One of the less talked about aspects of the Indian state is how its nature has been changing over the last one decade. As the bad old failed Central Public Sector Enterprises are winding down, due to privatisation or disinvestment, new age successful digital public goods are proliferating, driven chiefly by the government’s initiative.
This development also gives lie to the notion that the government is incapable of innovation or running an enterprise successfully. If one has right talent, good ideas, a governance structure where incentives are well aligned that facilitate achieving the set goals, then even a government programme can be successful.
Of course, even in the digital space, we have seen how some of the platforms championed and built by the government are now being utilised more successfully by the private sector. For instance, take the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), a world-class payment system developed by National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) which enables instant real-time transfer of money from one bank account to another (or between digital wallets).
BHIM app for UPI, also developed by NPCI, is at sixth place in market share behind PhonePe, Google Pay, Paytm, Axis Bank and Amazon Pay with ICICI and Yes Bank closing on in from behind. Via BHIM, transactions worth Rs 8,000 crore took place compared to over Rs 3 lakh crore on chart leader PhonePe in August. So, everything is not hunky-dory. But one thing is for sure, there would be no PhonePe or Google Pay today without NPCI which in turn wouldn’t have materialised without Aadhaar platform and mandatory linking of bank accounts with it and mobile number of customers.
It’s not that the Indian state has only achieved success in developing tech platforms related to the finance and banking sector.
CoWin, a platform made by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to check availability for Covid-19 vaccines, register beneficiaries and book slots, download vaccine certificates and link them to passports, has impressed one and all by the sheer scale at which it has operated with ease for last few months (barring the hiccup of few hours due to lakhs of newly eligible adults in April rushing at once to register themselves). Tens of millions have used the platform to get themselves jabbed. Its success can not only be scaled up within the country to cover more diseases and inoculation drives under the National Health Mission but the tech platform can be shared with other countries across the globe as well.
Before CoWin, it was Aarogya Setu which played an important role during the first phase of Covid-19 pandemic when vaccines were not available. However, one believes that its true potential could never be realised as that would have required Chinese level of invasive protocols of 24x7 location tracking of the infected people (and potentially infected ones who had come in their close contact). It could have have been the most effective instrument in stemming transmission via contact tracing even while allowing most of the economic activity to go on. But privacy was a big concern that limited its scope even before it could really take off.
In travel and transportation, there is FASTag, which enables electronic toll collection on national highways and expressways. When it was launched in 2016, only one lane on the toll plaza used to have this feature. By 2021, only one lane allowed cash payment and as much as 85 per cent of total collection was via electronic means. This allowed the government to make FASTag mandatory from February this year thanks to which, a record 20 crore transaction figure was breached in August amounting to total collection of over Rs 3,000 crore. The system has not only helped cut down wait times (saving time and fuel collectively) but also closed the gaps for revenue loss as well.
Though, it may be an improvement over the past setup, it’s far from being perfect as far as user experience is concerned. Thus, the government is thinking of coming up with even better tech platform that can do away with toll plazas completely and replace it with a system where toll charge for highway usage can be deducted directly from the account of the owner based on kms driven. Imagine the potential of this system when it’s deployed in cities and towns where government can levy a congestion charge during driving in peak hours. It can do wonders for traffic control.
Another successful digital platform by the Centre is Government e-Platform (GeM) — its very own Amazon/Flipkart for procurement of all sarkari goods, small and big. The total value of procured goods and services by the Centre and states on the GeM portal crossed Rs 1 lakh crore in 2020-21, almost doubling from the previous year’s levels. There are now more than 12 lakh sellers on the platform. The size and potential of this platform will only increase with time giving immense power to the government to single-handedly provide a shot in the arm to certain parts of industry (say MSMEs, startups, specific sectors etc) by mandating procurement from them — all in a transparent manner.
Whether it’s utilities (Aadhaar, Bharat Billpay, Digilocker), healthcare (CoWin, Aarogya Setu, e-Sanjeevani), travel and transportation (FASTag, Parivahan/Passport Sewa), finance and banking (UPI, GSTN, IMPS, AEPS), Agriculture (e-NAM), procurement (GeM) or welfare (Umang, MyGov), the Union government (and even states governments like mKisan by Karnataka and GlobalLinker by Telangana) have proved that they have the wherewithal to create world-class tech digital public (or club) goods (FASTag is a club good where only those who pay can use it while CoWin is a public good).
These have been executed like standalone projects and without any systematic ecosystem within the government. Now, some might argue that these have been successful precisely because of this reason for permanent bureaucracy is the bane of good governance in India. Still, there is case to be made for a tech czar or a chief technology officer (CTO) operating out of the Prime Minister’s Office who can not only efficiently manage the ever increasing number of these digital public goods but also work towards creating new ones (and even closing down the ones that don’t work or modify the ones which have flaws).
It goes without saying that such a person will have to be given autonomy the level a typical CTO enjoys in corporate world for building teams for different projects and chucking out those with performance issues. In the government, there is a limit to what can be paid to the executives, so good talent needs to be attracted with non-monetary incentives which only the government can provide (say, a flat in Lutyens for the duration of their employment). To avoid, permanent bureaucracy, short term contracts may be a good idea. In short, corporatisation of at least this section of government will have to be mandatory for it to work.
The need for such a position has arisen especially in the light of problems faced by the government in three back to back tech projects it contracted with Infosys for — GSTN, Income Tax filing portal and another for companies.
Former Infosys director Mohandas Pai, in an interview to Swarajya, had explained the challenges usually involved in developing a complex online portal for the government. The government bureaucrats don’t understand how to write specification for a tech project, by the time they learn, they are usually transferred out from the department and this ensures that no institutional memory is built, the in-house capacity to manage these IT systems once they are handed over to the government is poor, sometimes even servers aren’t available in sufficient numbers to bear with the peak load, when a new company takes over a software project of the government which had earlier been with other firm, the transition is not usually smooth and on and on it goes.
How is it that the government which can develop such great public goods or platforms like Aadhaar, UPI, CoWin, etc, has to pay thousands of crores to private enterprises for building basic Internet applications for tax filing that are not that great in the end anyway? A tech czar or a CTO can help address this lacunae and also manage the galaxy of digital platforms that the government is coming up with but losing out to private players at the game it itself created.
“A good CTO is essential to make the government function as a unified machinery that operates with consistent standards of efficiency, transparency and responsiveness. That is key to realising maximum governance, minimum government,” Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the current Minister of State for Electronics and Communications had written in 2015, championing the need to have a CTO in Modi’s team for the success of ‘Digital India’ initiative. Now that he is a minister, he should push strongly for it. It’s an idea whose time has truly come.
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