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Wired for transformation
SPEAKING at the Digital India dinner in Silicon Valley, California, in September 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told an audience of 400 IT leaders: "When you think of the exponential speed and scale of expansion of social media, you have to believe that it is equally possible to transform the lives of those who have long stood on the margins of hope". This echoed his call to the UN General Assembly in New York in his maiden speech in September 2014.
His vision - that digital technology can bridge the distance between hope and opportunity - lies behind the flagship Digital India initiative.
In three years, Digital India has expanded across every sphere of activity and extended to every corner of India. It has empowered the weakest, mainstreamed the marginalised, reformed governance, and brought modern economy within the reach of the poorest. It has also made growth faster and more inclusive and sustainable.
Rapidly, though it is less visible than physical infrastructure, India is establishing the world's most extensive digital infrastructure.
It has been aided by the near universal access to telecommunication and surge in internet connections. The number of cell phones in India has reached 1.1 billion. In three years to June 2017, smart phones have grown from 220 million to 400 million; internet connections from 243 million to 500 million.
The success of Digital India, however, is anchored in the biometrics-based Unique Digital Identity Programme of "Aadhar" - a scheme unparallelled in the world in scope, scale and speed of implementation.
Over 1.1 billion Indians have Aadhar cards and numbers. All at the cost of one US dollar per person. The data is physically safe, digitally secure and protected for privacy.
Generating Aadhar for a nation of 1.25 billion is in itself a staggering achievement. But, even more remarkable has been the success in making it the foundation of our economy in merely three years.
As 300 million new bank accounts for the poor and the unbanked have been opened in less than three years, Aadhar has helped link these to the transfer of government benefits and subsidies, pensions, scholarships, insurance and wages in government programmes.
Over US$30 billion have been transferred to beneficiaries by June 2017. Nearly US$10 billion have been saved due to elimination of fictitious accounts. Four hundred and fifty-eight million bank accounts have been linked to Aadhar.
Transactions through Aadhar enabled payment system have risen from 4.6 million in June 2014 to 427 million in March 2017.
Digital payment is expanding exponentially. On Nov 8, 2016, the day of demonetisation, the Unified Payment Interface saw 3,700 transactions. By May 2017, UPI transactions were averaging more than 300,000 per day.
Ultimately, the success of Digital India will lie in uniting India and Indians on a common network of opportunities and access, not letting it become a new instrument of economic division.
So, far from cities, the government is connecting 250,000 village councils by broadband. Each village council will have a common service centre. By March 2017, 250,000 centres had been set up to provide a menu of 12 services. These centres are also generating local employment. Today, 34,000 women are among the workforce providing digital services at the centres.
Digital literacy is essential for our vision of Digital India for all Indians. The Digital Literacy Mission has trained 8.2 million people in the last three years. Digital Skilling has covered one million candidates in the last fiscal year.
There are numerous benefits for farmers, including access to advice, market information and weather forecast. Remote sensing and digital systems are improving watershed management and resource mapping. We have geotagged 10 million assets created under rural employment programmes. Over the past two years, 7.2 million soil health cards have been issued. India's 585 agriculture produce markets are being unified through the electronic National Agriculture Market.
Digital India is reducing the burden of proof and documentation on citizens and speeding up access to services like passports. Since their launch in July 2015, eSign, a digital signature service, has been issued to 8.7 million people; and 5.1 million people have registered to use Digilocker services that will enable citizens to store and disseminate their documents.
Digital India is also generating entrepreneurship, innovation and employment on an unprecedented scale in villages and small towns, creating affordable solutions for seemingly intractable problems.
It is also generating economic activities on a significant scale. E-commerce in India has leapt from a little under US$20 billion in December 2015 to over US$30 billion in December 2016. The IT sector grew 67 per cent in three years. FDI in the IT sector in 2015-16 was US$6 billion.
In India, in a short span, IT has transformed from the privilege of a few to the right of all. In many ways, India is leading global efforts to harness the power of digital technology to meet rapidly rising aspirations and accelerate national progress.
India and Singapore hold boundless potential for cooperation in the digital space, for their people and others. Indeed, this will be the new driver of our cooperation.
- The writer is High Commissioner of India to the Republic of Singapore.