Post-independence, India has made considerable progress in improving the standard of living of its citizens. From lifting millions out of poverty to eradicating polio from the country, a lot has been done. However, despite its many achievements, India still has a lot of ground to cover when it comes to bringing about economic growth and social progress. And this can only happen with adequate help from technology.
The good news is that our central and state governments have realized this and have taken it upon themselves to fast-track India’s progress. And the route they have chosen is digital. Also, with the present government keen on making India a digital powerhouse, it is amply clear that the country is headed for a digital revolution.
E-governance: the first step
Digital governance minimizes human intervention thus making the administrative process more efficient and transparent. The biggest benefit of e-governance is the elimination of touts and middlemen who are often responsible for corruption, delays and red-tape. E-governance initiatives give the citizens fair and equal access to the government and make the process more inclusive. For example: Let us consider the case of cash transfers in government schemes. Using electronic payment systems will reduce leakages and ensure that the government and the beneficiary seamlessly interact with each other. This way, all benefits will directly reach the end user, thus making the process more efficient.
According to a December 2014 McKinsey report, by 2025, there will be 400 million additional Indians with access to quality healthcare and 300 million financially included people, all thanks to technology. These figures show that on the digital front, India has a lot of potential that is waiting to be realized.
While a number of digital initiatives were taken up by various states and the centre over the last decade or so, we look at some of the prominent ones that have achieved a certain degree of maturity to get a sense of how they have benefited citizens and the government.
A digital makeover
Passport Seva Project: One of India’s greatest digital successes, Passport Seva Project (PSP) was started with the aim to “deliver all passport-related services to the citizens in a timely, transparent, more accessible, reliable manner and in a comfortable environment through streamlined processes and committed, trained and motivated workforce.”
This ambitious e-governance initiative is part of the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) that aims to improve the delivery of public services. It is being executed with the Ministry of External Affairs in public-private partnership with an IT firm. Citizens can submit their application online and visit the nearest Passport Seva Kendra with prior appointment. This way they can save time by avoiding queues. The subsequent process too is very streamlined and secure as citizens have access to improved amenities, state-of-the-art infrastructure and a helpdesk.
E-filing of income tax returns: E-filing refers to the process of filing tax returns online. It was introduced in 2004 on a voluntary basis and in 2006 it went on to become more substantial. Given the sheer volume of taxpayers in India, it only made sense for the government to digitize the returns filing process. As manual counters and queues gave way to computer screens and clicks, tax filing became considerably simplified. It eliminated paperwork and empowered citizens by allowing them to file returns themselves. From convenience to fast refunds, from instant acknowledgment to value added services, there are numerous advantages of e-filing tax returns.
Electronic voting machines: After being used sporadically in Indian elections, electronic voting machines (EVM) found total dependence in the 2004 elections. It was a landmark move as the world’s largest democratic process got a digital facelift. Ever since, EVMs are a regular feature in state and national elections in India.
The electronic voting system is superior to ballot paper and is ecologically viable too, besides it helps combat electoral fraud. The Election Commission is now ready with a framework to let non-resident Indians vote by way of proxy voting and e-ballot facility.
Digitization of land records: Bhoomi is an initiative by the Karnataka state government that aims to computerize land records. The idea is to bring in transparency in land records management, give farmers direct access to the database and take away discretion from civil servants at operating levels.
Bhoomi has transformed the way land records are maintained by simplifying the process and providing a number of collateral benefits. Farmers have unhindered access to their land details and don’t have to depend on middlemen. It helps them in legal matters and also when it comes to applying for credit.
This initiative has empowered farmers and the governance model has proven to be financially self-sustainable.
Riding the digital wave
India’s tryst with digitization has gotten stronger, especially under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A number of projects enabled by public-private partnerships (PPPs) have been launched under NeGP. Digitizing a country the size of India is no easy task and hence PPPs work very well. While the government makes investments in projects, private bodies work towards making infrastructure available, delivering services and creating awareness. Also, the private players tend to bring in expertise and innovation in the project.
A good instance of this innovation can be noted with the launch of country’s first Remote Expert Government Services (REGS) to help aggrieved citizens easily lodge complaints against crimes using remote FIR registration kiosks. The State government of Karnataka launched a new mechanism to enable filing of FIRs. Powered with Cisco technology, one such kiosk was set up at Mantri Mall, Bengaluru, and citizens could register complains without even having to step into a police station. Thus, PPP projects benefit from the dual expertise of the public and private sectors. Going ahead too, PPPs will play a crucial role in realizing the government’s ‘Digital India’ vision.
Mobile – The next frontier
As digitization slowly and steadily changes India’s technological contours and brings along with it better governance and economic benefits, there is another revolution that is brewing in the country – the mobile one. As of March 2015, data released by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) showed India’s telecom subscriber base to be at 996 million. With smartphone usage on an upward swing, India is projected to have 213 mobile internet users by 2015. Given the sheer size of these numbers, it would not be wrong to say that mobile is going to be the next frontier of India’s digital growth. Now that you have an app for almost every other thing, one can’t help but imagine how this mobile revolution will positively impact e-governance.