Monday, October 26, 2015

Digital India Needs Correction

Stalled in mid stride: Digital India can transform the country, but not the way it is being implemented now

Among the flurry of initiatives announced in the wake of the new government taking over in May 2014, the Digital India initiative stood out – for its potential to transform governance, citizenship and entrepreneurship in our country. It’s an exciting vision because of its potential to leapfrog a nation and people into the technology age – creating unprecedented competitive advantages for India. It’s also exciting because of the promise to transform utterly decrepit institutions of government and democracy – fulfilling the “minimum government, maximum governance” goal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But a year and half on, the gap between vision and execution on the ground is wide and growing. Serious questions are popping up on the capacity of the ministry and regulator to both understand and implement Digital India.
From the get go, it was obvious that Digital India and connecting Indians to the internet – transformational as it was going to be – needed serious work. It has taken about $100 billion of investment over the last 21 years to get 900 million Indians behind a mobile phone. In recent years about 200 million Indians have also connected to the internet. An estimated $80 billion is required to get 600 million Indians connected to the internet. Early on in this government’s term, i had written to government and in articles about the key building block issues that need to be addressed.
At the heart of it is credible independent regulation. India’s Trai is an agency that has suffered from serious credibility problems both in terms of quality of its regulation and perceived capture by some telcos. Its handling of issues like call drops and net neutrality has been simply terrible, raising more questions than it answered.
Trai’s capacity needs to be strengthened to regulate a sector where disruptive technologies are the norm and where consumers expect unfettered access to these new innovations, without being limited by legacy licensing or business model issues.
Focus on rights of a billion Indians destined to become digital Indians is important because consumer rights in the technology and telecom space have been given short shrift over the last decade. An infamous example is poor network quality and call drops – an issue only being handled belatedly after public outcry.
On call drops, government has demonstrated the will to break the vicelike hold of a few telcos that have in recent years controlled policy making unchallenged. That this must be balanced with the need to attract $80 billion in capital into the sector is what makes Trai’s and government’s job a sophisticated and nuanced one.
There are other building blocks that are critical to creating the policy ecosystem for Digital India – net neutrality, privacy, data protection, encryption, access and infrastructure investments. Net neutrality is an issue that arrived at the table of policy makers almost 12 months ago and remains without policy clarity to date. A report by an expert committee of government showed how far away government is from where it should be. Public outcry caused an abrupt disavowal of the report.
Net neutrality is a very simple concept – it is about creating an internet that is open, accessible and free of any gatekeepers. It is an element of Digital India that should be simple to define, legislate and regulate. It’s critical in many ways to growth of Digital India, to investments, to supporting digital entrepreneurship and creating a smooth roadmap to future innovations around the Internet of Things and Industrial Internet. Net neutrality is a defining issue for the growth of internet in our country. Government’s much delayed policy making in this area is a big deal, hurting the future of Digital India.
Privacy is yet another issue where government is behind the curve. One of the implications of Digital India is that millions of Indians will have their data and personal information in various government and private databases scattered around the country and overseas. This raises serious issues relating to privacy rights of the consumer. But government’s position in the Aadhaar case is that privacy isn’t a necessary right. I am also a petitioner in this case, now being heard in the Supreme Court.
Absence of privacy legislation is also causing government missteps like the bizarre encryption policy it issued recently, which had to be taken back amidst public furore. The debate on privacy is gaining strength and momentum globally as well. As more and more Indians get online, the clamour for protection of their data and privacy will only grow. It would be unwise to ignore this.
Finally and most importantly Digital India requires significant investments from the private sector. While there is significant global interest amongst investors in Digital India, government responses in recent times to net neutrality, the porn ban saga and encryption policy highlight the large gap between the vision of Digital India and its execution.
To make real the Digital India vision and of taking government and services to a billion Indians via the internet, Trai, DoT and DeitY have to be transformed with the specialised capacity required to deal with technology policy making and regulation. Government needs to reverse its current struggling and muddling through trial and error; it must race ahead of the curve through smart policy and leadership.
The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP and technology entrepreneur
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.