An opportunity for Digital India


India is at the forefront of the concept of digital public goods that improve 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 apps large and small are transforming the way we make payments, collect our PF, get our passport and driver’s license, and check land registers, to never name just a few activities. Children have access to QR code textbooks in all state councils and in all languages, economically disadvantaged people have access to the public distribution system, and beneficiaries of government programs receive money directly into their bank account .

There is an opportunity for India to embark on digital diplomacy – to bring its digital public goods made in India to hundreds of emerging economies around the world. This could be a strategic and effective counterattack against China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

For starters, the code is highly reusable. The cost of setting up an open source high school e-learning infrastructure, to supplement the physical infrastructure, for an entire country is less than laying two kilometers of high-quality road. The investments required to transport digital public goods are miniscule 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 the leaks. It eliminates shadow beneficiaries of government services, eliminates touts collecting rents, creates an audit trail, makes the individual-government-market interface transparent, and provides efficiencies that help recover investments quickly. Processes are streamlined and wait times for any service dramatically decrease. Examples are the issuance of passports, PAN cards and driving licenses. Productivity increases and services can be scaled up quickly. Benefits can be quickly extended to cover a larger part of the population.

Importantly, the digital infrastructure of public goods is getting worse while the physical infrastructure is depreciating. Composition occurs for three reasons. One, of course, is the growth of the technology itself. Chips are getting faster and faster, engines more powerful, and gene editing technology keeps getting better. The second reason is the network effect. As more and more people use the same technology, the number of “transactions” using this technology is growing exponentially, whether they are Facebook posts or UPI transactions. And the third reason is the rapid creation of new technological layers. For example, the hypertext protocol created the World Wide Web. Then the browser was built on it, which made the global web easier to navigate and more popular. Thousands of new layers have been added to make it what it is today. To give an example, consider the increase in UPI-based payments in India. This kind of growth does not happen with a few authorized and privileged people increasingly using UPI; it is happening with more and more people using UPI more and more. The use of Diksha, the school education platform built on the open source Sunbird platform, has followed the same trajectory – today, nearly 500 million school children are using it. Overall, the composition ensures that the digital divide is bridged.

Emerging economies are characterized by glaring inefficiencies in the delivery of government services and a resulting confidence deficit. Digital public goods spread speed, transparency, ease and productivity across the public administration and market ecosystem and enhance inclusiveness, equity and development at scale. India’s digital diplomacy will be beneficial and appreciated by all emerging economies, from Peru to Polynesia, Uruguay to Uganda, and Kenya to Kazakhstan.

This will entail a slight overhaul in the composition of Indian consulates abroad, with the incorporation of technology experts into the structure. It will transport digital public goods made in India around the world and strengthen the positioning of the Indian brand as a leading technology player in the digital age. This will enable India’s partner countries to experience rapid, visible and cumulative benefits and gain immense benevolence for India. And it will create a solid base for India in the world to counter China’s hugely expensive and traditional Belt and Road initiative.

This column first appeared in the paper edition on December 29, 2021 under the title “Digital public goods”. Writer is CEO, Krayon Pictures


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