When I was in the Indian Navy, we often had to travel by train. Now, anyone who has ever traveled by Indian Railways a few decades back would tell you what an ordeal it used to be. Though in Nov 2010 I had written a humorous piece titled ‘The Great Indian Train Journey’, anyone who had spent hours standing in queues, dealing with corrupt and inefficient railway officials before, during and sometimes even after the journey, would tell you that humour was the last thing that you associated with the misery of railway reservations and ensuing journeys. As I wrote in the essay: “It is incredible to think after what you have gone through that the journey has not yet commenced.”
Cut to modern age. You do your reservation online in the luxury of your home or office. You have an application installed on your phone and it tells you how late the train would be at your boarding and alighting stations, what is the trend for the last week or so, where exactly your bogie would be, and who exactly to turn to for complaint and assistance. Just by having Internet, even the gargantuan Indian Railways suddenly appear more efficient and less corrupt.
Similarly, you have had great time in buying from online stores such as Flipkart, Amazon and Paytm. You have even been buying movie tickets online and you can confidently predict whether it is going to be good movie, the kind of movie, its exact duration and where would you and family sit and even enjoy your snacks.
Convenience and efficiency galore. However, Digital India is much more than that. The two key phrases are e-Governance and e-Services.
Looking back, it appears incredible that the Government of India launched National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) as late as in 2006. Not much notice was taken of it due to poor net-penetration in rural areas as well as poor net-coverage and speeds. Those who dreamt big such as the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh were eventually voted out as not being in sync with the aspirations of the people at large. Some people realised that it was going to be be a significant thing in future but in the absence of means, the ends sought were far too lofty to be realistic.
And then, last year, on 01 Jul 2015 to be exact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Digital India campaign. Whereas the 2006 plan was just a plan, the Digital India campaign takes into consideration the need to set up right electronic infrastructure including availability of high-speed Internet, extensive rural and urban penetration, and technical excellence and support. The dream is that it would result in digitally empowered people, knowledge based economy, efficiency, transparency and corruption free society.
The nay-Sayers would maintain (in the atmosphere of cynicism that years of ill or non-governance led us into, nay-Sayers are legitimate) that simply by improving advanced Internet and Data services, how would these objectives be met?
That’s why I gave you the Railways example. Let me give you some more examples:
- Land Revenue Records. I heard the former CM of Himachal, Virbhadra Singh, speaking in a public gathering in my native town Kandaghat that the Patwari (The Patwari is a village (land or revenue) accountant (also known as Talati, Patel, Karnam, Adhikari, Shanbogaru, etc in various parts of the country) in a village is more powerful in his village than he, the CM, was in the state. And how does the Patwari derive his powers? Simple, by manipulating the land-revenue records in his custody. In my village, these are maintained on a latha (white coarse cloth) with indelible black ink. The Patwari, only the other day, used to measure the land through chains and see it on this latha by a scale rule that only he has. So, if he swings by a fraction of an inch on thew latha map, a substantial part of your land might actually go to your neighbour. The Patwari is thus open to corruption and bribery and even charges under-the-table sums of money to give you copies of your own land-records. There are thousands of instances wherein both or several of the contending parties fill his coffers to achieve the desired swing in their favour. The contending parties then resort to judicial action and for several years (decades in most cases) fill the coffers of the lawyers and/or judges (Please read: ‘The Great Indian Judicial System’). Now imagine that the land-revenue records are not only digitized but readily available in digital form on the net. You access them and you know precisely where your land is on the map and in reality. The corrupt and inefficient Patwari suddenly looks like a pygmy as compared to the giant he made himself into by keeping all that knowledge only with him and on latha and dog-eared registers in his moth-infested cupboard. Last year you must have seen an Idea mobile ad on television about an opportunist trying to hoodwink the village people out of their lands by offering them insignificant sums of money. A village girl, however, had the facts about land digitally available on her mobile phone and put the hood-winker to shame. That’s the face of Digital India of future.
- Diaster Relief. A few years back there was a super-cyclone in Orissa and Andhra coast. Hundreds of thousands of people died and were rendered homeless as the warnings didn’t reach them in time. Extensive relief material was collected country-wise. It is estimated that half of it didn’t reach the intended people and was siphoned off by corrupt middle-man and touts. Not having live information about the affected populace, grossly inequitable distribution of relief material took place; some villagers received much more than was required whereas others perished due to total lack of it. Now, as this data is more and more digitally available and distributed, first of all the alert systems are more effective in evacuating people to safety. Then, the distribution of relief material is coordinated real time and equitable distribution takes place without much corruption and inefficiency.
- Beneficiaries of Government Doles. Presently, about half of government doles under various welfare schemes are siphoned off by middle-men, touts and undeserving elements. The government, in preparation for a full-fledged Digital India has got a Bill passed in the current session of Parliament that would ensure direct distribution of doles through Aadhar Cards. Now a few years back even if that was the intended lofty aim, it would still not be possible due to lack of digital penetration in the villages. However, now it is possible to empower people directly and ensure transparency.
- Digital and e-Literacy. Just as it did the local Patwari good to keep the people in the dark, the politician and babu derived their vicarious powers over people to keep people ignorant and illiterate. Both Digital and e-Literacy are the buzzwords to make people knowledgeable about their rights, government schemes and other plans. Digital Literacy deals with knowledge, skills and behaviours required to deal with digital devices such as computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones seen together as networks and not computing devices. E-Literacy, on the other hand is general literacy through not classroom learning but through e-Learning.
- DigiLocker. The Government of India, in the year 2015, launched Digital Locker facility. It helps people to digitally store their important documents like PAN card, passport, mark sheets and degree certificates. The lockers are authenticated by Aadhar cards. It would not only stop pilferage of documents but also stop spurious documents generated by unlawful elements. Only day before yesterday I was reading in the newspaper that even the databases of potential candidates for jobs both on the government and corporate networks can be shared thereby reducing enormous paperwork and ensuring transparency.
- Participating in Economical and Political Growth. Thanks to Digital and e-Illiteracy, there is hardly any participation of people in economic and political growth of the country. Politically, you have to belong to one party or the other; all of which extract their pound of flesh. With spread of Digital and e-Literacy, the political clout of common people becomes stronger. Take Economic Growth, and just the example of Stock Markets. So far the retailers share of stock markets is abysmally small and insignificant to make any dent in the overall sensitivity of the market. However, with the spread of Digital India to small towns and villages, the percentage of retailers share becomes more and more and then the big-guns in the markets (the Harshad Mehta and Jhunjhunwala types) are not able to manipulate the markets with the ease that they used to.
- Accountability of Government Functionaries and Departments. The best example that I can give in this case is that of Police. It is a known fact that lodging an F.I.R. with the Police Station on legitimate complaints is a herculean task, if not totally impossible. However, e-filing of F.I.Rs is already underway in some of the stations. A few months back, a car recklessly driven by a driver fell on our roof-top, next to the highway, in my native village in Himachal. Our tenant woke me up in Mumbai at about 2 O’ Clock in the morning to tell about this accident. The miscreant’s people were dilly-dallying in paying compensation to us thinking that they would get away with less than half the sum by greasing the palms of the police. So when the police arrived on the scene and talked to me on the phone, they said that it wasn’t much of damage and to let them go. I informed them that an e-F.I.R. showing the accident and the damage caused had already been filed by me. I was thus given adequate compensation before they took out their vehicle. In similar manner, with public records being digitally available and online filing of RTI and other complaints, the accountability of government functionaries would improve.
I can go on and on. Now, it would start occurring that Digital India is not just about social media, Facebook, chat groups, smartphones and applications and easy availability of information. It is much more than that. Once realised, it would really make Indians empowered and India society efficient and corruption free.
Surely, the work didn’t start only with the launching of Digital India campaign last year. Take my last company RIL, for example. It had been working on this digital revolution, appropriately called RJIO for several years now and it is talked about that more than 100, 000 Crores of investment has already gone into raising infrastructure such as National Optic Fibre Network to enable high-speed digital networks across the length and breadth of the country. A limited soft-launch of the prototype 4G network was there on 28th Decmeber, the birth-anniversary of the founder of RIL Shri Dhirubhai Ambani. A full fledged launch is scheduled in the second half of the year.
Various other players like Airtel and Vodafone have jumped on the 4G bandwagon without having the crucial LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology, which only RIL has. Anyway, as long as the dream of high-speed internet connectivity of rural areas is realised, I don’t see any quarrel between the service providers’ use of technology. However, I do see a conflict between their commercial interests and the dream of Digital India. This is noticeable, for example in Airtel ads on the television where the use of 4G in remote places such as Mashobra in Shimla is for such entertainment as watching cricket match live on the mobile from Eden Gardens in Kolkata.
The US strategic-thinker and writer, Fareed Zakaria, on 21 Feb 16, flew all the way from US to Mumbai to interview Mukesh Ambani, Chairman and MD of RIL on RJIO’s scheduled launch. Mr. Ambani told him that what US was able to do in decades, India was on the cusp of achieving in two years. Significantly, Mukesh Ambani is the one who talked about rural India and empowering youth of the country to realise their dreams.
Mukesh Ambani, in the interview aired on CNN worldwide spoke about rural penetration equivalent in percentage terms to US in the year 2016 itself and achieving best in class connectivity in the world by 2018.
Lets say the dream of Digital India in its core elements is fulfilled by 2018, it would make India join the super-league of nations that have people electronically empowered and in position to demand e-services and e-governance.
I am excited and keeping my fingers crossed.
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