S.V.R. Srinivas, principal secretary, Directorate of Information Technology, Government of Maharashtra

State governments have a key role to play in fulfilling the centre’s Digital India vision. The Maharashtra government is amongst the pioneering states that have taken various policy measures to develop an advanced telecom and technology landscape. The state government is banking on emerging technologies like cloud, internet of things (IoT) and blockchain to digitally enable citizens. It is also offering a strong impetus to the start-up ecosystem in the state. In an interview with tele.net, S.V.R. Srinivas, principal secretary, Directorate of Information Technology, Government of Maharashtra, talks about the progress of various telecom and IT initiatives in the state and the future technology roadmap…

What initiatives has the Maharashtra government taken for the development of the telecom and IT sector in the state?

Maharashtra is the first state among the big states to formulate a telecom infrastructure policy (among the smaller states, Haryana has a policy). Before finalising the policy, we had a detailed discussion and consultation with all stakeholders including the Tower and Infrastructure Providers’ Association (TAIPA) and telecom service providers. Based on the discussions, we designed the policy. It was approved by the cabinet and the chief minister in January 2018.

We have laid out a simple, fair, transparent and time-bound policy. The policy is two-pronged. First, it addresses the general problem or the difficulty in getting spaces for telecom towers. This enables tower companies to install towers subject to the safety standards of the Government of India. The second deals with problems related to right of way (RoW) for fibre. For that too, we have decided to go for single-window clearance. We will do this online. In two to three months, the state’s IT department will come out with an online platform, through which all applications (for RoW) will be routed and online payments made. The policy also rationalises RoW rates. Earlier, the admi­nis­trative charges were quite high.

We also have a cloud policy, which is based on the belief that it is not the government’s business to run data centres and purchase servers. The government sh­ou­ld focus only on service delivery. The cloud policy has three components: cloud infrastructure-as-a-service, cloud platform as-a-service and cloud software-as-a -service. We are thinking of closing our own data centre in 2018 and entering into the cloud segment.

How do you ensure data security when using cloud services?

We have to be mindful that government data has to be very secure. Data safety is important and we are following two things. One is the guidelines, which are the security standard for the cloud. The government is both a generator and a consumer of data services. So the type of cloud to be used – public, private, hybrid or government community cloud (GCC) – will depend on the importance of the data. For instance, applications that involve state security and confidentiality are hosted on the GCC or the private cloud. The second is the empanelment of cloud service providers, which is going to start soon.

What benefits will the government achieve by moving to cloud-based technology?

We have a lot of unutilised capacity in our existing data centres. Some departments use about 20 per cent of the total capacity and some use as little as 5 per cent. In contrast, cloud-based technology is offered through a pay-as-you-go model. So the less you consume, the less you pay, thus yielding significant savings.

“We have a cloud policy in place, which is based on the belief that it is not the government’s business to run data centres and purchase servers. The government should focus only on service delivery.”

How is the Maharashtra government supporting the Startup India programme?

We have a fintech policy in place, as this is an upcoming area where technology and finance will merge. Everyone knows of Pay­tm, but there are thousands of start ups in this area in India. Fintech is built on blockchain technology; in fact, I call it Blockchain 2.0. The use cases in fintech are standard. As the financial capital of the country, we should take advantage of and encourage it. That is why we prepared the policy quickly and rolled it out. The policy talks about two things. One is that smart fintech hubs should be set up in Mumbai and other large cities in the state. We will give incentives to the private sector for the same. About 85 per cent of the hubs should be used for fintech businesses; they cannot use it as a private rental facility. Second, fintech should have a regulatory sandbox. The exposure can come only through APIs (application programme interfaces) which need a framework. This framework is the regulatory sandbox. Recently, we entered into an MoU with the Monetary Authority of Singapore and we may soon also enter into an agreement with the UK government. We have also entered into MoUs with many banks including the State Bank of India and HDFC for fintech. Banks’ data is exposed to start-ups to develop new products.

It is important for us to nurture start-ups. The state is creating a start-up fund of about Rs 2 billion, which will be used for tax benefits, hosting of websites and reimbursement of charges. Each start-up will be given Rs 100,000. We will also encourage the use of incubators and accelerators, whether it is from the private or the government sector. Moreover, the state will go for the hub-and-spoke model of fintech hubs.

The state is executing the BharatNet project. How can this massive network be monetised?

We are trying to monetise the services for telecom service providers (TSPs). We have dark fibre. TSPs are mostly in big cities but rural India is not connected be­­cause rolling out infrastructure is not vi­able. The government is taking care of the viability gap through BharatNet. Pri­­­vate companies can ride on the state’s network and we are working out the financial model.

The question is, what is in it for the citizens? Telecom companies are making money by providing services but the government has to deliver services. Once BharatNet is ready, citizens should get services including agriculture information, education and health services at home. Industry 4.0 is a paradigm shift and we have to be ready for it.

All our departments are ready to take advantage of this backbone (BharatNet) so that people can benefit, otherwise, it will be  used only for the internet and telephony. Delivery of services is key, and this is our target. To begin, we will go for education and health. Connecting all the primary healthcare centres will be a good start.

“We also have a fintech policy, as this is an upcoming area where technology and finance will merge. There are thousands of start-ups in this area in India. We have to nurture start-ups.”

What is the current budget allocation for telecom and IT initiatives, and what are the funds being utilised for?

Our budget for IT and telecom initiatives has increased over a period of time. The current budget is three to four fold compared to 2016-17 budget. This is in addition to the investment in BharatNet, where projects have been given on bid criteria and execution will start soon.

In terms of funds utilisation, the Digital India programme is the key – it is the prime minister’s and the chief minister’s priority programme. For the first time, we have rolled out the farmers’ loan waiver programme online. We received 10 million applications online and loans were disbursed online as well. This had two benefits – it reached the right person and saved time. Earlier, it could have taken anywhere from a few months to more than a year. This time, we disbursed more than Rs 130 billion to over 5 million farmers and it has already gone into their accounts in three to four months. This was the first time; next time it will be even faster.

What are your plans for leveraging IoT?

We are using IoT in smart cities. However, we have to keep in mind that IoT cannot function in isolation; it needs an underlying network. In Maharashtra, we have named that network Mahanet. This is an enabling environment for IoT.

Moreover, as a part of the Smart Ci­ties Mission, we are trying to roll out many other programmes, such as the city surveillance programme in Nagpur. So, IoT is being adopted and can be leveraged by the average citizen too. About seven to eight cities in Maharashtra are already using IoT applications. It is currently, happening in isolated pockets and urban areas, but once the BharatNet network is in place, there will be no limit. Right now, the rural areas are not getting a direct advantage, but they will once the network is laid out. There is potential in sectors like health, education, irrigation and agriculture.