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In the age of rapid technological advancement, nations are racing to digitise their infrastructure, aiming to offer their citizens more efficient, transparent, and inclusive services. Among these nations, India stands out as a beacon, having developed a robust and comprehensive Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) that has been endorsed by multiple countries and international organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund and most recently, the G20.
India’s DPI journey is a testament to the transformative power of technology. By prioritising inclusivity and ensuring that digital infrastructure is accessible to all, irrespective of socio-economic background, India has made significant strides in bridging the digital divide. This commitment to inclusivity ensures that the benefits of digitisation permeate all layers of society, from bustling urban centres to the remotest of villages.
India’s DPI achievements have garnered international attention. The G20 New Delhi declaration, ratified by global leaders during the G20 Summit, applauded India’s initiative to establish and oversee a global DPI. This virtual DPI repository will be a collaborative space, with contributions voluntarily shared by G20 member nations. This is the first time that the term DPI received a global stamp of approval and the credit for this lies entirely with India’s presidency. G20 nations recognised the importance of promoting open-source software, open Application Programming Interfaces (API) and the standards that support them, including open standards, to enable different DPI systems to communicate, with cross-border interoperability as a long-term goal. The importance of enabling cross-border data flows and data free-flow with trust, while respecting applicable legal frameworks, was also agreed upon.
The foundation and design of India’s DPI is anchored in values of transparency, safety, and security. It is built upon the tenets of accountability, open standards, collaboration, and interoperability, ensuring no consumer is tied down to a single vendor. Through DPI, India has broadened options for consumers, spurred entrepreneurial spirit, fostered competitive environments, reduced reliance on specific service providers, enriched the lives of its citizens, and curated equitable opportunities for businesses in the economy.
Central to India’s digital transformation is Aadhaar, envisioned as a cutting-edge digital ID that offers cloud-based authentication services. This revolutionary ID system seamlessly integrates into various service transactions, from opening bank accounts and obtaining mobile SIMs to receiving rations. Building on the success of Aadhaar, India introduced complementary digital products such as the Digital Locker, electronic KYC (eKYC), and on-demand digital signature (e-Sign). Furthermore, the Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT) initiative was launched, leading to significant government savings.
Recognising the potential of such a system, the International Institute of Information Technology in Bengaluru introduced the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP) five years ago. This platform was designed to assist other nations in establishing systems akin to Aadhaar. To date, over 10 countries, ranging from Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone, have embarked on MOSIP projects.
When the pandemic hit, India’s digital response was swift. The National Health Stack emerged, under which several critical tools were developed. The globally acclaimed CoWin platform and the Aarogya Setu app were among these innovations. Additionally, the government envisioned and rolled out features such as National Health Electronic Registries, a National Health Analytics Platform, Digital Health IDs, Health Data Dictionaries, and an enhanced supply chain management system for pharmaceuticals.
When it comes to digital system development, two predominant models emerge: entirely government-driven or wholly private. While the former might suffer from quality and maintenance challenges, the latter can lead to monopolistic practices. India’s DPI strikes a harmonious balance. It identifies frameworks consisting of essential services and components best managed by public authorities. In a world where four billion citizens don’t have digital identities, 1.5 billion citizens remain unbanked and 133 countries don’t have digital payments, rich lessons can be drawn from India’s model.
The rapid achievement of financial inclusion targets in just six years – a feat that would have taken nearly five decades otherwise – is a testament to the nation’s robust DPI and the resilience of its people. With an impressive 80% financial inclusion rate and savings of $33 billion through the DBT system, India’s progress is nothing short of remarkable. As the pandemic hit, the adaptability and resilience of every countries’ social welfare system were put through a test. While countries such as Germany struggled with issues of identity verification taking up to 18 months, India’s JAM trinity led to one of the biggest social benefit distribution plans across the world. During the pandemic, India was far ahead of the curve. The Government of India transferred $3.9 billion to 318 million beneficiaries two weeks after announcing the PMGKY programme, thanks to digital identification linked to bank accounts. In India, where many households are overseen by women, a financial package was introduced during the pandemic. Under this, approximately 191 million women Jan Dhan account holders were given ₹500 each directly in their accounts. Out of the total funds distributed, $1.8 billion was allocated for the first payment of the PM-KISAN scheme. Through this initiative, around 74 million of the identified 80 million beneficiaries received ₹2,000 directly in their accounts.
India’s digital payments transactions now surpass the combined digital payments of four major Western economies: the US, UK, Germany, and France. From a simple cup of tea to gold jewellery, Indian citizens can make small and large payments seamlessly using UPI through multiple apps.
Artificial Intelligence is the next frontier for India’s digital revolution. DPI is now interfacing with the power of AI to turbocharge its ethos of creating an equitable marketplace. While most online content is in English, India is home to a rich diversity of languages, with 22 official ones and over 1,700 additional languages and dialects. The Bhashini initiative aims to address this linguistic chasm with cutting-edge technology.
India’s DPI serves as a shining example of how technology, when used judiciously and inclusively, can transform a nation. As the world grapples with challenges ranging from climate change to socio-economic disparities, DPI is a potent tool in crafting solutions and a significant step towards realising a shared global future.
Amitabh Kant is India’s G20 Sherpa and ex-CEO, NITI Aayog. Views expressed are personal.
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