India's digital crossroads

stronger program management may be what's needed to execute a suite of ambitious nationwide IT projects


The Digital India agenda doesn't lack for ambition. But the INR1.13 trillion program to connect hundreds of millions of Indians to the digital economy might be in need of stronger program management.


The vast initiative approved by India's parliament in August 2014 aims to deliver high-speed Internet nationwide, achieve universal digital literacy and make many public services, data and documents available online. The digital transformation effort, which officially got underway in July but incorporated several major projects already in progress, is important, says member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar. “But we now need to ensure that the rhetoric [of Digital India proponents] is backed by solid and well-thought-through execution,” Mr. Chandrasekhar wrote in July on the Indian website

Sumandro Chattapadhyay, research director at the Centre for Internet and Society, who works in both Bengaluru and Delhi, India, agrees. “Digital India is a worthwhile program with a truly worthwhile goal. My worry is that it lacks an overall legal and administrative framework regarding how the plan is going to be implemented,” he says.

Execution will include connecting 250,000 villages to broadband networks by the end of 2019; bringing mobile networks to more than 42,000 villages by 2018; increasing the number of government-run facilities where citizens can connect to the Internet from 140,000 to 250,000; achieving “net zero imports” in electronics by 2020; and training 10 million students from small towns and remote villages for IT sector jobs.

All this will involve close collaboration among national government ministries including communications and IT, rural development and human resource development, plus each of the country's 29 state governments. And these entities need to get end users—Indians across the country—on board to take advantage of new services and educational opportunities. But support for the initiative doesn't appear widespread. Fewer than half (42 percent) of Indians support Digital India, according to a survey conducted in May. Part of the problem may be the country's literacy rate. It was only 74 percent in 2011; the government hopes to raise it to 80 percent before the end of this year.

“Digital India is a worthwhile program with a truly worthwhile goal. My worry is that it lacks an overall legal and administrative framework regarding how the plan is going to be implemented.”

—Sumandro Chattapadhyay, Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru and Delhi, India


India's literacy rate was only 74 percent in 2011; the government hopes to raise it to 80 percent before the end of this year.

More Substantial Communication

To reach those who can read, Digital India's sponsor has taken to social media.

“The government is actually doing quite a good job of reaching out to people already connected to the Internet to create a public sense of what the program is about and what it hopes to achieve,” Mr. Chattapadhyay says. More substantial communication will be needed to clarify exactly how the government will achieve Digital India goals, he says.

The government also has been slow to explain how private-sector contractors will help deliver specific projects. “From the perspective of a domestic or foreign company that's interested in implementing part of this infrastructure program, the government hasn't clarified who exactly is procuring services, who is responsible for putting out tenders and so on,” Mr. Chattapadhyay says.

Fortunately, there's time for the program to correct course. “It's still early,” Mr. Chattapadhyay says. “Once the first set of projects under the Digital India initiative is detailed by the government and contract tenders are issued, we should have a better idea what the projects will be, which departments are leading them and what shape the overall program will take.” —Matt Alderton




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