As the world witnesses the fourth industrial revolution, being called the digital revolution, it has become imperative for countries to set up a conducive digital ecosystem to facilitate further growth. To this end, the Government of India’s Digital India programme, the BharatNet project and the Smart Cities Mission are an attempt to digitally transform the country. Through these progra­m­mes, the government aims to create a digitally empowered society and usher the country into the league of nations that are transforming their economies and governance through the power of technology.

The year 2017 proved to be a landmark one in terms of progress made under these programmes. During the year, India attained a global position in terms of data consumption and smartphone usage, whi­ch helped in getting it a digital identity. The year also witnessed other key developments such as the proliferation of the digital payments ecosystem and the launch of BharatNet Phase II.

tele.net takes stock of the progress under the Digital India, BharatNet and Smart Cities Mission initiatives in 2017, and the way ahead…

Digital India

Digitisation remained the buzzword in 2017. Considerable progress was made un­der the digital locker initiative. Around 32 agencies started issuing documents to citizens via digital lockers. As of December 2017, 1,970 million documents have been placed in the DigiLocker, enabling access to over 8.8 million users. On the digital tourism front, the e-visa facility was ­ex­ten­ded to citizens of 161 countries. As of May 2017, 0.62 million e-visas were issued. The number of e-hospitals increased to 122 while the total number of online ­­appoi­nt­ments under the e-hospital ­initiative ­increa­sed to 0.97 million.

The Digital India programme too witnessed significant progress in the rural areas, with the establishment of around 0.28 million common service centres (CSCs) in 0.18 million gram panchayats. The CSCs offered more than 300 services, facilitated 2.29 million transactions per month and generated around 1 million employment opportunities for people residing in rural areas.

The key highlight of the year was undoubtedly the considerable growth in the digital payments space. This was, in part, facilitated by the government’s demonetisation drive in November 2016. The ­monthly digital transactions crossed the 1 billion mark in December 2017. According to the Reserve Bank of India’s data, a total of 1.06 billion digital transactions were executed in December 2017, up 6.5 per cent from the 998 million transactions recorded in November 2017. The growth can be ­attri­buted to the increased uptake of various payment modes such as Unified Payments Interface (UPI), Immediate Payment Servi­ce (IMPS), cards and online wallets. UPI, in particular, registered a 40 per cent increase in transactions in December 2017 over November 2017.The IMPS grew by almost 10 per cent to reach 98 million transactions in December 2017 from 89.5 million in November 2017.

Some state governments also took initiatives to expand the coverage of digital services, thereby aligning themselves with the broader objectives of the Digital India programme. To this end, the Kerala government launched the Kerala Fibre Optic Network project in March 2017 to provide internet facility to every citizen in the state. This will be achieved by establishing a massive wide area network connecting all government offices and schools in Kerala.

Recently, the Andhra Pradesh government launched the Andhra Pradesh Fibre Grid project to establish a highly scalable network infrastructure accessible on a non-discriminatory basis. The project aims to provide affordable and end-to-end broadband connectivity of 15 Mbps to all households, and 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps to institutions and offices in the state by end-2018.

BharatNet

The government’s ambitious BharatNet project also achieved significant milestones in 2017. Phase I of the project was successfully completed during the year. As of Decem­b­er 2017, 101,370 gram panchayats were made service ready. Of these, around 25,000 gram panchayats were ma­de service ready in October 2017 ­alone. Further, 258,719 km of optical fibre cable (OFC) has been laid in 114,165 gram panchayats so far.

In July 2017, the government approved a modified implementation strategy for Phase II of the BharatNet project. The strategy involved the laying of OFC directly from the blocks to the gram panchayats using aerial OFC, radio links and satellite connectivity (apart from underground OFC), maintenance by the implementing agency for the entire life of the project, and the setting up of Wi-Fi architecture for optimal service delivery. The most important change was the involvement of the states along with central public sector undertakings and the private sector for implementation of the project.

Phase II of the BharatNet project was launched in November 2017 with an outlay of Rs 340 billion. Under the project, the government aims to connect 150,000 gram panchayats through 1 million km of additional OFC. The government would also provide bandwidth to telecom players for offering broadband and Wi-Fi services in rural areas at a price nearly 75 per cent cheaper than the current price. As per the government, 0.6 million to 0.7 million Wi-Fi hotspots will be added, with two to five hotpsots being installed in each panchayat. As some of the Wi-Fi hotspots may not be commercially viable initially, the government would provide a viability gap funding of around Rs 36 billion to telecom operators. In addition, the telecom ­minis­try has decided to sign agreements with seven states – Maharashtra, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand – which will roll out the project on their own with partial funding from the central government. Of these, the Gujarat and Chhattisgarh governments have already signed MoUs with the central government.

Smart Cities

The Smart Cities Mission also charted some progress during the year. According to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, a total of 2,864 smart city projects worth Rs 1,359.58 billion are at various stages of implementation. Of these, only 148 projects worth Rs 18.72 billion have been completed and 407 projects involving a cost of Rs 156 billion are currently under implementation. Further, tendering has started for 237 projects involving an expenditure of Rs 1,351.4 billion, while detailed project reports are being prepared for 2,029 projects worth Rs 1,022.6 billion. As per the ministry, of the Rs 98.6 billion released for developing 60 smart cities, only Rs 6.45 billion or about 7 per cent has been utilised so far. Meanwhile, progress under the mission seemed to be highly uneven among states. As per a review meeting held recently, the government stated that cities in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were found to be performing well, while those in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra needed to speed up implementation.

Some cities like Pune witnessed notable developments during the year. In June 2017, Pune launched its command and control centre and became the first city to have an interoperable smart card, a single payment card for multiple transport modes.

The way ahead

The successful implementation of the three key pillars of India’s digital transformation depends on proper coordination between government agencies and the private sector. These initiatives require meticulous planning, effective capital disbursement and large investments in infrastructure.

Moreover, as the economy becomes di­gital, ensuring data privacy is vital. To this end, the Parliamentary Standing Co­m­­mittee of Finance has recommended that the government should formulate legislation on the same at the earliest. This would help develop a conducive and secure digital ecosystem. s

Kuhu Singh