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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Digital India –Technology for economic transformation



Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power with a massive mandate in May 2014. His m
antra has been good governance and economic development. Given the massive scale of poverty in India - in spite of the impressive growth witnessed in the last decade – the path to economic salvation is
complex and merits serious thought and policy initiatives. As Modi seeks to put the Indian economy on a high growth trajectory north of 7%, his government is betting on deploying a broad spectrum of cutting edge technologies as the catalyst to enable this massive economic transformation. Digital India initiative will play a pivotal role in facilitating this transformation.

The reliance on technology rather than ideology is a refreshing paradigm shift. Unlike the socialist ideology forced upon the nation for over six decades that resulted in stagnating poverty and measly growth rates, technology has proved to be a reliable catalyst in economic transformations of nations. More importantly India, where a majority of whom are under 35 years of age, is impatient and in no mood to suffer economic hardships any longer.

Industrial Revolution of yesteryears is a striking example of how new inventions and technology spurred western economies.  In more recent years, the advent of mobile phones has enabled widespread reach of telecom and mobile enabled services to remote areas in poorer economies of Africa and Asia.  Kenya’s mobile banking is a shining example. Hence the reliance on technology is prudent and has the highest odds to success in enabling this massive transformation.

Digital India will provide both government and non-governmental service providers a platform to co-create and co-share a transparent, leak-proof – read corruption free - and efficient delivery of services to every nook and corner of the country.  This connectivity will hasten a feedback loop to the federal and regional governments by providing instantaneous data on various program implementations and other vital data.

In fact Prime Minister Modi, in his recent address at the NASSCOM summit on 1st March , 2015 stressed the importance of digital technology in service delivery, governance, transparency and  effectively deterring corruption. Even at a minimum, this will be a phenomenal achievement that will set the stage for rapid economic resurgence. The benefits are immense.  

However this reliance on technology is fraught with the obvious risk of obsolescence.  Rapid changes in technology can render huge investments redundant and can hurt developing economies badly. Hence the window of opportunity for deploying extant technologies as an agent of transformation is minimal to small. This is precisely why we find the almost obsessive pace with which the government is working to execute the digital India initiative.

Leveraging digital technology as a transformational catalyst envisages three key prerequisites – technical knowhow, ability to consume digital technology and capital. They will dictate the success of Digital India campaign.

Unlike cryogenic engine technology of the yesteryears when the country was held to ransom by western technology, India has access to the best in class digital know-how via its very own home grown IT majors.  Hence access to know-how and skilled human assets would not be a problem.

Secondly, mobile usage in India is at a record high and growing and consequently the ability to consume services via digital technology is high. India currently has approximately 90 crore mobile users!  This is a vast user penetration and an incredible service delivery platform for the government.

However, availability of capital could be a major challenge. The Modi government has been investor friendly and has produced the right sound-bytes to attract fresh investments. Many analysts who have followed the Modi government for the last nine months believe that the government may not face serious challenge in raising funds externally.  Internally, the recent auction of coal blocks that netted over rupees 1 lakh crores points to new financial muscle and determination of the government.

That leaves the execution and delivery of the project which may be the weakest link in the chain. While PM Modi has the right credentials in delivering, as seen from the Gujarat experience, he is on test as to how these lofty ideas are translated on a broader canvas to benefit the country.

 It is, however, imperative to point out that for the first time in over six decades, the Indian government has mustered the courage to dream big - a clear vision rooted in pragmatism and not on empty ideology or rhetoric. This has gladdened the heart of middle India. For starters, the Digital India initiative has prevailed over its biggest obstacle – selling the vision and winning hearts; it is a major victory at that. But risks persist in  making this dream a reality.

India today stands at the cross-roads – a poor nation with lofty dreams that has squandered away its resources and treasure to corruption and a perverted politico-bureaucratic ecosystem bent on exploiting the country rather than serving it. It is this very same system that will help execute and deliver on Modi’s lofty vision for a digital India.  Modi will need all hands on deck since Digital India is fraught with high risks, but the rewards are huge too.