Ravi Shankar Prasad assumed office as telecommunications minister in early June 2019. Since then, he has made some key announcements elucidating the government’s plans for the country’s digital transformation, 5G readiness, and a data protection and privacy framework. At a recent curtain-raiser event for the third edition of the India Mobile Congress 2019, Prasad talked about India’s changing digital landscape and the role of the telecom industry in making the government’s Digital India vision a reality. Excerpts…

Technology is at the centre of the entire reformative process that the country is witnessing at present. We believe that every initiative that gets undertaken in the country must lead to a transformation of the quality of life for Indians. Initiatives like Digital India, Make in India, Startup India, Skill India, Stand-Up India and the Smart Cities Mission are all technology-based initiatives that are highly transformative in nature. And undoubtedly, mobile is an important component enabling this transformation.

Digital India, simply and essentially, is a programme to empower the ordinary citizen, to lead to digital inclusion, to bridge the divide between the digital haves and have-nots, and much more. The government realised that these objectives can only be achieved through technologies that are developmental, innovative and, at the same time, cost effective. Significant progress has been made under the programme in the past few years as can be seen through the fast evolving digital profile of the country. For a population of 1.3 billion, India has 1.21 billion mobile connections, and around 700 million smartphone and internet users. It is encouraging to see the increasing passion for smartphones in the hinterland of the country. A smartphone is like a moving computer, a storehouse of information, and it is being used in the remotest corners of the country and is enabling programmes such as e-Hospital and eScholarship.

It is worth noticing how entrepreneurship is being promoted and accelerated by a single device called the smartphone. The Stand-Up India programme aims to ensure that marginalised and deprived communities are not left out of the digital transformation process. Smartphones and technology will have a major role to play in meeting the objectives of Startup India.

In this big digital movement taking place in the country, young boys and girls become associated with the digital delivery of services. From land records to ticketing to healthcare, everything is becoming digital. The long-term vision is to digitally empower citizens in every way possible. Many people travel from Bihar and other less developed states to metros such as Delhi to get medical care. For instance, in the case of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, patients had to typically first come to get a registration number, then travel back to their home town, and later come back again once the appointment had been given. To resolve this problem, we developed a digital solution, wherein people can book their appointment online for 300 different hospitals.

Digital India was launched on July 1, 2015, followed by the introduction of Startup India. Currently, we have over 19,000 start-ups operating in India. Several thousands of these are technology start-ups; eight to nine are unicorns with a turnover of over a billion dollars. More and more young people are coming up with innovative business ideas. I want this new India to grow further and the mobile sector to ensure that these start-ups are encouraged more. To this end, I want the mobile sector to work in conjunction with these start-ups.

Undoubtedly, new technology must find its way into the country. This is the age of technology, and technology is empowerment. And that is why 5G is being introduced in India in sync with the rest of the world. I am very clear that we do not want 5G to be simply adopted by the citizens. We must focus on developing innovations around 5G as well. There must be significant work around patent creation for 5G. Indian telecom service providers must get involved and step up their game in developing the 5G ecosystem such that the Digital India vision can become a global success. It is worth mentioning that Digital India is not simply an IT-based reform. It goes much beyond that. Indians have already earned a name in the field of IT. Now is the time to focus on India-related patents for 5G applications. We have already developed technology prowess and capabilities in the past couple of years, and the same must now be leveraged.

In 2018, the Department of Telecommunications created several test beds for 5G at various institutes of technology. We want to now enhance this further with the involvement of industry bodies like the Cellular Operators Association of India, telecom service providers and stakeholders in the internet of things (IoT) ecosystem. We aim to develop high quality 5G products, which will not only find application in the mobile industry but also in sectors like healthcare, education, agriculture and a whole range of other activities. Also, 5G must blend with other emerging next-generation technologies such as artificial intelligence and IoT.

At present, 43,000 villages in the country remain unconnected, that is, they have no cellular connectivity. In our recent meetings with telecom service providers, it has been communicated to them to bring these villages under the connectivity fold within the next one year.

Although I have had a long career in the public sector, the India that I have seen as the IT minster of this country is truly remarkable. The way people have embraced technology is commendable and the role that small- and medium-scale enterprises are playing in ensuring technology inclusion is encouraging. I believe nothing can stop India from truly becoming a global power with the help of technology.

The target of making India a Rs 5 trillion economy can be achieved. In 2014, the Indian economy ranked 11th in the world, and today we are the sixth largest, a remarkable growth in less than four years.

We are also pushing the case for a digital economy. Today, the country is growing in the areas of telecom, IT, electronic manufacturing, new technologies, digital skills and ecommerce, and all of these have mobile at their core. The country today has 268 handset manufacturing facilities, creating 600,000 jobs. India must become the centre of telecom equipment manufacturing and there is enough scope for us to become leaders in manufacturing low-cost telecom products. However, a key issue that needs to be flagged is related to data protection. Our data protection law is work-in-progress at present and we will ensure that a robust data protection framework gets implemented in the country. The quantity of data consumed by the country has helped us feature on the global map. We, in India, generate a humongous volume of data on a daily basis. Our premise is that there must be a proper blend between data availability, data utility, data innovation, data organisation and data privacy. All these should work together. India has the potential to develop as the biggest centre for data analysis, data refining, data innovation and security.

A clear message that we want to send out is that India will never compromise on its data sovereignty. And we are coming up with all the right policies to highlight our vision. The National Digital Communications Policy, the New Electronics Manufacturing Policy, the Open Software Products Policy and the New Software Equipment Policy all point in this direction.

Going forward, it is important for everyone to acknowledge the enormous challenge as well as the comprehensive opportunity that this transformation process is bringing to India. We all need to do our best to collectively make India a real digital superpower.