8 things to know about Digital India


8 things to know about Digital India

Big plans, million-dollar promises and PM Modi’s biggest cheerleaders and critics

By Deepa Menon  September 28th, 2015

If you thought #ModiAtMadison was a party of epic proportions, #ModiInSiliconValley just pulled off a bigger encore. Narendra Modi is there this week to meet industry honchos and seal the deal on their commitment to his government’s pet project, Digital India. At a dinner for CEOs, he hosted Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Shantanu Narayan of Adobe, and Sunder Pichai of Google, among others. He also met Apple CEO Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg, who later changed his profile picture on Facebook to show support for the initiative.

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Patriotic photo filters and awkward hugs apart, what is the Digital India fuss all about? Here’s the gist.

Wi-Fi everywhere: A big part of the promise is to connect India digitally, and spread the wireless net far and wide. Google will team up with the government of India (GoI) to turn about 500 railway stations into Wi-Fi hotspots and take broadband to 6,00,000 villages.

Big investors: The PM has asked for companies in India and abroad to donate Rs 4.5 lakh crore towards the Digital India project, and Mukesh Ambani, Cyrus Mistry and Azim Premji are already on-board. In Silicon Valley, the pledges came in thick and fast. Sunder Pichai announced that Android users will soon be able to type in Indian languages. Paul Jacobs, executive chairman of Qualcomm, promised the opening of an ‘innovation lab’ in Bengaluru to help Indian engineers design better mobile devices. Satya Nadella said Microsoft would take broadband to 5 lakh Indian villages and make its cloud service available through our data centres here.

Brand ambassador: The face of Digital India is an engineering student. Kruti Tiwari, topper in the IIT entrance exam of 2015, had to travel 35km every day from an Indore suburb to prepare. Now she’ll be travelling around the country, spreading the word on how the initiative can help students like her.

Smart business: The government promises to make it much easier for you to be an entrepreneur. The Infosys-managed site, Ebiz, lets you register a new company and complete all the formalities online.

Digital locker: You don’t need to store sensitive documents—passport, birth certificate, licenses—on Gmail anymore. You can file them all on a free 1GB cloud service, hosted by the GoI since July 2015. Various government departments can also upload documents into your account and you can sign digitally and print them out only if you need to. You’ll need an Aadhar card number to register.

Surveillance scare: Not everyone’s gung-ho about Digital India, though. Before Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley, a few American academicians, including Wendy Doniger, wrote a letter to top IT leaders, cautioning them against partnering with the government on an initiative that could violate citizens’ right to privacy. Under Digital India, they warned, the government could access personal emails and documents.

Net neutrality worries: Facebook came under fire from net neutrality champions for its Internet.org service (now called Free Basics) that allows Reliance subscribers free access to certain websites. Given how well this aligns with Digital India’s mission to get every citizen online, Mark Zuckerberg’s association poses some big questions on how the government will preserve a free and fair Internet.

Promises, promises: In a report for WSJ, a reporter punctures the optimism about pan-Indian connectivity with a story about how slow the internet connection is in the office of the government-run Bharat Broadband Network. The program to lay down fibre optic cables for broadband access across the country is proceeding at dial-up pace and in terms of Internet speed, India is 52nd in the world.