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Slow but Steady: Progress under Digital India

February 27, 2017
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The Digital India initiative was launched in July 2015 with a view to transform the entire ecosystem of public services through the use of information technology. The programme is centred on three key pillars – providing digital infrastructure as a core utility to every citizen, making governance and services available on demand, and digitally empowering citizens.

During the launch of the programme, the key initiatives announced by the government were the creation of an online repository of documents (digital locker), an e-sign framework, a national e-governance plan (e-Kranti) and e-hospitals. Since then, the scope of the programme has been expanded by identifying nine thrust areas, which are imperative for achieving the government’s objectives. These include broadband highways,

universal access to mobile connectivity, a public internet access programme, e-governance, e-Kranti (electronic delivery of services), information for all, electronics manufacturing, information technology for jobs and early harvest programmes. Each of these is a complex programme in itself and cuts across multiple ministries and government departments.

tele.net takes stock of the progress made under some of the key programme pillars of the Digital India initiative in 2016...

Broadband highways

Broadband highways comprise three subcomponents: broadband for all (rural), broadband for all (urban), and national information infrastructure (NII). Broadband for all in rural areas is envisaged to be achieved through the BharatNet initiative, which aims to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats in the country through optic fibre cable (OFC). Progress under the project has, however, been extremely slow with OFC pipes and optic fibre being laid in 80,374 and 68,016 gram panchayats respectively as of January 1, 2017. The project is currently live in only 15,913 gram panchayats. Significant cost revisions, delays in procuring clearances and equipment, and slow disbursement of funds are the key reasons behind its sluggish roll-out.

In order to expedite the roll-out of BharatNet, the Telecom Commission in April 2016 approved a revised strategy, proposing a three-phase implementation of the project. The first phase envisages the provision of broadband connectivity to 100,000 gram panchayats by laying underground OFC by March 2017. In the second phase, connectivity will be provided to all 250,000 gram panchayats in the country by using an optimal mix of underground fibre, fibre over power lines (aerial fibre), and radio and satellite media by 2018. In the third phase, to be executed between 2018 and 2023, a state-of-the-art, future-proof network with ring topology, comprising fibre between districts and blocks, will be created. Meanwhile, in urban areas, virtual network operators (VNOs) have been proposed to leverage service delivery. To this end, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), in July 2016, released guidelines for granting unified licences to mobile VNOs. The entry of MVNOs in the value chain will undoubtedly bring efficiency into the industry as infrastructure sharing is an important aspect of this model. This will reduce service delivery costs, which will, in turn, bring down prices for end-customers and enhance service adoption.

NII would integrate the network and cloud infrastructure to provide high speed connectivity and a cloud platform to various government departments up to the panchayat level. These infrastructure components include networks such as statewide area networks, a national knowledge network, a government user network and the MeghRaj cloud platform. As of now, not much progress has been made under this component, with only detailed project reports being prepared for its implementation.

Electronics manufacturing

This pillar focuses on promoting indigenous electronics manufacturing, with the target of net zero imports by 2020. The government has sought to achieve this objective through its Make in India initiative, which provides a slew of incentives for domestic manufacturing. As of March 2016, the government received proposals worth Rs 1.2 trillion for electronics manufacturing, as compared to the Rs 118 billion it received in June 2014. Of these, 75 proposals involving initial investments of Rs 60.38 billion have been approved under the modified special incentive package scheme as of November 2016.

The electronics manufacturing space was particularly vibrant during 2016 with announcements and plans by handset vendors, both domestic as well as foreign. Micromax launched its manufacturing facility in Hyderabad, with a capacity of 1 million devices per month. This is the company’s second manufacturing facility in the country, the first being in Uttarakhand with a capacity to produce 1.6 million devices per month. Karbonn Mobiles set up a handset manufacturing plant in Haryana comprising 22 assembly lines that can manufacture 30 million mobile units per year. Meanwhile, several players such as Lava, Oppo, Dixon Technologies and ZTE Corporations announced their plans to set up manufacturing units in the country.

Early harvest programmes

Early harvest programmes comprise those projects that are to be implemented within a short time frame. These include dissemination of SMS-based weather information, disaster alerts, deployment of public Wi-Fi hotspots and conversion of text books to e-books, among others. Of these, the deployment of public Wi-Fi hotspots has received the greatest attention, owing to the significant role technology can play in providing affordable and high-speed broadband, which is a pre-requisite for realising the dream of a digital nation.

Several telecom operators including Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited launched their public Wi-Fi services at popular tourist destinations in 2016. Meanwhile, RailTel, the telecom arm of Indian Railways, launched the Station Wi-Fi project in collaboration with Google. The project, touted as the biggest such project in the world, will connect 400 railway stations with Wi-Fi. Under the partnership, RailTel is providing high-speed, end-to-end network connectivity on optic fibre, while Google is providing the radio access network along with technology support. Wi-Fi services have so far been commissioned at 100 stations across the country.

Wi-Fi is also an essential part of the government’s Smart Cities initiatives as several issues related to waste management, sustainable energy, parking, traffic, as well as security and surveillance will be better addressed through this technology.

E-governance and e-Kranti

Another major thrust area of the Digital India initiative is providing e-governance, which is being promoted through e-Kranti or electronic delivery of services. Under this, the central and state governments are being encouraged to leverage information and communications technology to provide integrated services on an end-to-end basis. As of now, 44 mission mode projects are being implemented by central ministries/departments and state/union territory governments to provide completely online services in various domains like health, education, trade, income tax, excise and customs, corporate affairs, postal services, police, land records, etc.

During 2016, the government rolled out many new e-governance applications aimed at ensuring efficient service delivery and bringing in transparency in operations. The key among these were the electronic national agriculture market (e-NAM) platform and the government e-Marketplace (GeM) platform. The e-NAM platform, launched in April 2016, is a pan-Indian e-trading platform aimed at creating a unified national market for agricultural commodities. Using the platform, farmers can showcase their produce online from their nearest market and traders can quote prices from anywhere in the country. The programme initially covered 21 mandis in eight states and has now been expanded to 250 mandis in over 10 states. Meanwhile, the GeM platform was launched in August 2016, to facilitate online procurement of common use goods and services required by various government departments/organisations and public sector undertakings. As of end- 2016, over 4,000 products under 86 different categories, besides hiring of transport services, were available on GeM and transactions worth Rs 450 million have already been processed on the platform.

The way forward

While the government’s vision of digitally empowering people and transforming urban lives through the Digital India programme is commendable, the road to its realisation is fraught with multiple issues. The country still lacks an extensive broadband and IT infrastructure that is central to achieving the Digital India goals. Progress of the BharatNet project, which seeks to address this issue (especially in rural areas), has been extremely slow and its deadline has been revised several times.

The successful implementation of the Digital India initiative requires meticulous planning, effective capital disbursement, large investments in infrastructure and greater involvement of private players. The programme’s execution within the proposed timelines is imperative for ensuring the intended benefits to citizens.

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