Ravi Shankar Prasad is charged with making the new Indian government’s vision of a truly Digital India a reality as the minister for communications and information technology.
Here he speaks to India Inc. about what that challenge involves, the roadmap for the project and his own vision in accomplishing the ambitious task.
What is the rationale underlying the Digital India initiative?
This government was elected on a promise to deliver good governance and ensure development for all – ‘Sabka Vikas’. And the Digital India initiative would be a key component through which the government fulfils those promises the Prime Minister has made to the people of India.
In a nutshell, Digital India is about improving lives of Indians, enabled by technology, through knowledge-based transformation. We want to ensure each and every Indian, whether in a major metropolis or smaller towns or rural areas, has the opportunities that the proliferation of technology offers in the 21st century.
What is your roadmap to implement this ambitious project?
There are three primary aspects of Digital India: digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen; governance and services on demand; and digital empowerment of citizens. Achieving the first one is imperative to delivering the remaining two.
Hence my Ministry is working in tandem with other Ministries and Departments of the Union government, and with state governments as well as the private sector, to ensure each and every village in the country is connected by the information highway. As the Prime Minister has made clear, in the 21st century broadband connectivity is not a luxury but a necessity.
Our aim is to have all 250,000 villages in the country integrated with the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), albeit in a phased manner. In the first year, we will connect 50,000 gram panchayats, and 100,000 panchayats in each of the following two years.
Once the connectivity is there it would lead to a whole range of services, quite similar to the telecom revolution we saw during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s government [1998-2004]. Like then, I firmly believe the private sector will use the broadband infrastructure to deliver services, including e-health, e-education and a very expanded and intensive e-commerce. The government will also have to keep pace with public service delivery through e-channels because people would expect it as a norm.
The connectivity drive would boost all nine major pillars of the Digital India vision: broadband highways; universal access to mobile connectivity; public Internet access programme; e-governance: reforming government through technology; e-kranti or electronic delivery of services; information for all; electronics manufacturing; IT for jobs and early-harvest programmes.
How are you looking to address the challenge of digital literacy?
It keeps me awake at night. This is undoubtedly a challenge that needs to be addressed if we are to achieve the empowerment of each and every Indian. We have an ambitious goal to train 10 million people through “Disha” or the Digital Saksharta Abhiyaan [Digital Literacy Movement], using different training modules to suit the differing needs of people.
In addition, we are enhancing the training being delivered by the National Institute for Electronics and Information Technology, using a PPP model. In October, we released a directory of private training institutes in the country. And now we are looking to add to that list to ensure there are adequate institutions that can equip people with the necessary tools to optimise opportunities in a knowledge-based economy.
We are also providing free of cost training to SC / ST and OBC community and nominal fees for the other categories. The training programme has been designed in various Indian languages.
I envision an explosion of digital literacy programmes to satisfy the aspirational needs of Indians. Today, you find English medium schools in rural areas – an embodiment of the typical Indian aspiration. Similarly, I expect people and their aspirations for a better life for themselves and for their children to drive digital literacy.
A shining example of digital literacy would be when Dalit women would run common service centres aimed at facilitating various services including Government to citizen services and hopefully, even BPOs from small towns and villages. That is the dream.
The Digital India vision is entwined with Prime Minister Modi’s call to ‘Make in India’ through electronics manufacturing. Can this work?
Of course it can work. And it will work. We will make it work. India has 900 million mobile phones and yet not a single one is manufactured here – because it used to be easier to import than to manufacture. India imports electronic goods worth $100 billion every year.
By 2020, this will go up to $400 billion. That is not sustainable. With our resources, talent pool and entrepreneurial culture, India needs to be a manufacturing hub, just as the Prime Minister said in his Independence Day speech.
Our government has restructured duty tariffs and created a framework to incentivise electronic manufacturing through the clusters scheme. We have also engaged chief ministers and state governments, and I must commend our chief ministers for being receptive to this idea and pushing the cluster schemes in their respective states.
This Centre-state joint approach has been widely welcomed in the private sector. Not only domestic companies but also large electronics manufacturers from Germany, South Korea and elsewhere are responding positively to ‘Make in India’.
Electronic Manufacturing means setting up electronic manufacturing units in India not only for manufacturing of electronic goods for India but also for exporting the same to other countries.
We have already given in principle approval of 10 (ten) units and final approval of 2 (two) units. Another 8 (eight) units are in the pipeline.
I am confident the amazing Indian success story in the IT services sector can be replicated in high-end electronics manufacture. The sky is the limit.
Finally, Minister, Digital India is truly an ambitious idea. How confident are you of ensuring this can be delivered in the timescales the government has laid out?
This is a priority for the Prime Minister and the government. I monitor the progress fortnightly while our Ministry’s secretary is evaluating and coordinating this project on a daily basis, talking constantly to other Central government Departments as well as to state governments.
Achieving the goals set out in the Digital India vision would require Central and state governments to work in harmony. The state governments have bought into the vision and as such I am confident we will not only achieve the goals set out but do so within the proposed deadlines.Tagged: Narendra Modi, Digital India