Digital India: Missing The Point?

The Digital India Mission represents a truly remarkable and wide-spanning aspiration of the government. Shorn of all the jargon, it aims to leverage the power of information technology (IT) while significantly optimizing design and deployment of public services. An Aadhaar-linked digilocker for paperless processing or online booking platforms to ease access to state health-services form a case-in-point. Digitization drives the landmark Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime through implementation via an online platform, the GST Network (GSTN).

 

Undoubtedly, a successful digital migration of governance and economy can reap phenomenal dividends. To set the context, one can look at an annual study of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which benchmarks the propensity of nations to exploit opportunities thrown by IT through the Networked Readiness Index (NRI), a digitization score.

 

This index comprises a range of parameters such as policy & regulation, e-participation, level of skills, and individual usage. An increase of 10% in a country’s score drives a growth of 0.75% in its GDP per capita and a 1.02% drop in its unemployment rate.

However, India’s ranking has steadily declined from 68th in 2013 to 91st in 2016, with lack of infrastructure and literacy cited as key bottlenecks. Hence blockbuster announcements aside, it is worthwhile to evaluate how well-integrated and seamless these new-age services are.

 

Take for instance the e-hospital/Online Registration System (ORS) scheme which lets a patient book an online appointment at any of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) aside from select government hospitals. The aim of ORS should be to reduce the administrative burden of processing a daily average of c.10,000 patients at the AIIMS Out Patient Department (OPD), thereby reducing waiting time and queuing for patients. The service however doesn’t quite work as pictured. The website takes a lot of time to load and crashes frequently. The booking process begins with the patient being requested to enter his/her Aadhaar number. That leads to another page where all remainder details, including name, address and date of birth are to be entered. Shouldn’t the ORS automatically pull out personally identifiable information from the Aadhaar database? Why is there a need for the patient to enter this information after disclosing one’s Aadhaar number? This is a fundamental lapse which a truly seamless system would typically bypass by favoring automation against repetition. Moving on, once the patient is booked online, a confirmation number is received via SMS. Almost farcically, this number needs to be physically presented at the hospital to get an OPD card, for which the patient must (no surprises) stand in a long queue, thereby making this entire exercise even more pointless!

 

Automation remains elusive in GST as well, where all stakeholders i.e. taxpayers and the tax authorities interact through the GSTN portal. Frequent glitches continue to be reported almost two months after launch, leading to demands from businesses to defer payment deadlines. Traders are pointing out how the system on occasion refuses to accept certain documents such as form 3B or is unable to handle heavy traffic.

 

Despite Chairman Navin Kumar’s assertions that there has been rigorous testing pre-launch, the fact remains that many users find the new regime and its overt reliance on IT too complex to navigate. To illustrate, the monthly GST cycle comprises 7-steps which include upload of various forms related to supply and purchase, validation of details, generation of challans and payment of returns?—?all crammed into a 10-day window. On top of this in many sectors, businesses operating across multiple states need to repeat this 7-stage process for each state, every month. As a result, most businesses rely on external Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) providers to get through the process. Small businesses, for obvious reasons, must fend for themselves.

 

Digitization hardly stops at creation of technological infrastructure. In a country where a third of the population is still illiterate and a similar share of youth hasn’t gone beyond primary school, much more emphasis is warranted on spreading digital literacy. Language and communication gaps need to be sidelined by focusing on non-written formats such as videos and animations. It is high time the government realizes that FAQ documents uploaded on clunky websites can only go a certain distance.

 

A significant chunk of our economy still operates without a system of bills and invoices. While it is important to internalize them in the formal economy?—?robust, easy to navigate and seamless tech-based systems are key, so that real efficiency gains can be realized instead of merely replicating a paper-based process online.

 

There is no point in reinventing the wheel. The world over digitization has been successfully deployed to provide better services to citizens, and if India intends to walk down the same path, it makes sense to learn from the leaders.

 

The tiny island state of Singapore has emerged as the world leader in e-governance. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Singapore heavily invested in its knowledge infrastructure while the government led the way with planning and execution. Today more than 1,600 e-government services of the government are online 24x7 for both businesses and citizens. Builders seeking approval for projects, ordinary citizens filing tax returns or renewing their passports, overseas investors seeking clearances, can all avail these services. The government’s model program has been the Online Business Licensing System (OBLS), which allows companies to apply for all requisite clearances in a single transaction. The system reduced processing time for new applications from 21 days to 8 days, and generated cost synergies amounting to $27m within a year of launch. In 2005, the OBLS was awarded the prestigious United Nations Public Services Award. Such a system could well be worth examining for its potential deployment in India.

 

While there is also a need to be cautioned against viewing digitization as a panacea to all ills, all available data unambiguously suggest that increased digitization yields improved financial returns for nations and societies.

 

The success of Digital India Mission will require investments in not just providing physical infrastructure but also augmenting the knowledge capabilities of our human resource base, supported by an agile policy framework that is responsive to the fast-changing needs of businesses and citizens.

 

Too often, tax-paying citizens have felt let down by much-hyped digital services that end up being ineffectual due to shoddy application design and hasty implementation by the government.

 

The world is at the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution with the coming together of the physical, digital, and the biological worlds. Each of the previous technological revolutions?—?from that of the steam engine to that of the microprocessor?—?have been marked by an automation of processes that led to greater efficiency and increased time savings. In India’s push towards digitizing the various government systems and processes this principle needs to be kept in mind so that systems tend to become more responsive and seamless.