Helped Prime Minister Modi reach millions of Indians during Covid shelter-in-place and lockdown.
India continues to leave the rest of the world in awe with its ground-breaking digital adoption for both top-down and bottom-up engagement. We are pioneering technology-led governance. Through the Covid-lockdown, we have found many ways of both utilising existing databases and building new digital infrastructure to reach citizens in times of peril.
AAROGYA SETU BREAKS RECORDS
Aarogya Setu broke the world record for the fastest app to reach 50 million downloads. Aarogya Setu took only 13 days to reach this coveted milestone that predicts user engagement. The incredibly addictive Pokémon Go game previously held this record at 19 days, and social media platform Twitter at two years. Aarogya Setu is now at the 110 million downloads mark.
Aarogya Setu’s merits do not lie solely in this record, however. It is a volunteer-led open-source public-private-partnership (PPP), and this model has come to define India’s tech-enabled governance. Aadhaar, the world’s most extensive one-sweep identification-inclusion program, is a premier volunteer-led PPP, as are DigiLocker, UPI, e-KYC in India Stack and other critical platforms. This model is a unique and valuable asset as these are all public goods, not owned by private enterprise, and also not wholly managed by the government per se. This is digital democracy in action.
The digital network on Aarogya Setu can redefine public engagement with the government. This is the most comprehensive population network we have mapped onto geographical locations. After Covid-19 passes, citizens must be empowered to raise civic issues on the platform with geo-tag—like potholes or lack of health infrastructure in their district. Unnecessary fears about Aarogya Setu becoming a surveillance application is unwarranted as it can easily be deleted.
INSTANTANEOUS DIGITAL FUNDS DISBURSEMENT
India has been hailed for some of the fastest cash disbursements to tide vulnerable citizens over during the Covid-induced lockdown and stoppage of economic activity. This was possible only because of the vast digital databases of Aadhaar-verified bank accounts.
Over the past six years, the NDA government pioneered the use of the JAM (Jan Dhan + Aadhar + Mobile) trinity to disburse Rs 11.14 lakh crores worth of direct benefits (DBT) under various schemes. 125.75 crore unique Aadhaar cards have been issued; 375 crore documents have been verified via DigiLocker. UPI has changed the face of Indian banking and benefits disbursal because of the instantaneous transfer protocol. With lockdown easing, total UPI transacted value surged back to Rs 2.2 lakh crore in May, up 44.4% from April. It is this tech-enabled governance system that India turned to during our darkest hours.
DIRECT BENEFIT TRANSFER: 42 crore beneficiaries have been directly supported during Covid-lockdown, amounting to more than Rs 53,000 crore. DBT enabled the government to reach out to farmers, rural workers, BPL families, women, senior citizens, the disabled and other vulnerable groups across the country at a time when the country was in lockdown, face-to-face interaction was dangerous, and travel was unavailable. These two months have validated all of the digital efforts of the last decade, and provide impetus to move more subsidy and income support schemes onto DBT, as analysed previously. PM Modi’s foresight to create an extensive digital framework for India must be complimented.
WOMEN JD ACCOUNT HOLDERS: The push to empower women through SHGs, Matru Vandana maternity benefits program, Ujjwala Yojana, and other schemes provided the government with a ready list to disburse Rs 500 cash support early into the lockdown. As of June 2, Rs 20,344 crore was disbursed to women JD account holders, allowing them to support their families.
FARMERS AND RURAL WORKERS: The PM-KISAN scheme to provide minimum income support to farmers proved beneficial as GoI front-ended the first cash payment of Rs 2,000 each to 8.19 crore farmers out of the total Rs 75,000 crores allocated for the year. Similarly, MGNREGA beneficiaries also received increased allocation and per-capita payment. This helped the rural economy tide over during the lockdown and continue agriculture activities, which proved crucial for production continuity and harvesting of the record rabi crop cycle.
GAS CYLINDERS: The PMUY has brought dignity and smoke-free cooking to 13 crore new households in the last five years. Of these, 8 crore gas connections were provided free to rural women, and it was this network that was activated during Covid-19. Apart from free cylinders during the lockdown, PMUY beneficiaries received cash support of total Rs 8,500 crores.
CONSTRUCTION WORKERS: 2.3 crore construction workers received Rs 4,300 crore worth of income support when lockdown cut off their incomes. The media’s focus was on the migrants, some of whom were left in a lurch and now need better assistance coming out of the crisis, but they are not the only labour in India. The government ensured that they assisted the labour of whom they had records.
VULNERABLE SECTIONS: Databases and digital networks also helped GoI assist 2.8 crore senior citizens, widows and disabled persons in advance with a total of Rs 2,800 crores. Without the digital infra, it would have been tough to reach out to these sections in time.
EPFO PAYMENTS: The EPFO database is India’s most comprehensive record of formal employment and GoI was able to leverage it to support 59.2 lakh account holders by undertaking both the employer and employee 12% each contribution for three months.
A common thread through all these rapid-action support schemes is the availability of verified bank account information to send the money to, and this is where India’s unique value proposition lies.
RIDE THE MOMENTUM
With the incredible validation of India’s tech-enabled governance model during the most trying times of COVID-19, now is the time to use the momentum for next-generation empowerment.
BHARAT-PHONE: While India is one of the fastest mobile and internet adoption economies, there are still sections of the population that cannot afford a phone. Increasingly, access to a smartphone is redefining personal growth and inclusion. People who are bereft of one can be identified through the panchayat system, and a low-cost Bharat-phone with a data connection can be provided to them. Dynamic teamsof young citizens can be employedto travel from place to place to promote digital literacy. With India becoming one of the largest mobile assembly regions in the world, large-scale procurement of phones by GoI can be another way to boost the economy post-Covid and provide jobs.
Tablets in government schools and higher education institutions: It is crucial to empower the next generation with digital know-how so they can leverage digital inclusion and access opportunities that today may not be open to their parents. Provision of tablets for every student in government schools and rural colleges will be critical for students to immerse themselves in digital platforms, learn how to use and build them, and leverage them for employment and entrepreneurship.
IT/GST REFUNDS: The same world-class digital infra that is helping GoI reach out to the vulnerable can be repurposed to integrate with taxpayers and businesspeople. A majority of these communities are honest taxpayers and have declared all records and assets. Using a transparent digital system to process instant IT and GST refunds via UPI will change the face of government-business integration. Business discontinuity and liquidity crunch during the economic lockdown demonstrate how vital this integration is.
MIGRANT LABOUR DATABASE: The absence of comprehensive digital records delayed support to the migrants. Heartland states where they mostly originate from had no records of emigration while destination states had no records of labour participation. Just like India has pioneered the use of digital infra to map out population sections like farmers, rural workers, and others, we must now turn our attention to mapping out migrant movement and participation so they too can be fully included in the economy and government support schemes.
A Chief Data Officer (CDO) could be appointed to the PMO to oversee the next wave of digital infrastructure in India. There is a need to create more databases, consolidate all data into one India Data Store, use Aadhaar to remove duplicates and eliminate leakage of funds, and publish uniform standards for data collection.
India has already pioneered technology-enabled governance at scale and can ride this momentum to a fully-integrated digital governance model.
T.V. Mohandas Pai is Chairman, Aarin Capital Partners, and Nisha Holla is Technology Fellow, C-CAMP.