The Indian government is making commendable efforts to transform India into a knowledge economy by digitally bridging the urban-rural divide. In this context, the Digital India project aims to connect all gram panchayats through broadband internet and promote e-governance while opening up several opportunities to deliver health care, education and welfare electronically to the remotest corners of the country.
For instance, there is currently a massive demand-supply gap in the medicare segment and a shortage of about 1.5-2 million doctors. Technology can be used to fill this gap to a great extent. The e-health initiatives envisaged under Digital India involve integrating the patient’s electronic health records in a “digital locker” that can be maintained over a person’s lifetime. It will also be accessible to government and private establishments. This broad database will not be limited to an individual’s health records but act as a dedicated cloud-based personal storage space linked to each resident’s Aadhar number. It will have the facility to store e-documents as well as e-document URLs issued by various departments, along with the option of e-signing them.
In addition, several e-governance projects are being undertaken in various states. For instance, the Karnataka government has deployed Mobile One, a multichannel mobile services platform that provides citizens access to over 4,000 services through hand-held devices. The application witnesses 100,000 hits and downloads on a daily basis. The state government already has an online land registration project called Bhumi, along with an e-procurement system in all government contracts that helps plug leakages. Its Effective Vehicles Database Management System helps trace the owners of unclaimed vehicles lying in police stations.
Meanwhile, Kerala is expected to shortly be declared the first digital state in the country owing to the strength of its digital infrastructure and e-governance initiatives. As many as 3,378 of its government offices, including district and block headquarters and taluka offices, are connected digitally, with more than 40 government departments and PSUs using the e-procurement system. The state’s other under-implementation projects include the BharatNet project to provide affordable broadband connectivity, the m-governance project that entails the use of a single mobile application to access a variety of government services, the establishment of Wi-Fi hotspots in government schools, making government offices paperless, and the conversion of Akshaya centres into e-banking kiosks.
Gujarat has been a pioneer in the implementation of e-governance applications by setting up key infrastructure like the Gujarat State Wide Area Network, Satellite Communication and Gujarat State Data Centre. In the past 13 years, the state government has got as many as 174 national awards in e-governance in sectors like public services, hospital management, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan and Gram Vikas. Its key initiatives include e-procurement, targeted public distribution systems, e-Dhara, e-Jameen, Apno Taluka Vibrant Taluka, online job applications, e-GujCop and e-Nagar. Under Gujarat’s Suraksha Setu project, 604 CCTV cameras have been connected to a control room through a 200 km long underground optical fibre network. They have been installed at 113 strategic locations, leading to a one-third reduction in the crime rate. Systems like barcoded ration cards and biometric food coupons have helped ensure that there are no leakages in the public distribution system. The main aim of the Digital India project is to help all states replicate this information and communications technology success for good governance.
Public Wi-Fi systems are being seen as another integral part of the Digital India implementation strategy. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited is undertaking several Wi-Fi initiatives and has rolled out 450 hotspots with a focus on pan-Indian tourist areas. It is aiming to set up a total of 2,500 Wi-Fi hotspots by the end of the current fiscal year. Mussoorie has become the first town under the Digital India initiative to be declared a free Wi-Fi town. Its Mall Road, which stretches to a distance of 4 km, is fully Wi-Fi-enabled, and the Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited network promises a minimum speed of 50-100 Mbps at any given point.
While the technology advancements ushered in through the Digital India project will lead to several socio-economic benefits, they are also expected to drive economic growth. As per McKinsey & Company, the adoption of key technologies and policies across sectors could help boost India’s GDP by $550 billion, propelling it to $1 trillion by 2025. However, given the current status of various Digital India projects, a major push is required to achieve the objectives that will later turn into desirable GDP figures.
India clearly lacks the extensive broadband and IT infrastructure that is central to the project’s goals. Over three-fourths of Indians, the majority of whom reside in rural areas, have no access to the internet. The progress of the BharatNet project to address connectivity gaps has remained slow, with the pace being impacted by issues like limited supply of equipment, labour shortage, and the lack of coordination among implementing agencies.
Apart from physical telecom infrastructure, there is an urgent need for IT infrastructure in the form of applications, software, etc. Delivering relevant content and addressing the real-time requirements of citizens form the basis of the Digital India project. Moreover, India needs a massive network capacity to meet demand. Given that last mile connectivity is provided through wireless networks, the government should ensure greater availability of spectrum in lower frequency bands at reasonable prices.
Looking at the targets of the Digital India project, it is clear that the government has its work cut out. Accomplishing this without the private sector’s participation will be extremely difficult as it can render a great amount of financial and technical support. The public-private partnership (PPP) approach can bring about the right amount of collaboration between the two, paving the way for the successful and expeditious implementation of the project.
Private players can bring in knowledge and expertise about next-generation technologies and their implementation. They are also likely to offer better project management practices, along with domain knowledge and financing options. Thus, the private sector can help the government set up robust technology infrastructure to support various initiatives under the Digital India project. The PPP model has worked well for developing crucial infrastructure. At present, nearly 50 infrastructure development projects with a combined outlay of approximately Rs 260 billion are at various stages of implementation in 33 cities on a PPP basis.
Long road ahead
The Digital India project can prove to be a game changer for bringing inclusive growth to the country. While the government’s vision to connect remote areas via high speed internet highways to digitally empower people is commendable, the road to its successful implementation will be fraught with multiple issues. However, it is interesting to note that once the process gains traction, it will facilitate other government initiatives, including the national financial inclusion plan that aims to bring banking facilities to every Indian, the Smart Cities Mission, and the Make in India initiative that is designed to encourage local manufacturing and job creation.
Targets and timelines
Digital India is centred around three key areas: digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen; governance and services on demand; and the digital empowerment of citizens. The overall cost of the project is Rs 1,000 billion for ongoing central government schemes and about Rs 130 billion for new schemes and activities. The following programmes have been planned under the nine Digital India pillars:
- Broadband for All (Rural): Through BharatNet, the government is aiming to provide broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats by December 2016. BharatNet comes under the purview of the Department of Telecommunications, and is estimated to cost Rs 320 billion.
- National information infrastructure: This involves the integration of state-wide area networks, the National Knowledge Network (NKN) and BharatNet for the nationwide strengthening of digital infrastructure by March 2017. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology will be the nodal department for project implementation. The infrastructure integration and roll-out is estimated to cost Rs 156.86 billion.
- Universal access to mobile connectivity: This ongoing programme has a focus on increasing network penetration and fixing coverage gaps by bringing basic mobile connectivity to about 42,300 villages that still do not have wireless access. It involves an expenditure of Rs 160 billion and is expected to be completed by 2018.
- Enhancing the role of CSCs: Under its public internet access programme, the government is planning to enhance the role of common service centres (CSCs) in rural areas. By March 2017, it will invest Rs 47.5 billion to ensure that these CSCs deliver services in 130,000 gram panchayats.
- Leveraging the postal network: The government’s long-term vision is to leverage the vast network of post offices by transforming them into multi-service centres.
- Information for All: This largely involves utilising existing infrastructure to digitally disseminate most government-to-citizen information.
- E-governance: The government is planning to make technology central to the functioning of all departments. This will involve the electronic storage of information as well as automated workflow automation and public grievance redressal. Government data is already hosted on its cloud platform, which is called “Meghraj”.
- E-Kranti: The initiative emphasises electronic service delivery and encompasses sectors like education, health, agriculture, security, financial inclusion and planning. The government plans to provide free Wi-Fi in about 250,000 schools over the next few years. On the medical and health care front, it intends to make medical records of patients online by 2020. Electronic service delivery will help farmers get real-time price information, place orders online, and receive relief payments through mobile banking.
- Electronics manufacturing: The government is targeting net zero imports by 2020. This will involve major fine-tuning of ongoing programmes as well as strengthening of existing infrastructure.
- IT for jobs: The government is aiming to train the rural workforce by making them IT- and telecom-ready.
- Early harvest programmes: These include providing free Wi-Fi universities under NKN as well as in 400 additional universities; public Wi-Fi hotspots in all major tourist centres and cities with a population of over 1 million; SMS-based weather information and disaster alerts; and a national portal for lost and found children.