India’s digital check

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Jul 08, 2015 08:00 AM |
All nine pillars of Digital India directly correlate with policy research conducted at the Centre for Internet and Society, where I have worked for the last seven years. This allows our research outputs to speak directly to the priorities of the government when it comes to digital transformation.

The article was originally published by DNA on July 8, 2015.


Broadband Highways and Universal Access to Mobile Connectivity: The first two pillars have been combined in this paragraph because they both require spectrum policy and governance fixes. Shyam Ponappa, a distinguished fellow at our Centre calls for the leveraging of shared spectrum and also shared backhaul infrastructure. Plurality in spectrum management, for eg, unlicensed spectrum should be promoted for accelerating backhaul or last mile connectivity, and also for community or local government broadband efforts. Other ideas that have been considered by Ponappa include getting state owned telcos to exit completely from the last mile and only focus on running an open access backhaul through Bharat Broadband Limited. Network neutrality regulations are also required to mitigate free speech, diversity and competition harms as ISPs and TSPs innovate with business models such as zero-rating.

Public Internet Access Programme: Continuing investments into Common Service Centres (CSCs) for almost a decade may be questionable and therefore a citizen’s audit should be undertaken to determine how the programme may be redesigned. The reinventing of post offices is very welcome, however public libraries are also in need urgent reinventing. CSCs, post offices and public libraries should all leverage long range WiFi for Internet and intranet, empowering BYOD [Bring Your Own Device] users. Applications will take time to develop and therefore immediate emphasis should be on locally caching Indic language content. State Public Library Acts need to be amended to allow for borrowing of digital content. Flat-fee licensing regimes must be explored to increase access to knowledge and culture. Commons-based peer production efforts like Wikipedia and Wikisource need to be encouraged.

e-Governance: Reforming Government through Technology: DeitY, under the leadership of free software advocate Secretary RS Sharma, has accelerated adoption and implementation of policies supporting non-proprietary approaches to intellectual property in e-governance. Policies exist and are being implemented for free and open source software, open standards and electronic accessibility for the disabled. The proprietary software lobby headed by Microsoft and industry associations like NASSCOM have tried to undermine these policies but have failed so far.

The government should continue to resist such pressures. Universal adoption of electronic signatures within government so that there is a proper audit trail for all communications and transactions should be made an immediate priority. Adherence to globally accepted data protection principles such as minimisation via “form simplification and field reduction” for Digital India should be applauded. But on the other hand the mandatory requirement of Aadhaar for DigiLocker and eSign amounts to contempt of the Supreme Court order in this regard.

e-Kranti — Electronic Delivery of Services: The 41 mission mode projects listed are within the top-down planning paradigm with a high risk of failure — the funds reserved for these projects should instead be converted into incentives for those public, private and public private partnerships that accelerate adoption of e-governance. The dependency on the National Informatics Centre (NIC) for implementation of e-governance needs to be reduced, SMEs need to be able to participate in the development of e-governance applications. The funds allocated for this area to DeitY have also produced a draft bill for Electronic Services Delivery. This bill was supposed to give RTI-like teeth to e-governance service by requiring each government department and ministry to publish service level agreements [SLAs] for each of their services and prescribing punitive action for responsible institutions and individuals when there was no compliance with the SLAs.

Information for All: The open data community and the Right to Information movement in India are not happy with the rate of implementation of National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP). Many of the datasets on the Open Data Portal are of low value to citizens and cannot be leveraged commercially by enterprise. Publication of high-value datasets needs to be expedited by amending the proactive disclosure section of the Right to Information Act 2005.

Electronics Manufacturing: Mobile patent wars have begun in India with seven big ticket cases filed at the Delhi High Court. Our Centre has written an open letter to the previous minister for HRD and the current PM requesting them to establish a device level patent pool with a compulsory license of 5%. Thereby replicating India’s success at becoming the pharmacy of the developing world and becoming the lead provider of generic medicines through enabling patent policy established in the 1970s. In a forthcoming paper with Prof Jorge Contreras, my colleague Rohini Lakshané will map around fifty thousand patents associated with mobile technologies. We estimate around a billion USD being collected in royalties for the rights-holders whilst eliminating legal uncertainties for manufacturers of mobile technologies.

IT for Jobs: Centralised, top-down, government run human resource development programmes are not useful. Instead the government needs to focus on curriculum reform and restructuring of the education system. Mandatory introduction of free and open source software will give Indian students the opportunity to learn by reading world-class software. They will then grow up to become computer scientists rather than computer operators. All projects at academic institutions should be contributions to existing free software projects — these projects could be global or national, for eg, a local government’s e-governance application. The budget allocated for this pillar should instead be used to incentivise research by giving micro-grants and prizes to those students who make key software contributions or publish in peer-reviewed academic journals or participate in competitions. This would be a more systemic approach to dealing with the skills and knowledge deficit amongst Indian software professionals.

Early Harvest Programmes: Many of the ideas here are very important. For example, secure email for government officials — if this was developed and deployed in a decentralised manner it would prevent future surveillance of the Indian government by the NSA. But a few of the other low-hanging fruit identified here don’t really contribute to governance. For example, biometric attendance for bureaucrats is just glorified bean-counting — it does not really contribute to more accountability, transparency or better governance.


The author works for the Centre for Internet and Society which receives funds from Wikimedia Foundation that has zero-rating alliances with telecom operators in many countries across the world

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