Modi’s “Digital India”: A far-fetched dream, a giant leap of faith or a calculative risk?

One of the most ambitious plans from the bucket list of Modi government is to provide for digitally enabled and empowered citizens across the country. With emphasis on providing world leading e-governance, the Government of India plans to spend a whopping 1,13,000 crores over the next 3 years on its “Digital India” initiative. This basically means that everyone will have access to internet, mobile and digital multimedia by the year 2018. To gauge the prospects further 2500 cities will be getting 4G like speeds free of cost by 2017, all government work will be commissioned to online portals and mobile apps, farmers across villages will have access to superfast broadband along with smartphones with apps developed to make their lives better. And that’s not all, if all goes as per plans we will have digitized TV streaming HD quality videos in all villages, and gram panchayats being held on the internet! Sounds cool right? The very thought of things in the future seem to be straight out of a science fiction movie. How much of this will be realized in the time frame remains to be seen. But groundwork for the project has already begun and we have our fingers crossed.

To promote the initiative, the government plans to spend big bucks on advertising, messaging, merchandising and delivery of content through innovative means like gamification and crowdsourcing. Rural engagement through radio messages and gram/block level events will form the part of the new rural outreach policy of the government. Stakeholders from across the industry and end consumers are being asked to participate in the initiative and will be engaged in the whole process, which is a new trend we have since the last one year of the government. There seem to be something right about this government, and that is the way it celebrates its plans and promotes them with evangelical commitment. What’s even more noticeable is the total disregard to flak from the opposition and so called policy experts, which I believe is a sign of confidence from the part of the government in its policies.

As good as it may sound; the idea of “Digital India” to me still seems like a far-fetched dream. I believe that even if we are able to realize 50 percent of the potential of this ‘dream project’ by 2018 we should be happy, in fact very happy. Even if we set aside the legal hurdles, financial insecurities and the usual muddle of a federal system, the plan seems to be coming straight out of a fantasy novel. Why I am saying this is simply because one cannot understand, let alone estimate the sheer enormity of benefits this gargantuan project sketches out. It will take a supercomputer mind to calculate the true impact of the project on ordinary citizens. On paper it seems to be a little too loud and larger than life to me. I don’t have a supercomputer mind and hence would like to bring forward a few other challenges which the plan doesn’t seem to account for.

The problem with India is twofold, lack of existing infrastructure coupled with sheer size of the country. Both problems are a part of the roadblocks to end for something as big as ‘Digital India’. This entails with it the need to speed up work on basic infrastructure in rural India, and that’s not easy given the size of our country. The question is that of ‘what follows what’? Will basic infrastructure follow internet or should internet follow basic infrastructure? And the answer is a logical later. Before we talk about the information superhighways, we need to ensure that basic paved roads lead to each village. Before we talk about powering the minds, let’s get the power situation in control first. Before we talk about e-governance let’s get some governance working in our villages. Even if we have optical fiber connect the 250,000 villages (which skeptics will tell you is impossible by 2018), there is a need to empower the people in their thoughts. To achieve all this, the government might have to raise the stakes and allocate another few hundred thousand crores for basic support infrastructure.

Another concern is how the government plans to realize the returns? In villages where people cannot afford food, will the companies charge the users for using these services? As per the plans, they will! A typical Indian rural mobile customer cannot pay upwards of $1.5 ARPU and we are talking about bringing mobile and broadband service to them. Therefore who will bear the loss on investment? Don’t tell me it will be the government! Can we afford this big a financial blow to a fiscally strained exchequer?

As a supporter of the e-Governance initiative and the ‘Digital India’ program, I want to become a contributor of an idea to the government. However radical it may sound, but I believe that it is practical. The solution lies in empowering the citizen and opening up parts of services to his choice. The solutions centers on freedom from service providers and calls for opening up parts of the spectrum and bandwidth for individual use without being serviced through an operator. Imagine covering the 44000 odd uncovered villages simply by taking the message of ‘Digital India’ to the residents and letting them install and operate telecom and broadband infrastructure. This will not just create opportunities in villages but will ensure success of the DI initiative by endowing rural population with the technology they need without becoming a burden on the government. Above all most such solutions are very cheap to install and operate. Developed countries like Sweden and developing nations like Mexico have already allowed private mobile and internet networks to be installed and many countries are following suit. India can take a cue from the success of these limited area operators and more open policies of their governments and add to the success of the DI initiative. We need 100% rural teledensity but not at the cost of a loss to the government. Therefore it is imperative to push for do-it-yourself solutions and changing the licensing policy to accommodate for the fresh challenges ahead.

In the end, let us all support this initiative wholeheartedly. The second year of the Modi government is poised to be the year of the “Digital India”, and we must help take the message forward to the masses and contribute our innovative ideas to the government.

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