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Digital India is the flavour of the season, and not without any reason.
Digital technologies have permeated into more and more aspects of our private and public life spaces. A lot of us increasingly depend on them to order groceries, book a taxi ride or train and flight tickets, file tax returns and apply for a passport. The entire basket of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), which include laptops, tablets, smartphones, broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity, are seen to represent a new wave of general purpose technologies, similar to what electricity was in the early 20th century and steam engines were in the early 19th century. On the other hand, India, home to the second largest population in the world and witness to relatively higher economic growth rates in the past few years, is seen as an important market, still untapped in terms of usage of digital technologies. All this leads up to the, not so unsurprising, optimism and euphoria that engulfs our current set of policy makers and large global corporates that sell and, often control, important components of these digital technologies.
The India story of the past couple of decades, however, is seen to have its own set of blemishes. There are many within the country, and outside, who are growing increasingly impatient with the reality that we are not anywhere close to global benchmarks when it comes to the state of our basic physical infrastructure — roads, water and electricity and also those related to sanitation, public health and primary education.
The frustration manifests more amongst those who see themselves connected, or having a potential to connect, to important global networks and supply chains, such as, for software and financial services and commodity trading, and for whom the aforesaid blemishes negatively affect their bargaining power vis-à-vis other constituents of these networks.
There is another set of people who could be equally concerned with the state of basic infrastructure but they may look at the solution more from its utility in addressing the inequities, some of them historical, in access to and distribution of resources. This set may not be as impatient given that the change they look forward to is also with respect to deep-seated exploitative relations and institutions in our society.
The former group of people would see Government of India’s flagship Digital India programme as an opportunity to include digital infrastructure in the same category of public goods as roads and electricity and, hence, push for laying more broadband cables, creating more Wi-Fi hot-spots and freeing up more spectrum for commercial data exchange. The assumptions that are carried here are somewhat similar to trickle-down economics: that availability of a digital infrastructure — in the present instant, smartphones and data connectivity, and also unique digital identity — with every citizen of the country will lead an ‘invisible hand’ to direct its use for addressing the governance and development challenges we face as a nation.
Framers of development policies worldwide, and in India, have realized that an explicit recognition of the pathways through which the poor and marginalized contribute and benefit in the economic growth process is important. The entire human development discourse derives from such an understanding. More recently, it has also played a key role in informing the newly formulated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly during the SDG summit in New York on September 25, 2015. The event was attended by over 150 heads of states, including the Indian Prime Minister, though the relevance of it was overshadowed by his visits to corporate headquarters in California.
While one cannot deny the importance of digital infrastructure, such as the ones mentioned above, in the present age, it is equally important to understand that they may not be of much help in addressing governance and development concerns unless they are integrated into a wide reforms agenda, which could often involve not-so-popular, structural and institutional change. One such could be the long-called-for, real and effective devolution of functions, finances and functionaries to local government bodies, which has, in most instances, continued as a mere lip-service even after Constitutional Amendments of the early 1990s.
The Indian experience of using ICTs in governance for the past 15 years is not something that we can be proud of — amongst 193 countries, India ranks 118 on the e-Government Development Index as per the United Nations e-Government Survey 2014. Many studies have been conducted by researchers from reputed academic institutes in India and across the world on the problems that plague Indian experiments in using ICTs for governance and development, and they point to the need of bringing a greater understanding of local contextual realities into project designs.
Amidst the ongoing endorsements by global corporate heads of the Digital India programme, we should not forget that unless use of digital technologies is appealing and makes sense to an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) in a village health sub-centre, an anganwadi worker, a teacher in a government primary school, a village accountant in the revenue department, an agriculture assistant, a fair-price shop owner and a food inspector and similar such frontline service providers, who are the face of the state for many of our fellow citizens, the promise of leveraging digital technologies for achieving sustainable development may continue to elude us. I hope the torchbearers of the Digital India programme will also attach equal importance to this latter constituency as they march forward in their journey of integrating digital technologies in Indian life spaces.
(Amit Prakash is Consulting Faculty and Convener, Centre for IT and Public Policy at the International Institute of Information Technology, Bengaluru)