Digital India: The Indian way

By Dr. Jaijit Bhattacharya

The digital policies that are being picked up in India do not really reflect the digital issues that are important from an India perspective. We need to focus on the digital policy issues that are of higher priority from an Indian context.

While India is hurtling in an accelerated manner towards an ever-increasing digitalisation of our economy and of our society, we also need to ensure that it is happening the Indian way, supporting the issues that are important from an Indian perspective.

To explain why we are not doing things the Indian way, it would be pertinent to look at how we design our cities. We know we like celebrating festivals in the city. We know we have a large number of children and a large number of old people. We know we use three-wheeler autorickshaws. We know we have a large number of women in the cities. But still, our cities do not reflect any of these realities, and instead, are a straightforward copy of western urban designs, that doom our cities into chaotic disarray of people, animals and vehicles of all kinds.

A city designed for India would be built with festival infrastructure so that festivals are properly celebrated in a structured manner, without disturbing the people and without allowing the streets to be blocked to celebrate festivals. A city designed for India would have sufficient parks dedicated for children to play and become strong, physically fit citizens and where they are not shooed away and not bullied by senior citizens awaiting the sunset. Nor are they playing on the streets, removing their wickets, every time a vehicle has to pass by. Where the cities have sufficient clean and safe public toilets for women. Where the places of worship and the places of work are far apart so that the proceedings of one does not affect the other. And the list goes on.

We have simply copied city plans from western contexts and plonked them into India, and then we wonder why our cities are so chaotic. A similar thought is needed from the Digital India perspective. We have done brilliantly in conceptualising and building population-scale digital platforms in India. And yet, from a digital policy perspective, we seem to be immersed in issues that are more of a western concern than an Indian concern, and we are oblivious to Indian issues.

I have had people from the offices of Member of Parliaments reach out to “understand” issues that are being promoted in India to the detriment of the population scale platforms that have been built. As an example, the restrictions placed on the usage of Aadhar snatches away the ability to provide credit at scale to a large number of people from the absolutely vulnerable sections of society. Who are we protecting through such digital policies? Who is benefitting from such policies?

This would give a competitive advantage to European digital companies in their fight for market share from American and Chinese digital companies. This is similar to the ISO9000 standards that Europe had introduced to create a trade barrier for non-European imports into Europe. Do note that GDPR also creates a competitive disadvantage for Indian digital startups who want to target Europeans, as their cost of compliance to GDPR pushes up their operating costs. Now, why should India copy GDPR? Is our strategic objective the same as that of Europe?

We also do not hear about anyone taking up the issue of three-wheeler auto-rickshaw drivers not being able to carry cargo and participate in the e-commerce supply chain as the current legislation prevents them from doing so. Since it is not a western issue, it is not an Indian issue either. This is quite ridiculous. Imagine if by a simple regulatory change, we allowed autorickshaws to carry small packages, the income of the drivers would go up, the e-commerce supply chain would get strengthened and the autorickshaw as an economic asset would have higher utilisation, thus increasing the asset utilisation. But since people in the west do not use autorickshaws, it is not an issue in India.

The same is true for all the brilliant ‘One Nation’ policies. Take the example of ‘One Nation, One Permit’ – an absolutely necessary Indian requirement. But there is lax enforcement and in many states, especially in the north, it impacts the income-enhancing initiatives of the enforcement agencies, hence hiding behind the guise of ignorance, or displaying sheer bruteness of administrative monopoly towards harassing law-abiding bus operators. They extract their pound of flesh, at the cost of distressing the passengers and making the bus routes unviable. This is nothing more than modern-day piracy by those who are propped up by taxpayer money.

There is a need to create a light-touch regulation to prevent bad actors in the EdTech space from fleecing students and parents and, even more importantly, prevent them from wasting precious student time spent on poor content. Such regulations would help the industry grow faster and provide education in a highly scalable manner.

In fact, when a digital platform gets into a click-wrap agreement with a student who is less than eighteen years of age, then as per the Indian laws, the agreement is ab initio null and void. So all the digital platforms that are offering services to students in India, who are less than eighteen years age, including video conferencing platforms being used for online education, are all illegally operating in the given context. Should we not create a regulatory support structure to enable such platforms to be on the right side of the law? Should this not be the policy issue to be taken up and resolved?

The list of such digital policy requirements from an Indian perspective is quite large. However, it is strange that, living in India, we do not see these issues. Our issues are only what the western world thinks should be our issues. And such western digital policies are actually destructive to India’s requirements. We need to have Digital India, the Indian way.

This article first appeared in India Today,