In a 2015 visit to Silicon Valley — the first by an Indian Prime Minister to the US West Coast since the semiconductor revolution in the 1970s — PM Modi suggested that “digital platforms were advancing citizen empowerment and democracy that once drew their strength from constitutions”. COVID-19 demonstrated how one element of Digital India — Aadhaar enabled Direct Benefit Transfer — facilitated quick and targeted action.
“But COVID also demonstrated how large parts of the Indian state continue to resist, underinvest in, and delay digitisation,” write Manish Sabharwal and D B Phatak (of TeamLease Services and IIT Bombay, respectively).
“We make the case that the three-phase transition to mandatory digital payments, accounting, and transactions for government proposed by the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) under a new project and law called DATA (Digital Accountability and Transparency Act) uses the COVID policy window for an empowering, elegant, and overdue reform with delightful consequences”.
“DATA recognises that digitally empowered citizens require digital public utilities that not only provide e-services but make all government revenue and expenditure data electronic, machine-readable, granular, comprehensive, purpose linked, non-repudiable, reliable, accessible and searchable,” they state.
DATA has many other upsides; “recognising off-budget transactions (the last Union budget took steps towards this fiscal transparency and consolidation), business continuity (electronic records cannot be lost or misplaced like files or paper records), and an incontrovertible audit trail.”
Recurring operations will require a Data Governance Authority and the proposed three-year timeline is doable. “A big gift to this project could be a 12-month mandatory deadline for all government payments to go digital; bad behaviour currently costs the RBI Rs 4,000 crore in bank agency commissions because many parts of the government do not use the RBI’s free e-kuber system”.
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