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Indian government policy think tank outlines steps for improving and expanding e-governance in draft 3-year action agenda

Last week, NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India), the premier policy ‘Think Tank’ of the Government of India, released its Three Year Action Agenda, 2017-18 to 2019-20.

NITI Aayog was established in January 2015 to design strategic and long term policies and programmes for the government of India, and provide relevant technical advice to the Centre and States. In Chapter 11 of the Agenda, the agency talks about digital connectivity and e-governance, defining priorities, and setting timelines and targets.

E-governance

India ranked a lowly 107 out of 193 countries in the UN E-Government Development Index (EGDI) in the 2016 survey. NITI Aayog notes that e-Governance in India faces several challenges leading to slow spread and low citizen engagement. These include lack of end-to-end solutions (Despite forms being available online, customers may still need to submit printed documents as hard copies), lack of interfaces in vernacular languages, limited adoption by public authorities, shortcomings in connectivity and enabling infrastructure especially in rural areas and poor digital literacy.

Improving connectivity and digital literacy will be two priority areas. In addition, different ministries and departments will be encouraged to adopt inter-operable e-government platforms which will prevent citizens from having to provide the same information repeatedly to access different services.

The Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances (DARPG) has developed an online system known as the Centralized Public Grievance Redress and Monitoring System (CPGRAMS).

The system needs to be scaled up at the central level and integrated across ministries. Nine state or union territory governments, including Rajasthan, Haryana and Odisha, are also using a version of CPGRAMS to monitor grievances.

The Agenda recommends that additional states be encouraged to adopt the system and the data from CPGRAMS be used to analyse patterns in the areas, number and sources of grievances.

Another step would be to improve the adoption of E-office, an open architecture based  digital workplace solution developed and implemented by the National Informatics Centre by different ministries and departments.

End-to-end service delivery should be designed through common back-end applications and leveraging the Aadhaar numbers (12 digit unique national identity number), eSign and digital lockers. The Agenda says that that the remaining population should receives Aadhaar numbers by 2018 and new-born children should be concurrently enrolled in the system. Government should migrate to Aadhaar based service delivery platforms where possible.

eSign is an online electronic signature service which can be integrated with service delivery applications via an open API to facilitate an Aadhaar holder to digitally sign a document. The Agenda suggests the use eSign to authenticate and securely verify documents in real time.

Digital lockers provide shareable private space in the public cloud. This initiative provides a platform for digital issuance and verification of documents & certificates, eliminating the use of physical documents. Indian citizens who sign up for a Digital Locker account get a dedicated cloud storage space that is linked to their Aadhaar number, while regsitered organisations that are registered with Digital Locker can push electronic copies of documents and certificates, such as driving license, Voter ID and School certificates directly into citizens lockers. Citizens can also upload scanned copies of their legacy documents in their accounts and those documents can be self-attested using eSign.

Ministries and departments can store copies of relevant documents issued by them into individuals' lockers and treat the documents shared by citizens treated as originals. The Agenda proposes that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) should notify the necessary rules for lockers by 2018.

Connectivity

In 2011, rural residents accounted for 68 % of India's population and 73 % of the offline population. Though the absolute costs of locally manufactured devices and data plans are low relative to other countries, they remain too expensive for the poorest segments of the population. In 2013 , even the cheapest data plans would have consumed 13 % of this segment's total spending.

To connect rural residents, the Agenda recommends placement of enabling infrastructure such as reliable and continuous access to electricity, increasing mobile network penetration and improving access to mobile devices and data plans by lowering costs, by keeping regulatory barriers to the minimum necessary.

The government has already commenced a large-scale initiative, BharatNet, implemented by the Bharat Broadband Network limited (BBNL), to create a high-speed digital highway for providing 100 Mbps connectivity to all 250,000 Gram Panchayats (village administrations) using optical fibre.

According to plans, In the first phase, ending on 31 March 2017, 220,000 km of underground optical fibre connecting 100,000 villages. But as of March 5, 176,000 km of fibre had been laid connecting 77,800 villages.

As per the revised plan, all 250,000 villages are supposed to be connected by December 2018 in the second Phase of BharatNet, using an optimal mix of underground fibre, fibre over power lines, radio and satellite media. The electric pole network will also be used to mount electric power lines.

The Agenda also highlights that Wi-Fi networks can offer a more affordable and flexible option than mobile Internet or broadband services for scaling up Internet access. From the perspective of an Internet Service Provider (ISP), Wi-Fi technology uses unlicensed spectrums, requires relatively cheap and readily available equipment, allows the offloading of mobile traffic (the use of complementary network technologies for delivering data originally targeted for cellular networks) and involves lower maintenance and operational costs.

The government will focus on last-mile connectivity. ISPs will be provided policy support in the form of Right of Way permissions and permissions to promote access at select locations. Arrangements could be facilitated between different ISPs to share infrastructure or transfer assets at the end of the contract period.

Digital Literacy and Awareness

The government plans to implement a digital literacy curriculum in 30% or more schools by the beginning of the academic year 2018. It is recommended that schools, gram panchayats and vocational training institutes provide basic training in using digital services and the Internet and cyber security awareness, factoring in the focus areas of the Digital India campaign. Skills required to use digital financial services will also be an area of focus.

Digital financial services

NITI Aayog recommends maintaining the current regulatory structure providing pament bank licenses to incentivise competition, spur innovation, lower costs and encourage adoption of digital payments platforms.

The performance of the regulatory structure can be assessed in 2018, once the payments banks have been operational for some time.

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