Challenges Of Digital India
A restrictive approach to data storage driven more by emotion than reason will limit opportunities
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Digital India - shutterstock_193919333
There are a few things about India that bother NRIs. The first is poverty. They no longer buy the standard excuses — population is too big and we are a democracy unlike China, etc. We have seen enough counter examples in the world to realise that poverty in India is a result of poor policy choices over the last 70 years. What bothers them even more is the appalling indifference of the well-to-do towards the poor.
The NRIs are also bothered about the pervasive corruption in India. It is in this context that the accomplishments of the Digital India initiative are impressive. The schemes for poverty alleviation like MNREGA have existed before this government came to power. What has transformed its effectiveness is the use of JAM for direct benefit transfer. By eliminating middlemen, it has ensured that 100 per cent of the benefit goes to the poor. If it works in programmes like MNREGA, why not adopt it for numerous other programmes administered by the state and the local governments? Ministers and top-level bureaucrats love Aadhaar for this reason — they don’t like decentralised corruption by lower levels of bureaucracy, which only creates resentment among the public and generates bad press. Not just governments, but all kinds of private companies have also jumped on to the Aadhaar bandwagon and require its use for various services.
Privacy issues regarding misuse of Aadhaar details dominate the headlines these days. However, most of the issues betray a lack of understanding of how Aadhaar works and a lot of it is fear mongering. Nevertheless, the government has to find a way to address these concerns.
With increasing digitisation comes the issue of data storage. There are two extremes when it comes to the government policy on data storage. Europe mandates that all data generated in Europe should be kept in servers located in Europe. At the other extreme is the US, which has no such restrictions. The temptation for India is to take the heavy-handed approach and follow the European model — and feed its famously prickly ego. That will be a mistake. Data is the oil of the future as The Economist put it. India has a massive opportunity to become the data powerhouse of the world. Just as India dominated outsourcing, thanks to its high-quality but inexpensive human resource, it has the opportunity to service the world in collecting data, cleaning it, analysing it and generating insights from it. A restrictive approach to data storage driven more by emotion than reason will limit such opportunity as restrictions on the Indian side will lead to reciprocal restrictions on the other side. The right approach for India is to follow a hybrid model — insist on all data that has national security implication to be stored on servers in India. For the rest, issue a set of guidelines and regulatory framework for their use and access no matter where it is stored.
The other big challenge of the Digital India initiative is to enable empowerment of citizens — ability to influence the hitherto opaque decision-making process in the government. This initiative has made it easier for citizens to access data but involvement of ordinary citizens in major decisions that impact their life has yet to take place. This is the true promise of the Digital India initiative.
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