by Pankhuri Prasad
On Oct. 3, 2018, UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) hosted “Digital India: Opportunities and Challenges,” the latest event in a series celebrating the thirty-year anniversary of GPS. From Oct. 2018 through Aug. 2019, there will be events and activities to commemorate the accomplishments of GPS. These are designed to spark informative and meaningful conversations. A critical theme of the series is the fusion of technology and policy in the 21st Century, which was explored extensively at the “Digital India” event.
The event centered around a talk by Aruna Sundararajan, Secretary of the Indian Department of Telecommunications and Pacific Leadership Fellow. Sundararajan is a distinguished public servant with over three decades of experience in the telecom field. She talked about the current government’s ambitious project, “Digital India” which spans three fronts—services, infrastructure and public empowerment.
Sundararajan addressed the many public policy difficulties this project has brought upon India, which still faces the challenge of providing two-thirds of the population with access to the internet. Over the past two years, the telecom industry has transformed completely. With the emergence of new providers and competitive pricing, one can get two gigabytes of high-speed internet per day for as little as $3.50 a month. This means millions of Indians now suddenly have access to the internet and this has had a far-reaching impact. Many new businesses have emerged such as ride-sharing taxis, digital wallets and e-commerce portals. As a result of the project, increased social media use has led to direct, effective political interactions where you can see top government officials responding to complaints by citizens over Twitter. The process of digitization has been fast paced primarily due to “IndiaStack,” a set of standardized digital tools which allow governments, businesses and developers to utilize a unique digital infrastructure to solve one of India’s biggest problems—inefficiency. Something as basic as opening a bank account or renewing a driver’s license used to take months due to a combination of inflexible rules and archaic data collection methods. IndiaStack changed the status quo by utilizing internet access to provide software tools for paperless, cashless and digital service delivery.
According to Sundararajan, the process of digitizing India is unique because of the unprecedented aspirations attached to it. As a result, 1.3 billion people now feel they will be able to use the internet to change their lives for the better. Even a small business in a remote part of the country suddenly has the chance to make it big. However, it is important to remember that digitization, with all the great potential and ideas attached to it, has a dark side as well. Many Indians are resistant to the changes brought up by digitization. Traditional taxi drivers have engaged in violent attacks on drivers from Uber and other ride-share services. The government faces a massive challenge of curbing the spread of false information and its repercussions. Unsubstantiated information circulating over social media, such as allegations of child kidnappings, have led to incidents where mobs of people have lynched those accused to death.
The talk concluded with the speaker reiterating the need to promote innovation and manufacturing in order to sustain India’s growing digital-telecom appetite. Policy makers must account for factors such as cyber security, the spread of false information and the role of social media as they legislate on digital regulations. Access to internet and telecom services may have seemed like a luxury at first but it is now a necessity, if not a right, for people across the world. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from India’s story—a country with over 1.3 billion people and an intricate socio-economic setup. Increased government effort in actively digitizing all government services has been a major catalyst in changing India. Amid growing public concern about data privacy and mass surveillance, the talk was helpful in providing an insider’s knowledge about the evolution of India’s telecom sector.
Picture Reference: Digital India: Opportunities and Challenges. School of Global Policy and Strategy at UCSD, 2018.