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Explained: Behind PM Modi’s three big digital announcements

PM Modi's Independence Day announcements on Digital India projects mark the culmination of projects that have been in the offing for a few years, or are a reaction to the present situation, as in the context of the tensions with China.

Written by Karishma Mehrotra , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: August 15, 2020 11:41:11 am
At a Wi-Fi enabled village in Haridwar District, Uttrakhand. Express Photo by Praveen Khanna

Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the Independence Day speech to launch the National Digital Health Mission, announce a new cyber security policy and promise optical fibre connectivity to all six lakh villages in 1,000 days. The announcements mark the culmination of projects that have been in the offing for a few years, or are a reaction to the present situation, as in the context of the tensions with China. Here is the context of the three big announcements around Digital India today.

Optical-fibre connectivity

Modi government calls it the “world’s largest connectivity project”, but BharatNet — which envisages laying of about 8 lakh kilometre of incremental optical fibre cable (OFC) to all the 2,50,000-plus Gram Panchayats (GP) in the country at an estimated cost of Rs 42,068 crore ($6.2 billion) — has had significant snags in deployment for years now.

First, it was unable to meet its March 2020 deadline for its second phase of deployment, which was shifted to August 2021. Even this month, the state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) did not have any bidders for a maintenance and upkeep tender for the fibre that has already been laid. Some told The Indian Express that the decision to keep out Chinese equipment and vendors for 4G work and the dire financial situation of the teleco could be the reason bidders are not showing interest. States have been asking for more funds for this second phase and lamenting a lack of labour resources due to the migrant exodus.

Also, there aren’t many private players utilising the already-laid fibre to provide services from the gram panchayats onwards, even as rural internet penetration is growing independently through private telecom players. Further, the quality of BSNL’s existing fibre is subpar. “We couldn’t even find OFC in some of the locations where they supposedly existed. In some other places, the fibre was cut and they were not repairing it,” a BBNL official pointed out last year.

Initiated by the UPA government in October 2011, BharatNet was originally named National Optical Fibre Network or NOFN. It’s being financed by the Universal Service Obligation Fund of the Department of Telecommunications, through a 5 per cent levy on the revenues of private telecom service providers. The project’s primary objective is to extend fibre connectivity — available at the state capital, district headquarters and blocks — to every panchayat, thereby providing access to broadband internet services to 69 per cent of India’s rural population.

Phase I of BharatNet, which commenced in June 2014 after the Narendra Modi-led government took over, was completed in December 2017. It, in fact, over-achieved the 1 lakh target for this phase by covering 1,22,908 panchayats with an investment of around $1.64 billion (Rs 11,200 crore). In the second phase, the remaining 1,29,827 gram panchayats are to be covered through 5 km of new fibre per gram panchayats. This phase incorporates a mix of both underground and aerial fibre as well as radio and satellite connectivity to reach more inaccessible locations such as Jammu and Kashmir, Northeast, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

National Digital Health Mission

The genesis of the new digital health infrastructure in India came about in the 2017 National Health Policy, which proposed a new National Digital Health Authority. Then, a committee headed by former UIDAI chairman Satyanarayana released the National Digital Health Blueprint in July 2019.

On August 7 this year, National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) released their latest strategic document, outlining the envisioned digital registries of doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, and insurance companies, digital personal health records, and digital clinical decision systems.

Patients can create a Health ID, allowing them to share their data between hospitals and doctors digitally. They can choose for how long or what specific documents they would like to share with whom. If individuals are looking to benefit from government schemes, then they will be required to connect their ID to their Aadhaar.

One copy of a patient’s records are stored in their doctor’s files and one is stored in their own individual locker (which can be owned by a company or by the government). Other than the registry of doctors, professionals, and institutions, this allows for decentralised storing.

In early July, NDHM began a series of consultations with major hospitals, insurance companies, licensing authorities, and labs. The NDHM is implemented by the National Health Authority (NHA) under the Health Ministry. In July, NDHM sources told The Indian Express that they had also begun consulting state governments and have found that the architecture’s standardisation across the country will need to find ways to accommodate state-specific rules such as accreditation.

The vision is often compared to the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), a government-owned highway that private players can hook into to provide their applications to consumers. In the same way that a user can use PayTM or Google Pay on the UPI highway, the NDHM team envisions being able to choose from several private applications on their government-owned interface. Other features will include data analytics tools, telemedicine, and e-pharmacy.

NDHM is overseen by a Mission Steering Group with Ministers from IT, AYUSH, Women’s and Child Development, as well as Niti Aayog Member, NHA CEO, and others. The policy-level decisions are taken by an empowered committee with Secretaries and others.

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Cybersecurity Policy 2020

As tensions with China play out in a technological battleground, a new cybersecurity policy to be rolled in 2020 would replace the present one. This existing policy, India’s first, was released in 2013 in the context of leaks by US National Security Advisor whistleblower Edward Snowden that alleged NSA surveillance was also tracking India’s domestic issues.

The National Cyber Security Strategy 2020 (NCSS 2020), overseen by the National Security Council Secretariat, collected public comments till January this year. These frameworks will have a bearing on incidents similar to the hacking of 121 Indians’ WhatsApps in 2019 by the Isreali cyber firm NSO Group.

“Cyber intrusions and attacks have increased in scope and sophistication targeting sensitive personal and business data, and critical information infrastructure, with impact on national economy and security. The present cyber threat landscape poses significant challenges due to rapid technological developments such as Cloud Computing, Artificial Intelligence, lnternet of Things, 5G, etc. New challenges include data protection/privacy, law enforcement in evolving cyberspace, access to data stored overseas, misuse of social media platforms, international cooperation on cybercrime & cyber terrorism, and so on. Threats from organised cybercriminal groups, technological cold wars, and increasing state sponsored cyber-attacks have also emerged. Further, existing structures may need to be revamped or revitalised.

Thus, a need exists for the formulation of a National Cyber Security Strategy 2020,” the call for comments states.

It may also have a bearing on a pending data protection legislation being seen by a Joint Select Committee in Parliament and which mandates some amount of data localisation in its present form.

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