Digital imbalance!

The NDA government needs to balance its vision vis-a-vis digitising India

By Avikal Somvanshi
Published: Monday 06 July 2015

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chairing a high-level meeting with government officials on the SmartCity initiative in December 2014 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Nobody in their right mind would object to the idea of smart cities or digital India, where IT and related technologies come to the support of civic services and governance. Everyone’s life would certainly get easier if the land records were digitised and freely accessible online. But the question that looms large is whether the government’s digital vision is balanced.

Fundamental questions of accessibility and affordability of the Internet in the country need to get addressed as the core principle of both missions is the Internet. A recent study by USA-based Pew Research Center states that 80 per cent Indians have no access to Internet, with less than 14 per cent owning an Internet-enabled cellphone. The 2013 affordability report of Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) which ranked 46 emerging economies from Asia, Africa and Latin America based on the country’s internet access, affordability and infrastructure pitched India at a lowly 29th position (See: The Affordability Report 2013). In fact, we were placed below Pakistan and Bangladesh on the sub-index of communications infrastructure.

Connectivity challenge

The government sees the corporate world as the agent for this revolution but past experiences have been less than satisfactory. Universal Service Obligation Fund, which was created to insure telephonic access to every citizen of India, has been in place since 1999 but one-third of Indian households still don’t have access to a cellphone, as per the 2011 Census. The main reason for this is attributed to unwillingness of private telecom providers to service rural areas.

Even if Digital India somehow miraculously provides universal Internet access, the success of the government vision will depend on the capacity of all citizens to hire such services for a nominal fee. On the global internet affordability matrix developed by the US-based broadband connection testing organisation Ookla, India is ranked at 60th position among 62 countries. A4AI ranked economically worse-off countries like Uganda, Botswana and Namibia higher than India on its internet affordability index. Therefore, the task at hand for Mission Digital India is enormous, to say the least.

Capacity to deliver

The ease of registering a complaint or requesting a service will need to be backed by the capacity to deliver the needful. Personally, I’ve sent many requests to various departments via emails—leave alone delivery, in most cases, I haven’t even received acknowledgments. Even today, most of the bureaucratic work still continues to happen on paper and if one doesn’t have the request or complaint on paper, their fate is pretty much doomed.

The centralised data system the government is trying to build, will help citizens with access to the authorities and enable regulators to analyse and predict possible infrastructure failures like power outage or flooding. But how can one be sure that the government will have the capacity to effectively address the complaints? Are there enough resources like engineers, fire-fighters, public health facilities and staff to execute the civic responsibilities amid the on-slaughter of citizens’ requests? Will we have the required political and financial autonomy to take swift action? Who will be prioritised: Vocal residents of posh colonies or humble sufferers of low-income localities?

The government will have to develop human resource not just technological infrastructure to address these questions. Digitising our outdated education system and fixing the basic civic (non-IT dependent) infrastructure should be as big a priority as providing universal internet access.

Capacity to transition

The 1500-km-long Delhi–Mumbai industrial corridor that was launched by the UPA government and has taken centerstage in the NDA government’s smart cities mission, offers an interesting case study. Nearly 80 per cent of the urban development that will spring up on either side of the freight corridor is in the rural belt of Rajasthan and Gujarat. This is one of the biggest urbanisations the world has ever seen in terms of population, but this is being carried out without adequate investment in the existing rural communities. The livelihood opportunities which the proposed smart cities will offer will be that for highly skilled professionals and beyond the rural populace’s reach. This might heighten the disparity and conflict between urban and rural if skilled people were to migrate into this region from other urban centres, leaving locals high and dry. Budgetary cuts to the ministries, especially panchayati raj, drinking water and sanitation, health & family welfare, rural development, women & child development and most important to education were best avoided to insure rural India’s transition into the digital urban age.

Things have gone terribly wrong in the past. Around the turn of the millennium, Chandrababu Naidu, fuelled by a similar digital vision, invested all the state resources and machinery in transforming Hyderabad into a model digital city during his stint as the Chief Minister. This golden age of Hyderabad coincided with one of the worst agrarian crises in Andhra Pradesh. While Hyderabad welcomed Microsoft and other tech-giants, in its neighbouring district Anantapur, 2,400 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2004 as the state ignored their needs.

Getting fixed and not just registered

These missions are highly susceptible to becoming exclusionary by nature. Digital India, much like smart cities can be best described as the culmination of the elitist gated community concept. A systematic move which is reducing the world into refined, high-end enclaves surrounded by vast, formless slums where issues like Internet connectivity has little immediate relevance.

A country like India, which is still just one-third urbanised and just one-fifth online, cannot prioritise exclusionary governance and urbanisation. The country needs to reinvent the very idea of urban growth, connectivity and governance. Today, smart thinking will require finding a new measure of liveability and governance that works for the Indian situation, where the cost of growth is unaffordable to most.

Digitising India while reducing expenditure on the capacity to deliver and the capacity to transition is going to come back to haunt the NDA government, like it did to Naidu in 2004 assembly elections. The NDA government needs to balance its vision. A smart and digitised country isn’t simply a country where people are technologically networked, but which is liveable and inclusive; where things get fixed and not just registered. Otherwise, we will face what the late architect Charles Correa remarked about his hometown, Mumbai: “It is a great city, but a terrible place!”

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