Updated: December 29, 2021 9:48:35 am
India is pioneering the concept of digital public goods that enhance the ease, transparency and speed with which individuals, markets and governments interact with each other. Built on the foundation of Aadhaar and India Stack, modular applications, big and small, are transforming the way we make payments, withdraw our PF, get our passport and driving licence and check land records, to name just a few activities. Children have access to QR-coded textbooks across state boards and languages, the economically disadvantaged have access to the public distribution system and beneficiaries of government schemes have money transferred directly into their bank accounts.
There is an opportunity for India to embark on digital diplomacy — to take its made-in-India digital public goods to hundreds of emerging economies across the world. This could be a strategic and effective counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
To begin with, the code is highly reusable. The cost of setting up an open source-based high school online educational infrastructure, to supplement the physical infrastructure, for an entire country is less than laying two kilometres of high-quality road. The investments required for transporting digital public goods are minuscule in comparison and there is no chance of a debt trap.
Unlike physical infrastructure such as ports and roads, digital public goods have short gestation periods and immediate, and visible impact and benefits. Digital infrastructure plugs leaks. It eliminates ghost beneficiaries of government services, removes touts collecting rent, creates an audit trail, makes the individual-government-market interface transparent and provides efficiencies that help recoup the investments quickly. Processes get streamlined and wait times for any service come down dramatically. Issuances of passports, PAN cards and driving licences are such examples. Productivity goes up and services can be scaled quickly. Benefits can be rapidly extended to cover a much larger portion of the population.
Above all, the digital public goods infrastructure compounds while physical infrastructure depreciates. Compounding happens for three reasons. One, of course, is the growth of technology itself. Chips keep becoming faster, engines more powerful, and gene-editing technology keeps improving. The second reason is the network effect. As more and more people use the same technology, the number of “transactions” using that technology increase exponentially — be it Facebook posts or UPI transactions. And the third reason is the rapid creation of new layers of technology. For example, the hypertext protocol created the worldwide web. Then the browser was built on top of it, which made the worldwide web easier to navigate and more popular. Thousands of new layers were added to make it what it is today. To give an example, consider the surge in UPI-based payments in India. This kind of growth doesn’t happen with a few entitled and privileged people using UPI more and more; it happens with more and more people using UPI more and more. The use of Diksha, the school education platform built on the open-source platform Sunbird, has followed the same trajectory — today close to 500 million schoolchildren are using it. Taken together, compounding ensures that the digital divide gets bridged.
Emerging economies are characterised by gross inefficiencies in the delivery of government services and a consequent trust deficit. Digital public goods spread speed, transparency, ease and productivity across the individual-government-market ecosystem and enhance inclusivity, equity and development at scale. India’s digital diplomacy will be beneficial to and welcomed by, all emerging economies from Peru to Polynesia, from Uruguay to Uganda, and from Kenya to Kazakhstan.
It will entail a slight rejig in the composition of India’s consulates abroad, with technology experts getting incorporated into the structure. It will take made-in-India digital public goods across the world and boost India’s brand positioning as a leading technology player in the digital age. It will enable quick, visible and compounding benefits for India’s partner countries and earn India immense goodwill. And it will create a strong foothold for India globally to counter the extravagantly expensive, brick-and-mortar led Belt and Road Initiative of China.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 29, 2021 under the title ‘Digital public goods’. The writer is CEO, Krayon Pictures