Centre for Internet & Society

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Digital India (DI) initiative on 1 July, at an event attended by scores of government officials as well as industry leaders.

The blog post by Suhas Munshi was published in Catch News on July 2, 2015. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

The initiative

  • Digital India aims to make all citizens digitally literate. Bring e-governance to every doorstep.
  • Corporates have promised to invest Rs 4.5 lakh crore in the initiative.
  • This is greater than the total spend on all govt schemes. It is equivalent to 1/4th of the national budget.

The positives

  • It will be a boost to industry; both large and small enterprises.
  • It will ostensibly create a lot of jobs.
  • It's ideal if citizens can connect directly with the government.

The negatives

  • Will the initiative be genuinely inclusive?
  • How will corporates recover their costs? Will the promised investments end up as bad loans from banks?
  • Who will handle the personal data of so many citizens; will it be efficient?
  • Who will the vendors be?
  • Will the proposed digital lockers for official documentation be reliable?
  • Will the initiative give the govt a tool to conduct mass surveillance?

The alternative focus

  • Some experts feel the govt should concentrate on giving people access to basic necessities like water, power and sewage.
  • The backbone of the project, the National Optical Fibre Network, has already run into massive infrastructure issues.

The programme aims to make all citizens digitally literate and bring the internet and e-governance to all sections of the society.

Like Modi's past initiatives, this too has polarised opinion, in this case on the government's aggressive push for e-governance.

While some advise patience before arriving at a verdict, others think it isn't too early to begin celebrations.

Astronomical budget

Most of the funds for this initiative are expected to come from the private sector. The total investments promised by big corporates, according to Modi, is Rs 4.5 lakh crore.

That is an astonishing number - it is equivalent to a quarter of the country's budget.

If true, then the amount spent on this project will be way over the total money spent on all of the government's 66 central sponsored schemes.

However, India hasn't been able to deliver on the last big welfare scheme promised - the Food Security Act, two years after it was passed in Parliament.

Investments promised by corporates add up to Rs 4.5 lakh crore, which is one-fourth of India's total budget

This scheme, which is set to cost the country Rs 1.25 lakh crore, aims to provide subsidised food grains to two-thirds of the populace.

The immediate concern experts have expressed with the budget is the possible intervention of the private sector.

The big corporate houses that have promised these staggering investments, would also be looking to recover them.

"As I see it, effectively a new sector is being created for this initiative. While it is good, when the private sector comes in to support big government projects, we also have to examine what the recovery model for those investments are. Hopefully, more details about investments will be made available," said Subrata Das, Executive Director, Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability.

Boost to industry

The initiative has already received a massive thumbs up from the industry. Corporate leaders made a beeline to praise the initiative.

RIL chairman Mukesh Ambani said that with Digital India, the government has moved faster than industry. He added that Reliance Jio Infocomm will invest Rs 2,50,000 crore as part of the Digital India programme.

"Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has partnered with the government for projects like Passport Seva and income tax e-filing, as well as state-level projects," said Cyrus Mistry, chairman of Tata Group, at the event.

Azim Premji, Wipro chairman, was quoted as saying the initiative will democratise the nation and "break down the digital divide in India".

He added that the level of skills of India's people will have to be significantly improved in order to make full use of the new initiative.

Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, said it would leverage its Idea Cellular network of 165 million subscribers across 3,50,000 towns and villages in India to provide mobile-based healthcare and education services, as well as weather forecasting advisories and 'mandi' prices to over one million farmers.

The company will also launch a mobile wallet and payment bank as well as invest over $2 billion in the next five years in various internet-based sectors.

There seems to be a consensus on the kind of platform DI will provide to small entrepreneurs and the massive job opportunities it will create.

"Who has not heard about their computer engineer friends trying to develop a product in their spare time? These small entrepreneurs will get a lot of help if they are brought to a common platform with big companies and if lack of resources don't impede their work. Besides, as government starts to spend, there will be a severe need for hardware technicians, network operators, data entry operators," said Manish Sabharwal, chairman, Teamlease.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, independent lawmaker in the Rajya Sabha, says DI is not only essential for the idea of 'minimum government, maximum governance', it is a big boost for the Indian IT industry.

"It is absolutely essential for good governance that as many people as possible are put directly in touch with their government. One of the biggest achievements, I think, will be in connecting 700 million people, so far sequestered, with the rest of the country. This obviously helps small entrepreneurs with launching their startups and bringing in a healthy workforce into the folds of this scheme," he said.

Many sunrise sectors before have similarly promised job growth that has not materialised. It remains to be seen how much of this euphoria plays out in concrete terms.

Privacy concerns

Therefore, while there's been a lot of positive buzz, not everyone is sold on the initiative.

Concerns are being raised about the handling of personal data of so many citizens.

There is a question about the reliability of the digital lockers in which all citizens will have their official documentation, and the anxiety of the data falling into the wrong hands.

"Of course, the concern with respect to privacy is legitimate and urgent.

Since the data the government will collect will be very large in terms of volume and can be misused, the reliability of the government's systems will have to be quite high.

So let's wait to see the nuts and bolts of the programme," said Apar Gupta, a senior lawyer specialising in information technology.

According to Reetika Khera, associate professor, economics at IIT Delhi, applications like digital lockers will make it easier for government to conduct mass surveillance.

There are questions over the reliability of digital lockers and about data falling into the wrong hands

"Programmes like Aadhar, digi-locker, central monitoring system (of mobile calls) etc are creating and enabling a massive surveillance infrastructure in India that will put NSA's PRISM, XKeyScore etc to shame.

"For instance, if Aadhaar is linked to your mobile number, bank account, travel details, the government can build a profile of each person at the click of a mouse. This is especially worrying because data protection and privacy laws are weak or non-existent," she said.

Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bangalore-based research organisation Centre for Internet and Society, also agrees with the concerns but is optimistic about the safeguards being put in place.

"There is a very mature draft of the Privacy Bill at the Department of Personnel and Training which will hopefully be introduced into Parliament after some rounds of public consultation and feedback.

"This, along with appropriate architectural and technological changes to e-governance services, will mitigate privacy concerns," said Abraham.

Misplaced priorities?

Then there is an argument that the less-privileged sections of society may need basic social services before they're considered for internet inclusion.

"What is true at the ground is that many people still don't have access to basic services, so while I think this is a good initiative, it should be part of our medium-term strategy.

"To begin with, we should focus on setting up basic infrastructure and extending water, power and sewer lines to most of the country," said Amitabh Kundu, retired JNU professor, who's advising the government on various projects.

Apar Gupta wonders how the government intends to bring people who are semi-literate, with no access to internet, within the fold of this e-governance project.

"Extending social welfare schemes to this section of people solely through digital medium is not viable," he said.

Some feel that the whole DI initiative is a mass-scale feel-good exercise. The argument is that using technology to 'uplift' the masses isn't a new idea, and is introduced periodically, and turns out to be largely ineffective.

"From the looks of it, this initiative seems to be nothing but techno-optimism. There is a belief that new technologies will, by themselves, transform the social world, but this doesn't happen.

"Techno-optimism, which we have seen before, is no different to traditional forms of governance, and over time, turns out to be nothing but a public relations exercises. An exercise to make governance visible to masses," said Ravi Sundaram, professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

Infrastructure issues

A project of this ambition and magnitude is bound to run into difficulties and, just a day after the launch, The Indian Express reported that the National Optical Fibre Network, the backbone of the initiative, is way behind schedule.

The project was supposed to be completed by December 2016. Initially, the 2014-15 target was to execute the work for one lakh gram panchayats, which was later halved to 50,000.

However, up until March 2015, only about 20,000 gram panchayats have been covered.

The primary problem is the cascading delays faced by central agencies, and when the active intervention of states was sought, 'right of way' charges have become the bone of contention.

Lack of contractors to do specialised work is also turning out to be an issue.

Thus, it won't be a stretch to say that while the initiative sounds like a great thing, doubts over its proper execution will continue till there is some concrete success to show for it.