Betting big on technology, India is attempting to “leapfrog” into the Digital Age, bypassing the need for an Industrial/Manufacturing “Renaissance.” For a nation that prides itself on its technological prowess, this “ambitious” task seems within reach. However, doubts persist about the “reach” of technology, given the problems of “scale and speed” that a vast, diverse, and geographically varied country like India confronts. Of course, India recently celebrated its 75th Independence Day, and the theme of India At 75 becoming a “developed” country within the next 25 years was very prominent in the conversations about its future. Indeed, India At 75 is on its way to becoming a “$5 Trillion” Economy and, given its vast “potential,” has the wherewithal to succeed and become a Digital India soon.
India At 75’s harnessing of technology remains at the “core” of its broad-based push to Digitize, Democratize, and Decentralized governance and its policy of Atmanirbharta or “Self Reliance” where it seeks to “tap” its strength as an IT (Information Technology) powerhouse, to attain the goal of a Digital India, something which even the reputed The Economist Magazine, gushed about in a nod to the “emerging” New India, by calling this decade “ours to lose.” Indeed, The Economist also lauded the tech-driven policies underpinning the Jan Dhan Banking Accounts, the Aadhar Identity initiative, the linking of the above two to the “veins” of administrative processes, to widen the net of Indians receiving welfare benefits, and most importantly, in the realms of access to governmental services, through the combination of all these sinews.
While the goal of Digital India has been in the works for some time now, it was the Demonetization move that put in “override.” Overnight, Crores of Indians turned to the UPI (Universal Payment Interface) to “transition” from cash payments to Digital payments out of necessity and ease of use. Over time, UPI has become the world’s largest Digital payment platform, overtaking even China and the US in terms of volume and turnover. With the Trillions of Rupees being “moved” between producers and consumers and the conflation of both, making many Indians “prosumers” or those who produce and consume using Digital payment modes, India At 75 has proven the noted futurist Alvin Toffler’s predictions regarding the Digital Age. So, there you are, and the maligned Demonetization has had a (un)intended effect of setting in motion the process of the “arrival” of Digital India.
Amidst this “euphoria”, some sobering reminders remain as to whether India At 75 can genuinely aspire to become Digital India in this decade or later. The Digital Divide is “real,” as is the lack of knowledge and familiarity with technology. Of course, this has been debunked by many as not an obstacle, pointing to first the Mobile and next the Smartphone revolutions as evidence that tech has the potential to “change” India. This is very true, based on anecdotal and analytical accounts, as several studies and popular books on this topic attest to how Mobile Telephony was the game changer, followed by the equally, if not more, revolutionary Smartphone adoption. Already India is the biggest market for Meta/Facebook, as is for other Big Tech giants, evidenced by the “hungry for success” attempts of Amazon, Apple, and Tesla to access the humungous Indian consumer market. In a way, this is emblematic of India At 75’s journey since the economic reforms of the 1990s and the initial attempts to Digitize India from the mid-1980s.
Another debatable issue that has cropped up way too often in the recent past is the “attitude” of the Indian Government (both at the centre and in the states) towards tech firms. Whether it is the half-hearted attempts to crack down on Big Tech or the more determined policy push to “force” them to accede to Data sharing, Data hosting, and Data governance standards set by it and not the other way around, the Union Government has indeed acted in a manner that belies its ambition of a Digital India. This can be seen in the most recent moves to legislate a Personal Data Protection Law, a crying need in a nation where “pervasive” Cyberfraud is the norm, where the Government has been taking one step forward and two steps backwards. All these events are as surprising as they are concerning since the Indian Economy is a “one pony trick” powered mainly by the services sector. Hence, this “dependence” should induce cooperation rather than confrontation with the tech firms, including Big Tech.
Having said that, India At 75 can become Digital India shortly, given the vast “untapped” markets for those who aspire but cannot afford tech-driven goods and services. This is where the action is and should be the focus of India at 75, especially in the hinterland where many Indians live in rural settings, out of reach of the “wondrous” benefits that technology brings. In addition, India At 75’s Gig Economy should be another area of strength that can be leveraged by formalizing and regularizing it. More so when the pandemic proved the “indispensability” of our Gig workers and technology or a combination of both. Plus, this combo is also solving the “last mile connectivity conundrum” that held the Indian Economy back for so long. Next, technology can also revolutionize India At 75’s moribund Medium and Small Industries and the sizeable Informal Economy, thereby creating jobs by the Crores. Of course, reskilling and upskilling of the largely semi-literate and low-skilled Indian workforce is another “goldmine” in India At 75’s ambition of a Digital India.