On 1 July, 2015, PM Narendra Modi officially launched Digital India. The government’s flagship programme to transform India into an empowered digital economy was ambitious, audacious even. Only 19% of the population was connected to the internet, and a mere 15% had access to mobiles. But the programme captured a palpable shift in public imagination of India’s place in the world—optimism about the direction the country was headed in was running high following a couple of years of “deepening economic doubts”.
Six years on, India’s digital journey has had its fair share of hiccups, from multiple petitions (ultimately unsuccessful) questioning the constitutionality of Aadhaar—the biometric ID that would gate-keep access to government programmes—to an apparent data security flaw in Aarogya Setu, the contact tracing app intended to be the digital backbone of the government’s COVID response. Its track record is emblematic of the limitations of treating “digital” as a silver bullet, especially when the State— and its own lumbering bureaucracy—is often its own worst enemy.
The Origin Story of Digital India
Digital India was conceptualised as an umbrella, consolidating disparate efforts around connectivity, skilling and digital governance. Precursors like the National e-Governance Plan (2006), the National Optical Fibre Network (2011) and UID (2009) were revamped and relabelled. An initial sum of Rs 2510 crore was allocated to the Digital India Programme and allied efforts as part of the 2015-16 budget.
It also created a “brand”, mirroring the Prime Minister’s own Jan Jan Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi, of aspiration and inclusive transformation, reflected in the PM’s Independence Day 2014 speech (translated from Hindi):
"Our dream is of a “Digital India”...for the poor and not just the elites. We aspire to provide each child, even in the most remote villages of the country, a sound education. We aim for every citizen to be able to use their phones to operate a bank account, to engage with the government, meet their day to day needs, and conduct business on the go. And for this, we must embark on the journey toward Digital India."
To say the scope of the programme was daunting, is an understatement.
Its challenge was to connect and improve the lives of India’s billion plus population, impart skills needed to engage with the digital economy, change the way citizens interact with government and improve the delivery of government services.
Trials and Tribulations of Digitising India
Yet, initiatives under Digital India have been frequently beset with implementation issues, sometimes due to the lack of backing legislation and policy, often due to poor planning and foresight.
With the Personal Data Protection Bill mired in controversy, and no coherent national encryption policy, nor any robust cybersecurity measures, the Aadhaar database has been hit by multiple breaches. Unsecured public buckets and endpoints—one related to Indane, and another to BHIM—further damage citizens’ trust and call into question the security and integrity of Digital India projects.
Bharat Net, formerly the National Optical Fiber Network, was set up in 2011 with the aim of connecting 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats (GPs). The project missed the optimistic if impractical deadline of 2013, was rebranded in 2014, with a new three-phase implementation timeline.
Bharat Net continues to face delays, with phase 1 infrastructure already falling apart. A 2020 report by the Standing Committee on IT bemoans the absence of measures to actually deliver internet services to end users. This is chalked up partly to the “glaring omission” of a last mile connectivity strategy, up until 2017. The report also notes bureaucratic delays in granting tenders, and in right of way permissions between the implementing bodies on the one hand and public sector bodies like the National Highways Authority of India that control connecting infrastructure like roads and cable ducts on the other.
There are also severe disparities between states, with the Northeast faring the worst, partly because of challenging terrain, rain and floods, all of which should have been part of contingency planning, given that the terrain and the climate in the region are not classified information.
Onto Greater Things?
The lesson from Digital India’s rocky journey is that it may very well be premature to peg an “e-” onto everything and mark a problem as “solved”. The program and its initiatives also demonstrate how the veneer of technology can also mask exclusion, and power. Aadhaar, meant to improve access to government services, often does the opposite: the ID is in effect compulsory for subsidies and welfare schemes, bank accounts and more, forcing citizens—including those the poor, the marginalised and the persecuted—choose between privacy and access.
Nevertheless, the Digital India brand remains compelling, linked as it is to the aspirations of hundreds of millions of young Indians, and to the technologists and entrepreneurs who truly believe in the transformative impact of digitalisation.
The country’s USD 200 billion digital economy is also a big part of its outreach to the world, and the permutations and combinations of new regional and international partnerships it is now a part of. As India tries to emerge once again out of the grips of a deadly pandemic, its digital growth story, with all its ups and downs, will continue to be part of its role on the world stage.
(Trisha Ray is an Associate Fellow at ORF’s Technology and Media Initiative. She is also a member of the UNESCO’s Information Accessibility Working Group. She tweets at @trishbytes. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)