Leveraging Digital India for sustainable development

The Government of India aims to transform the country into an ‘India of Tomorrow’, one that is both socially and economically empowered. To enable such transformation, factors such as (i) a sharp focus on sustainable and inclusive growth to drive job creation and enhance economic activity, (ii) social safety nets to protect the socio-economically marginalised, and (iii) social inclusion to ensure equal access for all to education, health, employment and other services are rudimentary imperatives.

Building up further on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) encompass 17 goals and 169 targets. Like the MDGs, the proposed SDGs are concise, time-bound and measurable. While the MDGs comprised of milestones en route to the overarching goals, the SDGs have been designed to achieve the complete target. Political will, favourable international environment and a technology facilitation mechanism will be crucial for achieving these SDGs.

The Digital India framework resonates with the proposed SDGs to build a resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. Digital strengthening of institutions, with clearly defined objectives of good, efficient & effective governance, and that of constituents alike is a key requisite.

Digital India is an umbrella programme, comprising of various initiatives with the ambition to prepare India towards becoming a knowledge economy and bringing good governance to the citizens’ door-steps. The three focus areas of Digital India are:

  • Availability of digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen,
  • Governance and services on demand, and
  • Digital empowerment of citizens

It stands on nine pillars of growth, namely – broadband highways, universal access to mobile connectivity, public internet access programme, eGovernance: reforming government through technology, eKranti – electronic delivery of services, information for all, electronics manufacturing: target net zero imports,  IT for jobs  and the Early Harvest programmes.

A renewed and improved Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) strategy is possible through Digital India.  With a well thought plan and effective execution, this can help the country improve its social indices, thus enabling India to meet the SDGs, which will be signed at the UN General Assembly in September, 2015.

Effective implementation of initiatives such as improved broadband penetration, creation of knowledge societies, local language applications and focus on e-health, e-education delivery model can accelerate the journey towards achievement of the proposed SDGs.

For the aam aadmi, Digital India is that beacon of hope, where both the attention of the government and services will be available at the ‘touch of a button’. Digital enablement, as a social process, can transform the techno-economic environment and socio-institutional operations through digital technologies and applications. This social transformation is possible through the grass root level adoption and proliferation of a robust and easy-to-use digital technology that captures and transfers information on a real/near-real time basis for a quick and correct analysis and fact-based decision making, planning, execution and monitoring.

Can technology and innovation help the government deliver its age old promise of ‘roti, kapda aur makaan’ and other basic rights such as education, health, safety and opportunity?  Both the design outcomes and on-ground results of the initiatives planned and being undertaken under Digital India must provide a resounding ’yes’.

Digital India is proposed to be set at the very heart of inclusive growth.  From empowering the youth through the promotion of rural entrepreneurs to improving access to markets in small towns through e-commerce or by enabling direct disbursal of money to beneficiaries, the initiatives are focused on bringing the weaker sections into the mainstream through the power of knowledge based on transparency and accountability.

The UN estimates that India will witness the largest urban growth in the world with a projected addition of 404 million urban dwellers to its cities by 2050. At present, India also houses the largest rural population of the world standing at 857 million people. A key challenge that the government shall face in the near future will be the mass exodus of rural – urban migration.

Furthermore, this migration will be based on the fact that the youth will want to stay in cities that are socio-economically and environmentally sustainable. In fact, netizens of India today – primarily the youth, have very different expectations and their need for social accountability and access to information has only grown with the ever changing World Wide Web. It would, thus, be pragmatic to look at these expectations as a benchmark and simultaneously prepare the country for the next wave of internet users whose demographic characteristics encompass the elderly, the rural and women.

At present, the government is focusing actively on developing an infrastructure that facilitates proper implementation of Digital India. The government is working towards creating broadband highways, which aim to connect 250,000 panchayats across rural India by 2016. This initiative, often likened to the development of national highways, and other initiatives of Digital India, are crucial for completion of SDGs.

However, development of technology facilitation mechanisms through the promotion of devices and conduits will not help much without a ‘bottom-up approach’ and high energy expeditious efforts to reduce the digital divide simultaneously.

For ICT to have a greater impact on socio-economic process, it is absolutely critical that the digital divide i.e., the social stratification due to unequal ability to access, adapt, and create knowledge, be minimised. These may be on account of age, health, living conditions, employment, culture, background, gender, education, and income. Furthermore, the lack of education combined with low-income results in a greater likelihood of the lack of digital enablement, which is compounded by the physical location such as remoteness of an area.

Digital India must aim to make the hitherto marginalised population, especially the rural, the elderly and women digitally literate. Digital literacy focuses on ensuring people have the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyse information using digital technology, thereby enabling people to communicate and work more efficiently.

Digital literacy not only plays a crucial role in empowering the economically and socially weaker sections of the society, but is also an absolute essential for the development of a knowledge economy. The contribution of Digital India in sustained development would be dependent on meeting their requirements and on creating equity.

Namrata Yadav, Senior Professional,  Government Advisory Services, EY has also contributed to this article.

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