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Construction : View Point | October 2015 | Source : Infrastructure Today

A close assessment

There´s a big scope of service delivery improvement and the government needs to think mobile first.

The ´Digital India´ initiative aims at preparing India for a knowledge-oriented future. The programme´s objectives clearly highlight that it is a comprehensive, multi- year initiative, with several key intermediate milestones. Furthermore, the programme envisages a spend of Rs 1000 billion on ongoing schemes, and a further Rs 130 billion on new schemes. Apart from the budget allotted, the seriousness of the programme can be gauged by the fact that the steering committee is chaired by the prime minister, with several other cabinet ministers being a part of it.

The initiative has three major vision areas- digital infrastructure, governance and digital empowerment. There are concrete, numerical goals set out for each of the pillars- from 2015 for three-five year duration. In essence, this is not a one-year project, and so our evaluation has to calibrate the achievements accordingly.

Digital Infrastructure
Robust connectivity is imperative for ´Digital India´ to succeed, hence the physical backbone required to achieve it should be setup as planned. The National Optic Fiber Network (NOFN) Programme, launched in 2011, was expected to connect 2,50,000 gram panchayats (GPs) on broadband within two years. However, till July this year, only 23,000 GPs have been connected, and this is way behind the revised target of 50,000 GPs. However, works amounting to Rs 40 billion are in full swing to ensure connectivity in remote areas in the North East, Odisha and Chhattisgarh- this is critical not just to further ´Digital India´, but also to improve the overall national security environment.

Another area which requires significant focus is high speed Internet. Our internet still crawls and less said the better on mobile internet, despite some fancy advertisements from the providers! We need high speed wired, wireless and mobile internet all over the country. This has to be our number one priority, or else the progress on ´Digital India´ will be seriously hampered.

On its part, the government needs to provide spectrum in a good measure to service providers. Though 418 MHz of spectrum was auctioned in March 2015, this is a delayed move due to various legal and political reasons. More spectrum will be needed to unclog and speed up the internet. While the telcos have invested significantly only on the spectrum bandwidth, they also need to make significant investments on capital equipment, including mobile towers.

The progress on the common service centres (CSC) is mixed. It is an ICT enabled front-end service delivery points at the village level for delivery of government, financial, social, and private sector services. CSC is being implemented in a public private partnership framework with 1,00,000 CSCs, each serving a cluster of four-seven villages. This is the world´s largest government approved ICT enabled network, and is ideally positioned to strengthen India´s banking network by extending the business correspondent network. To facilitate the successful implementation of the CSC Scheme, a special purpose vehicle (SPV) named ¨CSC e-Governance Services India Ltd¨ was incorporated under the Companies Act. To argue in defence of the government, no quick fixes are available, and this has to be an ongoing activity with continuous push.

Governance & Services on Demand
The government is backing the Aadhaar programme, which gives a nationwide, lifelong, online and authenticable identity to well over 75 per cent of the citizenry. UIDAI has issued over 900 million Aadhaar cards, out of estimated total population of 1,210 million. Subject to the Supreme Court clearances, Aadhaar will form the backbone to use ´Digital India´ and to target benefits to individuals using technology, without bureaucratic interventions. An early success story of this concept is the financial inclusion scheme Jan Dhan Yojana (JDY). With the cooperation of public and private banks, it resulted in over 175 million new bank accounts across the country. This is an unprecedented achievement anywhere in the world, rivalling industrialisation and green revolution.

Further the linking of Aadhaar, bank accounts and benefits transfer have enabled the government to direct the subsidies to the deserving section of the society, and almost entirely weed out fraud and duplication. The very objective metric is the annual saving of Rs 150 billion in LPG subsidy alone. We have made a great start in making financial transactions electronic and cashless. Significant adoption of RTGS, IMPS, EFT and mobile transfers have reduced the cash and even cheque-based transactions. Thanks to the robust fund transfer solutions, e-commerce has taken off big time.

Many of the central and state government departments like telephones, utilities, land records, and tax have automated quite brilliantly in the past two-three years. Without enhancing the speed of mobile data, there is not too much point in aspiring to deliver government services on mobile as these services are significantly used by the rural population. Over the last year, several interesting and far reaching electronic interventions have been made to improve governance. The labour portal upgrade for EPFO and issuance of unique ids, portal to apply for new cooking gas connections and for giving up domestic LPG subsidy- part of #GiveItUp Campaign, and tracing missing children commonly subjected to trafficking are some live and successful changes made.

There´s a big scope of service delivery improvement and government needs to think mobile first when designing and rolling out new programmes. Sixty five per cent of first time internet users in India experience the power of web on mobile, and government portals and websites should look at mobile not as a channel, but as the fundamental platform to improve the citizen interface.

Digital Empowerment
The vision here is to create new jobs via manufacturing and IT services, and bridge the gap between the workforce joining the job market every year and the available opportunities. Some small starts have been made with companies like Foxconn, Xiaomi, Siemens, and GE making early bets. But there´s a big way to go on this count. The goal of net zero imports of electronic goods by 2020 is perhaps the most daunting of all, and this is where ´Make In India´ has to dovetail with ´Digital India´ to achieve a reasonable degree of self sufficiency.

India is still a difficult place to do business. We rank a lowly 142 out of 189 countries in the World Bank ladder of ease of doing business (2014 ranking). The Commerce ministry expects India´s ranking to move up this year (2015) and India aims to feature among top 50 in the next three years. The ´single window´ clearance approach is limited to few areas. Lot more needs to be done.

Overall, there has been a stunning progress in financial inclusion and unique ID; the progress on broadband coverage and digital literacy is more modest. The success of the ´Digital India´ initiative will depend on successful orchestration of the programme alongside ´Make In India´ and ´Skill India´ programmes. We can´t lose sight of the fact that it is indeed a programme spanning three-five years- the concern is the slow start on some areas. Fortunately, the government has recognised the inadequacy exhibited by existing organisational structures to handle this goal, and is taking the necessary steps to rectify them.

This article has been authored by Natarajan Radhakrishnan, Senior Vice President and Offshore Head, Capgemini Consulting.

 
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