Narendra Modi has initiated his Digital India project to connect India digitally with a planned allocation of Rs one lakh crore. The plan is to establish a digital platform to digitally connect and deliver government programs and services to individuals across India, thereby harnessing the power of information technology.
The project also plans to connect all villages through high speed internet by 2019. The plan is ambitious to say the least, though it is not truly original.
The Congress led UPA, had initiated the National e-governance program that also sought to digitally connect India and a lot of work has already gone into it. Modi plans to build on that and to ensure that it is implemented within stated time lines. The difference this time is that while the project under UPA did not get the priority and attention it deserved, Modi is giving it his personal signature and will be monitoring the project implementation on a priority basis. A Digital India Advisory Group is to be set up under the Ministry of Communications and IT and will be chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, thereby ensuring close monitoring by the PMO.
Modi wants India on the cloud. What that means is that every individual’s personal record is stored in a virtual central repository or Digital Locker, which can be accessed by government officials anywhere anytime, through established protocols. For example, an individual’s certificates from school or college, birth certificates, medical records etc are all stored in the individual’s folder and these can be accessed by any government official to confirm or verify the individual’s claims without the need for the individual to present the hard copy. The purpose is to free the individual from the need to physically present the hard copy for verification in any government office. This will save a lot of time for the individual and the government officials, as also reduce the opportunity for bribes being demanded.
The government has invited suggestions from the technical talent pool in India to submit suggestions through the site MyGov.in, on how to develop the communication protocol or the applications programing interface (API) for delivering this project.
The plan is to create a digital platform to serve nine verticals; e-governance, e-Kranti, public internet access program, broadband highway, information access for all, mobile connectivity, early harvest programs, IT for jobs, and electronic manufacturing.
The government plans to extend the project to the Clean India campaign as also, the Skills and Entrepreneurship project for job creation. The government will realign the National Informatics Centre to assist in integrating the above with delivering projects of various ministries, through direct or PPP mode.
India will need massive Data Centres with mirroring i.e. all data will need to be backed up at an alternate site. This will require large investment to set up state-of-the-art data centres in various parts of India. These data centres will have to be provided fail proof physical and cyber security cover.
Security is not an act but a process and a lifestyle. India is a nation where we neither understand security nor practice it, as part of our daily lifestyle. This has left our IT infrastructure vulnerable to security attack either through cyber space or through internal sabotage. While organizations like Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) is trying to cope with the ever evolving cyber threats, India is still nowhere in establishing secure and impenetrable networks, as seen in various attacks on our critical sites of various government establishments, over the years. Government sites especially are vulnerable.
Then there is the real possibility of internal sabotage that can result in stealing or damaging of data, at any given point. There is a real possibility of a disgruntled individual who is motivated by greed, revenge, political or religious affiliation, may get access to the data to steal or damage it.
The problem is that security has to be clearly understood by all and unless this is made part of our operational lifestyle, both at the individual and at the government level, securing vast and critical data, will always be a major hurdle. The biggest challenge to the success of the Digital India project is not on the delivery side but on the security side. Securing this data for all time is going to be the real challenge that the government has to address before embarking on this ambitious project.
When the government stores personal data of the citizens, the government becomes its custodian. This means that the government is responsible for securing the data and also preventing its misuse. The question is how is the government going to prevent litigation in cases of data misuse? For instance, what happens when one individual uses a government official to access another individual’s medical records and then uses this information against that individual? Furthermore, India is a country with a VIP culture. What happens in a case of data pertaining to a VIP being accessed, lost or damaged by someone with vested interest?
In this scenario, the government becomes a party to the data breach. What happens if the data is damaged or the delay in verification causes the individual a financial loss or a loss of business opportunity? Will the government be liable for the loss? Do we have cyber laws that adequately address such scenarios? These will have to be looked at very closely by the government prior to launching the Digital India program.
The Digital India program will have to simultaneously launch a training program to ensure all government officials understand the data that is available, its protocols of access and protocols of security, and also the legal ramifications of data breach. Given the large size of the government, it will take time and investment to train and cover all individuals, for successful delivery of the program.
Suggested extension of the program
The Digital India program is a great opportunity to develop the digital backbone in the country. If the government can extend the vision to include email. Messaging and cloud services on servers located in India, it will truly usher in a digital revolution in India, besides opening up massive business opportunities at home.
Today, most Indians hold email accounts with Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo etc along with using messaging services like WhatsApp and Viber, which all run on servers located outside India. This makes all individuals and by extension, the country, vulnerable to surveillance and privacy breach, as shown by snooping done by NSA, of the United States.
India must offer all the above services including cloud storage, to all Indians. Of course, this will entail massive investment in technology and infrastructure, but the Digital India program could well be extended in a phased manner to initiate the process of bringing all digital activity to India.
India has seen the UIDAI project being implemented pretty successfully and therefore there is no reason why the Modi led administration will not succeed in implementing this program by the targeted date of 2019. At least the political will is there.