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Challenges for Digital India

It’s a great pleasure to be here in California. It is one of the last places in the world to see the <g data-gr-id="65">sun set</g>. But, it is here that new ideas see the first light of the day. This is how Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his speech to captains of the industry of Indian origin, which included illustrious names like Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai. However despite the exuberant and eloquent notes stuck by the Prime Minister Digital India remains a distant dream. 

The digital divide between the most and least developed countries — measured in terms of costs, quality and connectivity — continues to grow, according to data released by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Global broadband prices have dropped nearly 75 percent between 2008 and 2011, yet the poorest countries, particularly in Africa, continue to have the highest connectivity costs in the world. The ITU report ranks 155 countries on the basis of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Development Index, which measures ICT access, use and literacy, and the ICT Price Basket, a country-wise indicator of ICT affordability. South Korea has the most advanced telecommunication infrastructure in the <g data-gr-id="70">world,</g> while Niger was ranked the worst. 
Despite India’s widely reported advances and investments in the telecommunication sector, the country is ranked 119th in the world in the ICT Development Index, below Zimbabwe, Bhutan and Ghana. India fares slightly better in the affordability index and is ranked 85th out of 161 countries in the ICT Price Basket (IPB) Index.  The IPB index measures communication costs as a percentage of Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, and highlights the tremendous regional disparities in connectivity costs. For instance, the average African mobile user can expect to pay to almost 20 percent of her monthly income on mobile connectivity costs, compared to the average Asian who would pay less than 10 percent, while the average European would pay a per-cent-and-a-half. 

Similarly, fixed broadband services in Africa cost 96 percent of the average monthly salary in 2011, down from an astonishing 458 percent of monthly income in 2008, compared to 20 percent of average monthly salary in Asia. Digital India (DI) is meant to increase access to the internet thereby facilitating the shift of services to the web (potentially increasing access). DI necessarily requires digital literacy to make headway.

However, digital literacy is not all that it needs. First, infrastructure needs to be put in place. The pace of implementation of NOF is significantly behind our DI aspirations. Without infrastructure, no DI would be possible. Two, simultaneously, we need to develop our institutional framework. Privacy laws and data protection regimes need to be put in place. The IT Act does not sufficiently cater to these requirements. Three, cyber security needs to be enhanced. Unauthorised access to personal information or manipulation of data should be prevented. New protocols may be developed in this regard. The formation of the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre (NCIIPC) is crucial in this regard. Four, devices able to act as interface DI needs to be developed, and they need to be linguistically sensitive. These devices can come with tutorials in the local language (both voice and visual tutorials) pre-loaded for all the basic services. Five, DI should not focus on a ‘captive market’. It should be more than just for consuming services. It should provide a platform for collaboration, information gathering and discovery. The government may need to regulate this aspect. While DI is laudable, its ambitions currently outstrip capabilities. However, if we do not dream big, we can’t achieve big. As such, having articulated DI, we have to move towards achieving it incrementally and sensitively.
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