With the launching of the ‘Digital India Week’, a massive technological push has begun to bridge the country’s digital divide. In a country of 125 crore people, this yawning divide keeps out the low income majority from access to computers and the Internet. Unless this divide is bridged soon, the country stands to lose out on the vast socio-economic rewards that come from improved information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure. The urgency of the rendra Modi government is understandable, considering that India figures barely half-way (68th) in the list of 140 countries on ‘networked readiness index’ prepared by the World Economic Forum. In another global study, India’s average internet speed was ranked 115th. By the end of April this year, the country had just a little over 10 crore broadband subscribers. In his vision of ‘digital India’ unveiled last year, Prime Minister Modi had set a target of 70 crore broadband connections and 100 per cent rural tele-density with access to ‘information without barriers’ by 2020. With the country already having more than 85 crore active mobile phone subscribers and set to cross the 100 crore mark by the end of this year, Prime Minister Modi has spoken enthusiastically about ‘e-governce changing into m-governce’ or mobile-phone governce.
The idea is that cheaper, next-generation smartphones will be the primary platform for crores of Indians to access the Internet, and thereby avail of a range of government services, particularly education, health and fincial inclusion. This is in line with the Modi government’s initiatives to issue smart cards with unique identification numbers, get bank accounts opened and provide pension and insurance services to every Indian. Overall, the vision of digital India seeks to set up a digital infrastructure for all citizens as a public utility, smartphones and Internet access for all, provide services and governce on demand, and make all citizens digitally empowered. While launching the ‘Digital India Week’ recently, the Prime Minister also announced a slew of programmes aimed at creating a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. These include digital lockers to store documents, an e-sign framework to digitally sign a document online using Aadhaar authentication, online registration in hospitals, a tiol scholarship portal, digitisation of records, a centre of excellence on ‘Internet on Things’ (IoT) and a high-speed digital highway. The Central government envisages that by 2020, the country will have a sufficiently large IT and electronics base to stop imports in that sector, while creating more than 10 crore jobs along the way. Of special interest to the Northeast is the new ‘Business Process Outsourcing’ (BPO) policy to set up BPO centres in NE states.
The drive to connect India with a tiol fibre optic network across its length and breadth had been started by the UPA government in 2011, but the progress in providing IT-based services to people outside large towns and cities has been slow due to several technological hurdles. The largest project of its kind in the world that aims to connect 70 crore Indians in rural areas, this optical fibre project has been facing delays because states have been slow in waiving right-of-way charges. The lack of sufficient specialised contractors and other critical components necessary to execute such a complex project have also bogged it down. A major reason why fewer than 20 per cent of the country’s population use the Internet is the high cost. Even in areas where fixed or mobile broadband is accessible, the subscription fees are way too high for margil customers. Though India has been a software giant, relatively few Indian businesses have participated in the Internet-based e-business boom, so they have little presence on the Net. The BSNL has begun to set up its next generation network (NGN) as well as Wi-Fi hotspots around the country. It is heartening therefore that top business houses have already pledged investments worth more than Rs 4.5 lakh crore in various IT-related programmes connected with the ‘Digital India Week’. Their participation is vital if the country is to have a state-of-the-art digital communication network soon, guaranteeing 3G and 4G connectivity necessary for advanced smartphones. If the country is to take advantage of its rapidly growing smartphone market, top telecom companies also need to move fast to attract crores of subscribers by allowing low-cost or even free access to popular government and business services websites. This can spur demand for local content, which in turn will encourage more government agencies and local entrepreneurs to go digital and join the Internet ecosystem.