By Abhishek Jha:
The government launched the Digital India Week on 1st July from the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium. The two-hour long event saw speeches from Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Communications and Information Technology Minister, Arun Jaitely, the I&B minister, corporate leaders, and the Prime Minister himself. Also, during the event, the PM launched a number of projects for the government’s Digital India programme. The country, which is the third largest internet user after China and the United States, could definitely benefit from a programme that brings digital infrastructure to its population.
The programme aims to provide digital infrastructure and e-governance and empower citizens by making them digitally literate and making digital resources accessible to them. A major challenge to all these programmes however, could be the end of net-neutrality. Heads of telecom companies opposed to net-neutrality were also present at the launch ceremony and it would be worrisome if they created impediments in the government’s programme by fighting against net-neutrality.
Power is also a major hurdle if we are dreaming of a digital India. Villages that get electricity for barely a few hours a day are going to have little use for all the services available on the Internet. They are going to remain stuck in the red-taped bureaucracy.
Also, one needs to keep in mind that the power of the Internet is revolutionary only if it remains the democratic space that it once was. In the documentary Citizenfour, Edward Snowden says, “I remember what the Internet was like before it was being watched. There has never been in the history of man anything like it. You could have children from one part of the world having an equal discussion where they were, sort of, granted the same respect for their ideas in conversation with experts in a field from another part of the world on any topic, anywhere, anytime, all the time.” If this freedom is curbed by laws like 66A, for which this government (as much as the one preceding it) fought, which aim to muzzle Internet freedom with vague generalities, there is nothing sanguine in the programme’s announcement. A Digital India is a very much welcome move if it doesn’t end up being just another scheme that looks good only on paper.
Here, however, are the highlights of the announced projects:
1. The Internet: The programme aims to provide broadband coverage to 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats by December 2016 and mandate communication infrastructure in new buildings in urban areas. Under the National Rural Internet Mission, 1.5 lakh post offices are to be made into multi-service centres. Free WiFi in 2.5 lakh schools, a digital literacy programme is also proposed. The new government has already started interacting with the public through the use of social media. Other web-based platforms to facilitate “2-way communication” between the government and the public.
2. Mobile Connectivity: With a 16,000 crore estimated cost, mobile coverage is to be provided to about 42,300 villages. It is an ongoing programme for increased network penetration and to cover gaps. Mobiles are also to help provide emergency services.
3. e-Governance: On the line of government’s “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance” slogan, it is to rev up bureaucratic procedures. With “online applications and tracking“, “use of online repositories“, use of UIDAI and Payment Gateway platforms, it aims to reduce the paperwork to “improve transactions“. A “process improvement” in public grievance redressal system is likely since the programme is going to use IT to automate processes and analyse data to resolve problems.
4. Net Zero Imports: A combination of Digital India with the Make In India campaign, it aims to reduce all electronic imports to zero by 2020. The government admits that the existing structure for the programme is inadequate and needs strengthening.
5. IT For Jobs: As part of a new scheme, the government wishes to train 1 crore students over 5 years to makes them ready for the IT workforce. There is a special programme for the north-eastern states that is to set up BPO centres in every NE state. Similar workforce creation is also to take place for the Telecom services. An ongoing programme is training service delivery agents to deliver IT services.
6. Early Harvest Programmes: These are programmes with a short timeline of completion. They include programmes like biometric attendance in all central government offices in Delhi, WiFi in universities, public WiFi hotspots in cities with a population greater than 1 million and at tourist centres, SMS based weather information and disaster alerts, etc.