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Iron out contradictions in the Digital India programme

Posted by Sumandro Chattapadhyay at Jul 28, 2015 01:04 AM |
The Digital India initiative takes an ambitious 'Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani' approach to develop communication infrastructure, government information systems, and general capacity to digitise public life in India. I of course use 'public life' in the sense of the wide sphere of interactions between people and public institutions.

The article was published in the Hindustan Times on July 15, 2015.

The 'Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani' approach involves putting together Japanese shoes, British trousers, and a Russian cap to make an entertainer with a pure Indian heart. In this case, the analogy must not be understood as different components of the initiative coming from different countries, but as coming from different efforts to use digital technologies for governance in India.

It is deploying the Public Information Infrastructure vision, inclusive of the National Optical Fibre Network (now renamed as BharatNet) and the national cloud computing platform titled Meghraj, so passionately conceptualised and pursued by Sam Pitroda. It has chosen the Aadhaar ID and the authentication-as-a-service infrastructure built by Nandan Nilekani, Ram Sewak Sharma, and the team, as the identity platform for all governmental processes across Digital India projects. It has closely embraced the mandate proposed by Jaswant Singh led National Task Force on Information Technology and Software Development for completely electronic interface for paper-free citizen-government interactions.

The digital literacy and online education aspects of the initiative build upon the National Mission on Education through ICT driven by Kapil Sibal. Two of the three vision areas of the Digital India initiative, namely 'Digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen' and 'governance and service on demand,' are directly drawn from the two core emphasis clusters of the National e-Governance Plan designed by R. Chandrashekhar and team, namely the creation of the national and state-level network and data infrastructures, and the National Mission Mode projects to enable electronic delivery of services across ministries.

And this is not a bad thing at all. In fact, the need for this programmatic and strategic convergence has been felt for quite some time now, and it is wonderful to see the Prime Minister directly addressing this need. Although, while drawing benefits from the existing programmes, the DI initiative must also deal with the challenges inherited in the process.

Recently circulated documents describes that the institutional framework for Digital India will be headed by a Monitoring Committee overseeing two main drivers of the initiative: the Digital India Advisory Group led by the minister of communication and information technology, and the Apex Committee chaired by the cabinet secretary. While the former will function primarily through guiding the implementation works by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY), the latter will lead the activities of both the DeitY and the various sectoral ministries.

Here lies one possible institutional bottleneck that the Digital India architecture inherits from the National e-Governance Plan. Putting the DeitY in the driving seat of the digital transformation agenda in parallel with all other central government departments indicate an understanding that the transformation is fundamentally a technical issue. However, most often what is needed is administrative reform at a larger scale, and re-engineering of processes at a smaller scale.

Government agencies that have addressed such challenges in the past, such as the department of administrative reforms and public grievances, is not mentioned explicitly within the institutional framework, and instead DeitY has been trusted with a range of tasks that may be beyond its scope and core skills.

The danger of this is that the Digital India initiative will end up initiating more infrastructural and software projects, without transforming the underlying governmental processes. For example, the recently launched eBasta website creates a centralised online shop for publishers of educational materials to make books available for teachers to browse and select for their classes, and for the students to directly download, against payment or otherwise. The website has been developed by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing and DeitY. At the same time, the ministry of human resource development, which is responsible for matters related to public education, has already collaborated with the Central Institute of Educational Technology and the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education in TIFR to build a comprehensive platform for multi-media resources for education – the National Repository of Open Educational Resources. The initial plans of the DI initiative are yet to explicitly recognise that the key challenge is not in building new applications and websites, but aligning existing efforts.

This mismatch, between what the Digital India initiative proposes to achieve and how it plans to achieve it, is further demonstrated in the 'e-Governance Policy Initiatives under Digital India' document. The compilation lists the key policies to govern designing and implementation of the Digital India programmes, but surprisingly fails to mention any policies, acts, and pending bills approved or initiated by any previous government. This is remarkably counter-productive as the existing policy frameworks, such as the Framework for Mobile Governance, the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy, and the Interoperability Framework for e-Governance, are suitably placed to complement the new policies around use of free of open source softwares for e-governance systems, so as to ensure their transparency, interoperability, and inclusive outreach. Several pending bills like The National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010, The Electronic Delivery of Services Bill, 2011, and The Privacy (Protection) Bill, 2013, are absolutely fundamental for comprehensive and secure implementation of the various programmes under the Digital India initiative.

The next year will complete a decade of development of national e-governance systems in India, since the launch of National e-Governance Plan in 2006. Given this history of information systems sometimes partially implemented and sometimes working in isolation, a 'Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani' approach to digitise India is a very pragmatic one. What we surely do not need is increased contradiction among e-governance systems. Simultaneously, we neither need digital systems that centralise governmental power within one ministry on technical grounds, or expose citizens to abuse of their digital identity and assets due to lack of sufficient legal frameworks.

(Sumandro Chattapadhyay is research director, The Centre for Internet and Society. The views expressed are personal.)