Digital India – Where Knowledge Is Strength

(Op-Ed) About three decades ago, in the idyllic locales of Kerala, I was working in the traditional fisheries sector. In an attempt to enhance returns for fishermen who were getting a mere 20% of the market price of fish, we introduced new technology like fibreglass crafts and outboard motors and even launched beach level auctions. However, the greatest challenge which persisted was to open bank accounts for fishermen in order to streamline payments. In those days, it would take us a minimum of ten months to chase physical banks and manage to register a single account holder. Know Your Customer was an alien concept. Cut to 2021, you can walk into a bank branch and open a bank account in moments with eKYC and biometrics. Reducing the waiting time from months to minutes, digital transformation has truly enabled a paradigm shift.

Marking six years of the Digital India initiative, the Prime Minister has aptly described this to be India’s decade. Technological advancement and the rapid penetration of the internet has integrated over one billion citizens across India into a common financial, economic and digital ecosystem. With the cheapest data rates in the world and close to 700 million internet users – every 3 seconds a new Indian user joins the internet. The Union Cabinet has just approved the implementation of BharatNet through Public-Private Partnership in sixteen states with official fibre connectivity to all inhabited villages.

With over a billion plus biometrics, a billion-plus mobile and almost a billion bank accounts, we have built the largest identification system in the world mapping the entire population of India. Till date, 1.29 Billion Aadhar IDs have been generated and 55.97 billion authentications have been carried out. Bridging the gap between the government and citizens has become the bedrock of India’s digitization efforts.

A payment system that connects millions of Indians spanning across the coast of Gujarat to the farmlands of Uttar Pradesh and the mountains of Sikkim, there is a tremendous opportunity to make UPI a global and scalable architecture for digital payments.  From powering a large corporate to empowering a vegetable seller, India’s stellar success story in facilitating quick, real-time mobile payments has left the world awestruck.

In June 2021, UPI recorded 2.8 billion transactions worth ₹5.47 trillion. UPI now has more than double the number of transactions that American Express does globally. Recently, Google wrote to the US Federal Reserve, applauding the successful implementation of UPI in India, and recommended the Federal Reserve System of USA to draw inspiration from India.

A notable innovation in the Digital India landscape has been the launch of a G2B (Government To Business) Government e-Marketplace. The GeM portal has successfully leveraged technology to transform the public procurement landscape. So far, the portal has crossed the 19.17 lakh seller registration milestone, about 5 times the number of sellers from last year. Tribal jewellery from Jharkhand, dry fruit from Kashmir, dance lessons from Chennai, textiles from Odisha  – the intersection of e-commerce and the internet have created a robust ecosystem for Indian products and businesses to thrive in. The internet has been the greatest enabler for millions of Indians to scale their passion and produce into businesses and interact with customers globally.

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Two key sectors that have received a massive impetus under the Digital India programme are health and education. These are crucial for improving the overall quality of life of Indian citizens and describe a holistic growth trajectory. In the hinterlands of India, gold-coloured beneficiary cards are considered to be lifesavers for many, doing away with the various pillars and posts that one had to run to for equitable access to healthcare. The Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana (PMJAY) is a unique blend of healthcare and technology and is the most comprehensive cashless, contactless, paperless and digital health insurance scheme in the world that covers over 500 million citizens in India, equivalent to the population of Europe.

PMJAY along with the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) is massively improving end to end healthcare delivery in India, inching towards a system that is totally technology-enabled through data integration and standardization. An example that truly resounds with this vision for a connected healthcare system, emerges from an aspirational district in western Uttar Pradesh. Chitrakoot, in spite of its developmental challenges, has wonderfully leveraged common service centres, village level entrepreneurs and ASHA workers to build an effective telemedicine delivery mechanism for all residents of the district. Under this intervention, patients in remote areas can avail specialist care without having to travel from their homes to hospitals, saving considerable time and money.

"The transformation of India into a digital society and a knowledge economy has tremendously improved the ease of living for citizens"

Digitisation and internet penetration have contributed phenomenally towards improving learning outcomes for students across India. Primary schools in Nawada, a remote aspirational district in Bihar are home to SMART classrooms, completely equipped with digital tools and internet connectivity, bringing knowledge from the world to Indian villages. The model of SMART classrooms and e-learning has been rapidly replicated across states, introducing students from rural areas to a whole new world of learning. During the pandemic, several online learning initiatives deployed by the government – DIKSHA, ePathshala, Swayam played an instrumental role in ensuring continued education for students in the most remote corners of the country.

The transformation of India into a digital society and a knowledge economy has tremendously improved the ease of living for citizens. Universally accessible digital resources like the India Post which is the largest computerized and networked postal system in the world, the Ayush Sanjivani application, DigiLocker, UMANG app, Tele Law for legal advice, the SVANidhi scheme for street vendors and the launch of 10,000 BPCL CSC points for easy booking of gas cylinders are some of the tools that are maximising governance and minimising government for Indian citizens. Another revolutionary product of Digital India is the MyGov platform which is the world’s largest interactive digital democracy portal promoting participative governance.

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As India moves from being data-rich to data intelligent,  Machine Learning and AI will find solutions to a vast number of its challenges – water availability, learning outcomes, health improvement and enhanced agriculture productivity. Going forward, my belief is that the development of world-class technology products requires critical inputs from data-hungry young entrepreneurs and an AI-enabling policy environment. India should nurture an innovative breed of socially conscious and development-oriented product managers, AI scientists, product designers and software engineers.

Building inclusive technology solutions are about high volumes with the availability of services at low cost and the convenience of video and voice in vernacular languages. This requires a full-stack design approach keeping in mind the unique attributes of India’s diversity, with special emphasis on the needs of people living in remote parts of the country. In order to script an unprecedented success story of digital transformation, it is imperative to be fully cognisant of the aspirations and the potential of the population residing in rural and relatively disconnected parts of India. How we enable and empower the spirit of entrepreneurship among them so that they leverage technology capabilities and data to provide solutions for not merely the people of India but the next 5 billion people of the world who will be moving from poverty to middle class, is going to be the cornerstone of the next Digital India decade.

Author Amitabh Kant is CEO, NITI Aayog.

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