Around three decades back, I was working with Kerala’s fishermen. In an attempt to enhance their returns – they were getting a mere 20% of the market price of fish – we introduced new technology like fiberglass crafts and outboard motor and even launched beach-level auctions.
However, the greatest challenge which persisted was to open bank accounts for fishermen to streamline payments. In those days, it would take us a minimum of ten months to chase physical banks and manage to register a single account holder. Know Your Customer was an alien concept. Cut to 2021, you can walk into a bank branch and open a bank account in moments with e-KYC and biometrics. Reducing the waiting time from months to minutes, digital transformation has truly enabled a paradigm shift.
Marking six years of the Digital India initiative, PM Modi has aptly described this to be India’s techade. Technological advancement and the rapid penetration of the internet have integrated over 1 billion citizens across India into a common financial, economic and digital ecosystem.
We have the cheapest data rates in the world and close to 700 million internet users – every 3 seconds a new Indian user joins the internet. The Union Cabinet has just approved the implementation of BharatNet through Public-Private Partnership in 16 states with official fiber connectivity to all inhabited villages.
With over billion-plus biometrics, a billion-plus mobile, and almost a billion bank accounts, we have built the largest identification system in the world mapping the entire population of India. To date, 1.29 billion Aadhaar IDs have been generated and 55.97 billion authentications have been carried out. Bridging the gap between the government and citizens has become the bedrock of India’s digitization efforts.
Then there are digital payment systems. In June 2021, UPI recorded 2.8 billion transactions worth Rs 5.47 trillion. UPI now has more than double the number of transactions that American Express does globally. Recently, Google wrote to the US Federal Reserve, applauding the successful implementation of UPI in India, and recommended that their Federal Reserve System draw inspiration from India.
The Government e-Marketplace (GeM) portal has successfully leveraged technology to transform the public procurement landscape. The portal has crossed the 19.17 lakh seller registration milestone, about 5 times the number of sellers from last year.
Other key examples are in health and education. In the hinterlands of India, gold-colored beneficiary cards are considered to be lifesavers for many, doing away with the various pillars and posts that one had to run to for equitable access to healthcare. The Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY) is a unique blend of healthcare and technology that covers over 500 million citizens.
Chitrakoot, in western UP, despite its developmental challenges, has leveraged common service centers, village-level entrepreneurs, and ASHA workers to build an effective telemedicine delivery mechanism for all residents. Under this intervention, patients in remote areas can avail specialist care without having to travel from their homes to hospitals.
Digitization and internet penetration have contributed phenomenally towards improving learning outcomes for students across India. Primary schools in Nawada, a remote aspirational district in Bihar, are home to SMART classrooms, completely equipped with digital tools and internet connectivity. The model of SMART classrooms and e-learning has been rapidly replicated across states, introducing students from rural areas to a whole new world of learning.
As India moves from being data-rich to data intelligence, machine learning, and AI will find solutions to a vast number of its challenges – water availability, learning outcomes, health improvement, and enhanced agriculture productivity.
I believe that the development of world-class technology products requires critical inputs from data-hungry young entrepreneurs and an AI-enabling policy environment. India should nurture an innovative breed of socially conscious and development-oriented product managers, AI scientists, product designers, and software engineers.
How we enable and empower the spirit of entrepreneurship among India’s people so that they leverage technology capabilities and data to provide solutions for not merely this country but the next 5 billion people of the world, who will be moving from poverty to middle-class status, is going to be the cornerstone of the next Digital India techade.