Budget 2020

Modi moulding digital India

Indeed, it seems as if Mr. Modi has laid down a lighted path, if not a specific and complete roadmap, for taking India into the digital 21st Century. File photo

Indeed, it seems as if Mr. Modi has laid down a lighted path, if not a specific and complete roadmap, for taking India into the digital 21st Century. File photo  

From smart cities to virtual classrooms, the Budget indicates that the Government is willing to change the way it talks on technology and economic development

s a general rule, be it a CEO or a government official, it’s always better to walk into a crucial meeting with a list of three priorities and an equal number of tough decisions to be taken.

A quick look at the word count of the past five Union Budget speeches will tell you that as the state of the economy has slowly worsened, our Finance Ministers have decided to compensate with more verbose and long-winded orations.

Former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, for instance, started his 2009-10 budget with 11,700 words, and quickly moved up the ladder before finishing his last budget speech with 14,157 words. The present Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, shattered all records last week with a whopping 16,000 plus word speech.

Change in language

While prevailing wisdom would suggest that it is better to make less, and thus more believable, promises, the verbiage also sometimes hides a gentle signal as to which way the wind is now blowing. Much has been written and said over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of creating a ‘Digital India’. A back-of-the-envelope comparison of P. Chidambaram’s 2013-14 and Mr. Jaitley’s 2014-15 budget shows that Mr. Modi is indeed serious about giving India a digital push.

The words ‘digital’, ‘Internet’ and ‘broadband’ appear zero times in last year’s budget, while Mr. Jaitley’s speech devotes a section to it and even refers to the often-ignored “divide between digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in India.” The word ‘start-up’ appears once in a passing reference in the previous budget, while Mr. Jaitley has unveiled a host of incentives and measures aimed at boosting the whole ecosystem.

Indeed, it seems as if Mr. Modi has laid down a lighted path, if not a specific and complete roadmap, for taking India into the digital 21st Century.

The biggest of the allotments, a decent Rs.7,060 crore, goes towards smart cities; an idea that while popular has not been enthusiastically taken up by India’s poorly managed cities. Indeed, some of the biggest problems that technology companies are facing are the hesitancy of local municipal corporations in forking over or even finding funds for initial pilot projects.

A firm mandate from the Centre may nudge some of the more entrepreneurial cities and real estate developers to jump into action while convincing the late adopters of the worth of a smart city.

The biggest winner, however, is the fledgling start-up ecosystem. While the merits of having the government invest directly in start-ups are still being hotly debated amongst the community, as opposed to the Kerala start-up village model, the allocation of a Rs.10,000 crore fund to provide risk capital for start-ups will finally give this debate some teeth.

Besides this, there are provisions for rural start-up programmes, a nationwide incubation network and a special focus on ramping up software product start-ups, all with the backing of Rs. 100-500 crore allotments. The diamond amongst the rough, however, is that an “entrepreneur-friendly legal bankruptcy framework will be developed for SMEs to enable easy exit”. In a country where capital can dry up at moment’s notice and where our biggest Internet companies are Western clones, laws must be framed in a way that allows entrepreneurs to fail without being harshly penalised.

A definite intent

There are definite statements of intent sprinkled throughout the Budget — whether it is in the Rs.100 crore allocation for virtual classrooms, the introduction of e-visas or the integration of government departments on an e-biz platform.

This makes it all the more surprising, therefore, that there are very few references to fixing one of Digital India’s biggest problems: the lack of high-speed broadband for all of its citizens.

To be sure, there are references to a “national rural Internet and technology mission” and “ensuring broadband connectivity at the village level” with an allocation of Rs. 500 crore. In achieving this goal, there is no need for domestic production of IT hardware as the budget states; the mobile revolution, after all, has come and gone without India producing a large number of cell phones.

There needs to be an admission that the UPA Government’s ‘National Optic Fibre Network’ plan, which planned on connecting 2.5 lakh gram panchayats across the country with high-speed broadband, has failed. Inherent in this admission is that the top-most priority for Digital India should be to bring its Internet connectivity up to scratch.

It would be a simple, easily stated goal that can be understood by everyone. As a Silicon Valley CEO was once rumoured to have said, high-speed broadband is a priority that’s so simple government officials will be able to remember it even if they’re exhausted, drunk and thrown out in the middle of the night by their wives.

Mr. Jaitley’s budget fails in the sense that it is not able to identify its top-most priorities for a Digital India. There are no tough decisions or radical ideas either. Where it does score is in changing the way the government talks about technology in general and how it affects our society in particular. The IT industry, which spawned many multi-million dollar companies and generated employment by the millions, was unable to alter the way India adopted information technology for its economy and development.

This year’s budget hints that perhaps Narendra Modi can.

anuj.s@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 9:54:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/business/budget/modi-moulding-digital-india/article6204247.ece

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