What Digital India will not fix

This is my latest livemint column

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There is palpable excitement among many over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India scheme. At its glitzy launch, business leaders competed with each other in eulogizing Modi’s vision and outlined their own investment plans. The event and the glamour plays right into this government’s playbook—a launch a day to keep doubters away.
It is then not ironic in the least that the Digital India week was effectively kicked off by the Prime Minister’s #SelfieWithDaughter campaign. Superficial in its intent and (likely) impotent in its impact, this is the kind of digital campaign that effectively means nothing. It isn’t the only one though. Here are some issues that Digital India will not fix.
While there is a case for targeting in certain subsidies, the case in favour of universal inclusion is strong when it comes to the public distribution system (PDS). In fact, states like Chhattisgarh have demonstrated how a near universal PDS is not just only pro-poor, but also helps improve administrative efficiency. Mislabelling of above poverty line (APL) households as below poverty line (BPL) and vice-versa is the result of an insidious system where the pay-offs are high. Neither Aadhaar unique identity number nor digital records can help once a family is declared ineligible to access a particular scheme.
Digital India might ensure the old and vulnerable get their pension on time. However, it will do nothing to fix an apathetic system that thinks Rs.200 per month is a dignified pension sum. Similarly, if Modi is intent on choking schemes such as the rural jobs guarantee scheme, the much-awaited wage transfers will have little meaning. And, the skilling missions, which probably will not target the typical poor rural labourer, will not be delivered online or otherwise, unless jobs are created in industries that can absorb youth.
The Digital India movement can help gather and analyze masses of administrative data. This could then reveal the critical insufficiencies in the delivery of public services such as education. India has over 250 million children in primary school, and learning levels in our schools have stagnated. Yet, successive government programmes focus more on civil works and teacher salaries, instead of teacher mentoring and monitoring. Further, in an administrative context, where the bureaucratic hierarchy along with the political leadership are complicit in turning a blind eye to these gaps, going digital will not improve service delivery on the ground.
Staying on the topic of sanction and enforcement, it is now clear that no amount of digital evidence can lead to the prosecution of any individual in the good books of the ruling dispensation. Independence of our investigative agencies remains a pipe dream. On the other hand, constitutional safeguards such as the right to information (RTI) are being systematically dismantled. Consider this alongside the blatant disregard for probity and competence in the appointment of heads of various public bodies and institutions, and one can see the incessant march of political partisanship and ideology at the cost of merit and integrity.
A Digital India cannot fix this. And as we have now learnt, no amount of noise on digital mediums seem likely to succeed in repatriating Lalit Modi (or Dawood Ibrahim), and from the looks of it, silence across the board on the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh is unable to stem the series of mysterious deaths around it, or initiate an impartial investigation.
The lesson here is simple—the underlying architecture of the governance system has a long way to go before it can claim itself to be just, progressive and pro-poor. And reforming the administration requires concrete steps that emphasize accountability.
Post script: Digital India will continue to block websites and suppress dissent both online and offline. It is striking that this contradiction does not bother the Prime Minister. And this makes one wonder if the digital revolution is more about controlling the medium and the message than a tangible improvement in governance.
As a Mint column reminds us, by 2019, there will be 600 million smartphone users who need to be tapped early—a figure far higher than the 100 million missed-call members in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s kitty. This is not to say that there will be no marginal improvements in delivery worth talking about in the years to come. But it also suggests that the Prime Minister and his party will be satisfied if all that Digital India achieves is that it furthers their propagandist needs.
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