia could come together in everybody’s interest. Suggest the creation of a common data framework, the creation of a foundational network - now sensors and IoT are coming into play in a big way… of how they should communicate..

There is the Law of Diffusion of Innovation. It appears like a bell curve. It argues that at the beginning of the bell, there are 2.5% of people who are innovators – then there are about 13% of people who are early adopters, at the peak of the curve as it is ascending there are the early majority, then the late majority as it is descending, each at about 34% and finally the laggards at about 16% at the other end of the curve. People who understand the Why are the early adopters.. they are the Believers. Once the Belief in something comes, success follows eventually. I’m saying this because some of you may have heard of Mobile One, Karnataka – The Karnataka government recently, like two weeks ago launched an app that provides around 4500 services. It integrates 637 G2C (government to citizen) mobile services of various departments and 3,644 B2C (business to consumer) services, thus making it 'The largest government platform in the world'. Its another discussion that most it has been met with little use.

I will stop here…We have mentioned the challenges.. and opportunities. I would love to hear and would leave it to the innovation and creativity of this esteemed audience to come up with solutions.