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By 2019, it is estimated that there will be five billion mobile phone users in the world, with around 67% of the world’s population owning a mobile phone, according to the website Statista. In India, Statista says that by 2019 there will be nearly 1.1 billion mobile phone connections. This means profound change for 1.3 billion people in India, a nation that is only recently started waking up to the digital age. While Internet penetration is still low, India nevertheless has the second highest Internet users in the world thanks to mobile internet.
Research has shown that better connectivity can lead to more effective governance, education, infrastructure and sustainability. The Networked Society City Index for 2016 by Ericsson confirms information and communications technology (ICT) is critical for productivity and living conditions, leading to social, economic and environmental betterment.
Prime Minister Modi’s Digital India initiative has been covered in detail in the press and online. It aims to expand the digital infrastructure to connect the entire country and provide a digital platform for banking, governance, healthcare and educational services. On the landing page of the Digital India website, Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad is quoted as saying that Digital India initiatives are aimed at the poor and underprivileged. According to this article authored by a senior executive at Intuit in the Financial Express, “All indications are that rural India will welcome these digital inclusion efforts. Rural Indians have been getting online in increasing numbers, and are expected to catch up with urban India by 2020, when 48% of the online population will be from rural India (up from 36% in 2016). And if Digital India delivers on its promise, rural India will likely soon outnumber urban India online for a more real representation of the country.”
If you take these various data points – massive number of mobile connections, the Government of India’s focus on bettering the lives of rural Indians through e-Governance, and increasing number of rural Indians getting online – you will see how Digital India is set up for success. Because mobile phones can create wireless networks wherever there’s a mobile signal, rural India represents a key growth area for cellular companies that can offset the lack of broadband connectivity. This is where mobile can fill the infrastructure gap left by lack of broadband and wireless connectivity to enable a vast percentage of the population instant access to government services.
The Government has gone all out with the Digital India initiative. They’ve launched apps that allow people to book train tickets (IRCTC Connect), access passport services (mPassport Seva) and they’ve even launched RTI India mobile, an app that enables citizens to file Right To Information (RTI) queries from their mobiles and communicate with RTI activists directly via messages. The Government has also launched the eHospital Online Registration app, an ambitious project to create a framework to link various hospitals across the company with an Aadhar-based online registration and appointment system (Aadhar is a unique ID issued to all Indian residents).
Central to these plans is the Aadhar project. Aadhar aims to capture 2.4 billion iris scans from the Indian populace, making it the world’s largest biometric initiative to date (the project is a Harvard Business Review Case Study). A product of this vision is Indus OS. Supporting 12 Indian languages and powered by Delta ID, the project is focused on creating the first ever Aadhar-secured OS for smartphones using iris authentication. The Government is also pushing smartphone makers like inFocus to create devices for the domestic market that support Aadhar enabled iris authentication technology. This biometric information once collected and authenticated will enable citizens simpler access to government schemes, healthcare or education and banking services.
While this is all sounding quite rosy, let’s look at a real-life scenario. Mala, the domestic help who works in my house, is illiterate. She is able to recognize callers from little images that Nokia has helpfully provided on her basic mobile phone and that I have programmed against each of her ten or twelve contacts. She never surfs the internet or watches online videos – she doesn’t know how. So how can e-Governance and Digital India help the millions of Malas out there, the very audience that they claim to be targeting?
Enter the National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM). The NDLM aims to make one person in every family digitally literate, and it is one of the key components of the Digital India initiative. According to the NDLM website, “[NDLM] has been formulated to impart IT training to 52.5 lakh [5.25million] persons, including Anganwadi and ASHA workers and authorised ration dealers in all the States/UTs [Union Territories] across the country so that the non-IT literate citizens are trained to become IT literate so as to enable them to actively and effectively participate in the democratic and developmental process and also enhance their livelihood.”
As it turns out, both of Mala’s daughters are both digitally and otherwise literate. So are the people that Mala meets on a regular basis (not only my family) – the milkman, the kirana store owner, the vegetable vendor. So technically she is covered under the NDLM.
Yet, when Mala is confronted with a problem which needs a “computer”, as she puts it, she is so baffled that she will not even ask for help. So while the Government is gearing up with the infrastructure and framework, there is still a ways to go with changing mindsets in this vast and diverse country.