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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Filling the physical gaps in India’s digital push

Non-tech elements like community engagement and governance are important to realise utility for digital platforms

Written by Varad Pande , Rohit Kumar |
Updated: March 7, 2022 9:41:58 am
India must also focus on developing anchor institutions and robust governance frameworks.

A lot has been written about the emphasis on “digital” in the 2022 Union Budget. But one aspect that hasn’t been talked about as much is the importance given in the budget to digital public infrastructure (DPI) — the idea that cross-sectoral “digital rails” like ID, payments and data exchanges when combined with open interconnected data systems in sectors like health, education and social protection, can transform service delivery.

India is seen as a global trendsetter in the DPI movement, having set up multiple large-scale DPIs like Aadhaar, UPI and sector-specific platforms like DIGIT for eGovernance and DIKSHA for education. These have helped push the frontier of public service delivery. This year’s budget adds to the growing discourse on DPIs by making four key announcements: In health, an open platform with digital registries, a unique health identity and a robust consent framework; in skilling, a Digital Ecosystem for Skilling and Livelihood (DESH-Stack) to help citizens upskill through online training; a Unified Logistics Interface Platform (ULIP) to streamline movement of goods across modes of transport; and for travel, an “open source” mobility stack for facilitating seamless travel of passengers. These announcements are welcome. Research by Omidyar Network India and BCG shows that the creation of national digital ecosystems in sectors like health, jobs and skilling, agriculture and justice can lead to economic opportunities worth Rs 35 lakh crore by 2030. Similar analysis by the Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research (C-DEP) also estimates that national digital ecosystems could add over 5 per cent to India’s GDP.

But important design considerations must be set right if we are to truly unlock the value of these platforms. One way to think about this is by differentiating between the “tech” and “non-tech” layers of our digital infrastructure — while India seems to have made significant headway on the “tech” layers, the “non-tech” layers of community engagement and governance need a lot more work. The combination of these three layers is what is critical to making tech work for everyone. Together, they embody what we call the open digital ecosystems (ODE) approach.

To unleash the true potential of India’s ODEs, we need to get the “non-tech” layers right, by prioritising principles around data protection, universal access and accountability. While this presents a large menu, three specific non-tech levers are critical.

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First, protecting the data of all users and giving them agency over how their data gets used. The passage of a robust Data Protection Bill is imperative. But we also need to go beyond the mere requirement of “consent”. Consent as a construct is insufficient, as anyone who has tried to read privacy policies knows — it forces you to make a binary choice in quick time, in an environment overloaded with information suffused with dense legalese. Recent research by the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change (CSBC) suggests that users can be “nudged” to make privacy-conscious decisions by providing standardised privacy ratings, presenting privacy policies more visually, and mandating users to stay on the privacy page for at least a few minutes.

Second, it is important to address the digital divide. Research by ORF, for instance, shows that Indian women are 15 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone and 33 per cent less likely to use mobile internet services than men.

So, we need a “phygital” approach that provides services through both online and offline options and strong grievance redressal mechanisms. Research has shown that leveraging trusted local intermediaries who are embedded in communities can significantly improve access to tech platforms for marginalised groups.

Finally, as we push the frontier on digitisation, India must also focus on developing anchor institutions and robust governance frameworks. Just as Aadhaar is anchored by UIDAI under an Act of Parliament, and the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission is anchored by the National Health Authority, every new ODE requires an accountable institutional anchor. These institutions are critical for setting standards, ensuring a level playing field and safeguarding consumer interest. The sector-specific institutions also need to be complemented by a “National ODE Council” to inform coordinated policies and keep the focus on citizen-centricity.

From Aadhaar and UPI to DBT and CoWin, India’s tech stacks are grabbing global attention. It is now critical to bring the gaze on to the non-tech layers of the stack, so that the potential of these platforms can be unlocked for every Indian.

Pande is a partner at Omidyar Network India and Kumar is co-founder of The Quantum Hub

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