OPINION

Digital nation

Affordable smartphones and Internet access have made India a digital nation with an estimated 750 million connections and a thriving financial technology sector. Citizens inured to queues at dingy utility offices even to pay routine bills find this a major leap, thanks to fintech. Digital platforms providing goods and services, including online education and telemedicine, have grown vigorously during the COVID-19 pandemic, while many professionals have maintained productivity by working from home. Yet, it would be premature to declare digital as a way of life in India, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi put it at the Bengaluru Tech Summit. The true measure of digital nations is the readiness of governments to use technology to create open, participatory public systems that citizens consider trustworthy. What governance must achieve is a reliable system of digital welfare. A beginning has, no doubt, been made through government-to-citizen services using Common Service Centres, advice to agriculturists, digital payments of welfare benefits through bank accounts and, even legal advice online to four lakh people under the Tele-Law scheme. These represent a welcome advance, but if digital methods were applied to other sectors, such as road safety, the results could be dramatic — potentially reducing the accident mortality rate of about 1,50,000 deaths a year.

In the ongoing pandemic, Mr. Modi’s forecast for enhanced adoption of technology in health and education will have resonance, although this was always a priority. In fact, successive governments failed to grasp the promise of achieving universal health coverage (UHC) by 2022, for which the erstwhile Planning Commission presented a road map a decade ago. Now, the nucleus plan is Ayushman Bharat, with a digital health identity for all. With the emphasis on digitalisation, it should be possible to achieve measurable progress early on at least on one UHC component — access to free, essential prescription drugs. A digital health ID would help prescribe and dispense essential medicines free. The Planning Commission estimated that the public procurement cost for this, in 2011, would be 0.1% to 0.5% of GDP. If this is a medium-term goal, the more immediate task of distributing COVID-19 vaccines looms as a test for the government. At a broader level, efficient digital government depends on transforming internal processes, and fixing deadlines for service delivery. The UPA could not see its electronic delivery of services legislation through, and it remains forgotten. If digital has to become a way of life, redefining the labyrinthine functioning of citizen-centric services would be a good place to start, with deadlines for government departments.