Subir Roy One of the brightest spots in the Indian economy is the position that the digital sector has come to acquire in it and the expectation that it will remain a key driver of world-beating economic growth for the next five years. So, a policy must be in place to ensure that this digital promise actually materialises as also to address the negative aspects that go with it. In a contentious election season, it is satisfying to note the remarkable continuity in the support the country’s top political leaders have given to the digital initiative. In 2009, Nandan Nilekani left Infosys to become the head of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) with cabinet rank at the invitation of Manmohan Singh. The NDA government under Narendra Modi enthusiastically supported and took forward the idea of a digitally enabled biometric identity, Aadhaar, which was created by the UIDAI. Digital India, a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, has projected that India’s digital sector will at least double in the seven years – from $170 billion in 2017-18 to $355-435 billion in 2025. This implies a compound annual growth rate of 9 per cent or more. Over the same period, the Indian economy is projected to grow at 7 per cent plus, so that the share of the digital sector is likely to go up from 7 per cent to 8-10 per cent. India is now second only to China in many dimensions of digital adoption – number of wireless phone and Internet subscribers and those accessing social media. What is most remarkable is the way in which prices have crashed, be it the cost of a call or using data via the Internet. Naturally, data consumption has soared. Indians’ average mobile data consumption is now in the same region as that of South Korea, an advanced digital economy. India is still at the bottom of a list of 17 countries in overall digital adoption, but it is moving faster than any other country, barring Indonesia, up that list. Digital services hold out hope in key deficit areas of farming & health 1They can enable precision farming which can bring about a sea change in the Indian agriculture, raising farm productivity, creating agricultural viability and relieving farm distress. Satellite and drone imagery, as also the farmer’s own mobile phone, plus public data sources for land-holding and soil condition (soil health card) can help a farmer decide on the basis of weather forecast when to plant a crop, how much of inputs to use, measure crop loss in case of monsoon failure and claim insurance. A digital record of benefit, transfer and proceeds of sale in a digitised market for agricultural produce can, over a few years, make available enough data for financial service providers to give instant crop loans at reasonable interest rates. 2Digital services can bring about critical changes in healthcare delivery. The scenario can go somewhat like this. A patient schedules a consultation over a mobile app or over phone. At the health centre, the paramedic records vital signs and the results of automated diagnostic tests in electronic health records. The doctor joins the call and offers diagnosis on the basis of online examination and health records. The prescribed medicine is handed over at the clinic and an app-based system creates a follow-up appointment which is advised to the patient. Public records of the disease burden in the area or recent developments like a flood or a disease outbreak can determine diagnostic and prescription protocols. Taking digital sector forward 1Government: The government has to clarify and simplify regulations. A good example of how not to do this is the draft e-commerce policy which hopefully will get better through public inputs. The government has to digitise its own processes, particularly the customer facing ones, and guard against the entrenched system trying to leave loopholes that still require personal visits to get the job done. And, of course, the government needs to keep building the digital infrastructure. It should be easy to set up a laptop anywhere in the country and access data at reasonable speed. 2Business: Sections of Indian businesses pay only lip service to ‘digital’. A McKinsey survey has found that 80 per cent of firms say digital is ‘top priority’, but only 41 per cent say their digital strategy is fully integrated in their company’s strategy. Firms need to develop technology through an ‘open source mentality’ which seeks to stitch together multiple sources of knowledge to solve problems. Firms must have a ‘test and learn’ mindset that has a high tolerance for failure and redeployment. 3 Individual: As for individuals, they must become aware how their work can change through digital adoption and what new skills they need to learn in order to survive. People need to be aware of all that a smartphone can do and how to use the Internet with benefit and keep looking at how to become one’s own boss. Over 21 per cent of those signing up at online outsourcing sites worldwide are Indians, second only to the Americans. ‘Digital’ is expanding the space for those who don’t like conventional employment. The digital opportunity is not an unalloyed good thing. In this election season, the menace of fake news, enabled by digital technology, has become alarming. Neither the global platforms nor the regulators have made a dent. The adoption of digital technology mostly kills low-skill jobs and creates higher skill ones. Skill development, currently working poorly, has to be improved enormously. Most importantly, digital technology makes it possible for a police state (look at China) to put its citizens under more and more sophisticated surveillance. Is this the brave new world we want to live in?
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