India takes off on digital democracy highways

Shoe seller Raj Kumar sits under a tree in Mumbai’s Pherozshah Mehta Road as example of Digital India’s tagline ‘power to empower’. Deftly scrolling through messages in a Samsung smartphone, he replied to a curious query from Asia Times: “I’m on WhatsApp whenever I have time. My friends and I have groups to share news and free governmental schemes”.

Digital India MyGov.in portal announcing a live talk show on Smart Cities

Digital India MyGov.in portal announcing a live talk show on Smart Cities

Street vendor Raj Kumar’s life swirls in a technology transformation of a country on a scale never before attempted in history. He belongs to the unique population called ‘Linkster Generation’ — those born after 1995, with mobile phones and Internet already in the world.

‘Linksters’ form core of India’s 1.25 billion population, with 800 million under 35 years, that Digital India aims to connect through convergence of computer, Internet, and cell phone technologies.

Expected fruits are more inclusive development, transparent governance, reducing corruption, busting long queues and horrendous time that people need for government-related work.  Digital India expects to make daily life bit more easy.

On October 9, the Electoral Assistance System tapping mobile and online facility (EASY) was launched in Tamil Nadu to enable Voter ID card applications through cell phones, the first of its kind in India. Voting through mobile phones would be the next step.

‘M-Governance’ or mobile governance holds potential, in the Indian governmental view, “to make development a truly inclusive and comprehensive mass movement. It puts governance within everyone’s reach”.

More so with those from the ‘Linkster’ generation like Raj Kumar who does not read newspapers but accesses information online. “I cannot imagine life without a mobile phone”, he grinned.

Likewise ‘Linksters’ from more economically privileged backgrounds, Yatin Angara (17) and Kran Somaya (18) in two well-known colleges in South Mumbai. “My family gets four newspapers daily, but I never read them,” said Somaya. “I get news from my cell phone. It first gets here, and then in the newspaper tomorrow.”

“My mobile phone is my newspaper,” smiled Angara, a commerce student who knew of Digital India from Facebook. “Digital India can help us become as technologically advanced a country like Japan,” he said.

Yet inevitably, like any major technology harbinger of change, Digital India suffers skepticism, suspicions of security of publicly stored personal information such as birth certificates and income tax records in the new Digital Lockers. Concerns include safety of bio-metric technology and the 256-bit secure socket layer (SSL) encryption used in Digital Lockers.

But as in earlier decades when some folks continued hoarding life savings at home rather than trust banks, misgivings may be temporary. Digital Locker already has 981,000 users in three months since being launched in July 1, 2015. The Ministry of Communications and IT says Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is capital), Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh states lead in Digital Locker users.

Some negative noises over Digital India may be misplaced, a difference in outlook such as seeing the glass half full or half empty. Few question the necessity to build roads, and “building I-ways are as important as highways”, as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the Digital India Event in San Jose, California, on September 27.

Building I-ways of connectivity through the National Optical Fibre Network, India aims to bring broadband to 600,000 villages, schools and colleges across the country.

Unnoticed travelers in these I-ways include lower-income sections such as street vendor Raj kumar and office attendant Dharmapal Jagtap (52). He, his wife and four children each has a mobile phone and Internet access through a home computer. Smart phone ownership was up by 63% across India in 2014.

Proliferating multi-billion dollar start-ups like Flipkart, Amazon India, Snapdeal and Paytm increase cell phone dependence, with e-commerce already giving way to m-commerce.

Pervasiveness of mobile phones already seems eerie when consciously looking for it. On a quiet Sunday evening at Marine Drive by the Arabian Sea, nearly one out of three people I saw were engrossed in their palm-held gadgets, as a phone, camera or fingers busily scrolling LCD screens.

A family of three – father, mother and maybe 5-year old daughter– was sitting on the promenade ramparts with their backs to the sea, each holding a smart phone and lost to the world. Less than a kilometer away, a homeless couple outside the Life Insurance Corporation of India headquarters was watching a movie on a mobile phone.

Mandi Trades - a Digital India App for farmers

Mandi Trades, a Digital India App for farmers

In districts of Maharashtra, farmers use a Whatsapp group to share agricultural information. ‘Mandi Trades App’, in a Digital India portal, is a location-based ‘Farm to Shop’ trading platform for agricultural products. It also gives updated daily agricultural commodity prices.

“Digital India is an exciting proposition for the country,” said Ram Bhatt, a Chennai-based entrepreneur. “People need something to believe in and rally behind, and it has brought a lot of energy, enthusiasm and interest in India.”

And it opens a national online ‘town hall’ for information and ideas, like in the primary Digital India ‘MyGov.in’ portal and ‘App’. Over 1.30 million members have submitted 136,000 ideas on 216 projects and 6.5 million comments in 332 discussion themes, according to the National Informatics Centre that manages Digital India websites.

Conspicuously missing though are specifics on how this feedback is processed and used. And since the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) avoids direct interaction with the media, questions grow of how deep is this ‘transparency’ the government talks about.

Part of this avowed ‘transparency’ is much needed, as in rescuing people from corrupt governmental clerks. For instance, online tracking of files is key part of the e-governance upgrade. ‘Data.gov.in’ includes inputs from 17,833 resources, 98 governmental departments and 107 Chief Data officers (*1) to enable direct access of administrative information.

And so Digital India can potentially slash India’s infamous red tape. “It can help to break free from the bureaucratic stranglehold,” said Arun Toshniwal (72), an industrialist owning Chemito Technologies, a pioneering electronics manufacturer from Mumbai. “Misdeeds can be quickly exposed. I think Digital India can make a major difference to the country, and is already changing business management methods.”

Rajiv Gandhi (1944–1991) could take early credit for this evolving digital journey. In 1984, as India’s youngest Prime Minister at age 40, he visualized a computerized India in days when the country was ranked ‘Third World’. People laughed at him.

Now as the world’s fastest growing economy, India needs connective technology for fast tracking development. Rome was not built in a day, and Digital India use will increase across decades.

Even in schools, technology use is expanding in unprecedented extent. During my school days in Don Bosco, Egmore, in Chennai, our three science labs were probably same as when the school was established in 1958. Not a single computer existed the year I passed out of school in 1985.

Three decades later in 2015, Don Bosco Egmore has an experiential ‘Science Centre’ that is first of its kind in South Asia. Built in collaboration with Canada’s Ontario Science Centre, the four-floor DB Science Centre includes a robotics laboratory.

Raj Dharmaraj, senior technology consultant helping to bring advanced interactive learning to schoolchildren

Raj Dharmaraj, senior technology consultant helping to bring advanced interactive learning to schoolchildren

Alumni Raj Dharmaraj, Human Resources chief of New Jersey-based Cognizant Technology Solutions, had helped in this project seeing potential of advanced interactive technology in school education. The ‘DB Science Centre’ includes a mobile lab to bring science to children in villages.

Such interactive e-learning in schools gets strong focus in Digital India that held a nationwide quiz this year for schoolchildren. In 1985, we had an old black board for teachers to drive Pythagoras theorems and Faraday’s laws into our distracted heads. In 2015, Don Bosco Egmore has video conferencing, each classroom a LCD projector and a digital smartboard for visual-based education. Digital India plans to convert text books to e-books to increase a paperless lifestyle.

Across decades, Digital India has evolved to be an umbrella program the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) co-ordinates. It grows around ‘Nine Pillars’ to transform India:

1. Broadband Highways – urban and rural, to connect 250,000 villages by December 2016.

2. Increasing Mobile Connectivity – as in 55,619 villages yet to have mobile phone services.

3. Public Internet Access – as through Google providing free high-speed Wi-Fi in 500 railway stations.

4.  Electronics manufacturing – with aim of ‘zero imports’ of electronics by 2020. Boosting manufacturing of electronics like set top boxes, mobiles, medical electronics, smart cards, micro-ATMs.

5. E-governance – to simplify government processes, cut red tape by reducing application forms, reduce corruption by online filing, tracking files.

6. IT for jobs – training young people for Information Technology jobs, such as training around 10 million students from small towns, villages and from north-eastern states by 2020.

7. Information for All – digital democracy through portals like Mygov.in and the Open Government Data platform data. gov. in

8. Early Harvest Programs – projects to be implemented in short time frame, such as a national portal for lost and found children, Wi-Fi in universities, school text books to be converted to e-books, SMS based weather information and disaster alerts.

9.  eKranti – a core pillar of Digital India that offers electronic delivery of governmental services from 44 departments, such as education, health, security, agriculture, law courts, road transport, taxes etc.

The Department of Electronics says eKranti averaged 32 million monthly transactions from January to April 30, 2015, dealing with land records, health, education, passport, police, courts, municipalities, taxes. India is on its way on new digital highways, in a dawning era of technology-driven democracies.

Notes

1) Digital India’s Open Government Data, a joint India-USA initiative, is an open source platform for countries worldwide to use. Available for download at GitHub, it offers high value data sets on industry, legislation, social development, agriculture, census, biotechnology, commerce, travel and tourism, master data on Indian companies, health information, 100 years of rainfall patterns and more. It includes Community Apps for everyday use.

 Raja Murthy is a Mumbai-based journalist writing for Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990; he was long-time contributor to Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, consultant to Wisden.com etc

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)



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