What's Ailing The 'Digital India' Revolution?

by Sohini Bagchi    Nov 28, 2014

digital innovation

The ‘Digital India’ revolution, a highly ambitious gameplan by the NDA government, is estimated to cost over Rs 100,000 crore. While the idea of connecting the whole of India is a praiseworthy move by the current Prime minister Narendra Modi, experts believe India may have to cross many a hurdles to see itself as a digitally savvy nation in the coming years, especially as the current set up seems to be disturbing.

The dissapointment

A recent ICT Development Index brought out by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) portrays a detrimental picture of “Digital India.” The study places India at a rank as low as 129 amongst the 166 countries it surveyed. What’s more disturbing is that the rank is even lower than countries such as Maldives, Mongolia, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Fiji, Nicaragua among others.

Moreover, the IDI index for India at 2.53 is much below the world average in 2014 that stands at 4.77. Even amongst countries in the Asia and Asia Pacific region, India is ranked as low as 22nd amongst 29 countries just above Nepal. 

One of the key parameters in the ICT development Index is the ICT readiness, which sees the level of networked infrastructure and access of ICT in the country. While India may boast of 900 million mobile customers which is increasing by the day, the Key to making India digital is internet penetration, which comes across as rather poor currently as compared to global trends. The index also looks at the level of use of ICTs in the society and access to mobile and broadband, as well as the outcome of efficient and effective ICT use – and in India this development should happen from the grassroot level believe experts.

As a recent Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) report reveals that India’s vast digital divide, due mainly to the lack of internet access and unavailability of regional language content, are major challenges to the Centre’s mega digital drive.

The big challenge

The Prime Minister however is extremely upbeat about his digital India plan and is leaving no stones unturned to make it a reality. In August, the cabinet cleared the Digital India program, which aimed at connecting all gram panchayats across the country through broadband internet and provide services like health and education as well as e-governance through a digital networked platform, as per Business Standard report, where Mr. Modi says that the program will be implemented in phases from the current year till 2018.

Despite his ambitions, experts believe Mr. Modi has a tough challenge to make it a reality. That is because, when compared with global counterparts, the internet penetration in India is dolefully pathetic.

The ITU report says, in terms of wireless broadband penetration in the Asia and Asia Pacific region, India is ranked seventh from the lowest amongst 29 countries. The countries with lower penetration than India include Iran, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan.

According to ITU there were 1.2 billion people from Asia and Asia Pacific region who were online by end 2013 (using mobile and fixed.) It says only 15 percent of the Indian population that is 200 million Indians currently use the internet as against 600 million Chinese, which is 44 percent of China’s population. Countries like South Korea have an internet penetration of 80 percent, Japan has 86 per cent and even New Zealand over 83 percent.

With this kind of infrastructure, experts believe the government needs to do some serious introspection.    As Subho Ray, president of IAMAI, told ET, while Digital India is a right move. It is important to see how far and fast government goes ahead. India will leapfrog by giving Internet access to people which though is challenging.

Ralph Simon, CEO and Founder of Mobilium Global, sees non-availability of localized content and lack of low-cost devices as some of the looming bottlenecks. “As majority of the rural internet population is not comfortable in accessing Internet in English and this is holding them back from using internet fully for other purposes than online entertainment.With more content becoming available in the local languages, more users will start using the internet, he says.

Simon also says that only one out of 10 internet users in India transact online. “Online transaction is still in its infancy owing and there is a pressing need to educate and inform the user of the benefits of the internet services to drive the growth of internet usage,” he says if India wants to see itself digitalized and smart.

Turning vision into reality

While IAMAI believes that access and awareness are the key challenges causing the digital divide, the Centre has also embarked on Disha, a basic computer education program, and has earmarked Rs 95-crore to educate 1 million people initially.

While attaining a digital India revolution is not unattainable, Dr Ganesh Natarajan, VP & CEO of Zensar Technologies & Chairman of NASSCOM Foundation writes in a recent blog, if the government takes the agenda forward and does not leave any of the constituent parts gasping for funds, the opportunities are huge for the country in general and for willing participants in the IT sector as well. What is important to understand is that like any elephant, Digital India has many parts and each has to be addressed to make the big vision a reality.

Areas to be focused are taking the National Broadband Mission and the extension of NOFN – the National Optical Fibre Network to all parts of the country as well as having a clear definition of government expectations formulating clear guidelines for Public-Private Partnerships in each of these areas can substantially accelerate digital progress in the country, states Natarajan.

The current government’s vision of a Digital India road map offers ample scope for government and private agencies as well as investors to shape up its digital destiny. How much will happen and how fast will depend on how the government takes the agenda forward.