Pathways for Digital Inclusion
Syllabus: GS2/ Government Policies & Interventions
- As India leads the conversation on digital public infrastructure (DPI) and digital transformation at the G20, it is an opportune moment to steer the wheel towards inclusive DPIs.
What is Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI)?
- DPI refers to digital solutions that enable basic functions essential for public and private service delivery, i.e., collaboration, commerce, and governance.
- Functionally mimicking physical infrastructures, these DPIs are digital pathways that enable a seamless provision of essential services, benefiting society.
India’s DPI experiment – “India Stack”
Widely adopted DPIs of India
- India has so far had a successful run in creating DPIs that have seen wide adoption. The World Bank estimates that Aadhaar has facilitated financial inclusion.
- The Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile trinity has played a pivotal role in transparent direct benefit transfers of welfare subsidies to bank accounts of the underserved.
- On the payments front, Unified Payments Interface — the interoperable electronic payment system — has empowered us to conveniently transfer money from one bank account to another bank account digitally and in real-time.
- The next decade of India’s DPI journey will witness sector-specific DPIs such as account aggregators, Open Network for Digital Commerce, Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission and Agristack.
Suggestions to make DPIs more inclusive
- Placing users at the forefront:
- We must prioritise user-centric design to reduce the risks arising from the use of technology and prevent the exacerbation of extant inequalities amongst rural and urban populations, genders or economic groups.
- To avoid reinforcing disparities in DPI usage, enabling compatible protocols for feature phones, assisted-tech models and Interactive Voice Response System should be explored and implemented, offering handholding support to consumers with limited smartphone access or low digital literacy.
- RBI’s UPI123Pay:
- The RBI’s launch of UPI123Pay is a notable step towards inclusivity, which gives feature phone owners an app that enables them with most UPI features.
- The RBI has even enabled cardless cash withdrawals at ATMs through the UPI app.
- Making ‘inclusion’ a key policy objective:
- Inclusion should be a key policy objective for DPI participants, embedded within the regulatory framework.
- Global examples:
- Several jurisdictions, including Nigeria, the UK and Brazil, have embraced open banking with the aim of financial inclusion within the regulatory framework itself.
- Estonia’s information policy emphasises avoiding information disparities between regions or communities — an important consideration for data-sharing DPIs equipped with advanced consent technologies, where there is a risk of the ecosystem benefiting only digitally-savvy consumers.
- By prioritising inclusion from the outset, DPIs can create an ecosystem that benefits all individuals, regardless of their digital literacy, thereby cultivating a more equitable and accessible digital economy.
- Identifying the underserved target segments:
- To truly drive inclusivity, DPI participants must identify the underserved target segments and proactively develop use cases tailored to their needs.
- Moreover, monitoring the impact of DPIs on vulnerable consumers through disaggregated data collection is essential to prevent the deepening of gaps for underserved customers and foster equitable growth.
- Building engagement with the DPI:
- To meaningfully adopt any DPI at the population scale, it is necessary to build engagement with the DPI.
- In a country like ours, where digital connectivity and literacy pose obstacles, it becomes crucial to address these challenges.
- Offline channels must be considered, alongside building institutional capacity to generate trust and awareness.
- It would not only ensure last-mile access but also foster digital comfort among vulnerable consumers, empowering them to leverage these tools for their benefit.
Issues & Challenges
- Data collection & breach:
- One of the common aspect of all such platforms is them being data guzzlers where personal information is gathered from Indians that goes beyond the technical requirements.
- This only results in multiple individual and social harms, including data breaches.
- Lack of adequate legal framework and accountability:
- There is a lack of a National Cyber Security Strategy
- A draft put to public consultation in December 2019 awaits finalisation.
- Also, India does not have any data protection law requiring breach notifications to impacted users.
- There is a lack of a National Cyber Security Strategy
- Lack of legislative mandate:
- The weak governance processes, which put into question whether they have been created with a legislative mandate.
- Except for Aadhaar (prompted by litigation), none of these platforms [like Aarogya Setu, CoWIN or even Government E-Marketplace (GEM)] has a legal definition of their functions, roles and responsibilities from an Act of Parliament.
- Many are developed as joint ventures, or special purpose vehicles, that avoid accountability mechanisms such as audits by the Computer Auditor General (CAG) or transparency mandates under the Right to Information Act.
- From promoting financial as well as digital inclusion of citizens belonging to less privileged socio-economic backgrounds and empowering small businesses to improve access to healthcare, Indian DPIs hold the promise to bridge the wealth gaps and build an efficient and resilient digital economy that supports citizens and organisations.
- To unlock the enormous benefits and efficiencies of DPIs, their adoption and acceptance at the population scale are paramount, requiring a comprehensive approach to cater to diverse needs, situations, and experiences.
Daily Mains Question
[Q] India’s digital public infrastructure (DPI) holds the promise to bridge the wealth gaps and build an efficient and resilient digital economy. Analyse. Suggest ways to make DPIs more inclusive.