India leads in digital public goods, but needs to bridge digital divide

digital public goods
India is a global leader in digital public goods as demonstrated in the development of Aadhar, UPI, National Digital Health Mission, and Open Government Data Platform.

Development of digital public goods is a major item on the agenda of India’s G20 presidency. One of the priorities is using public data for development and building DPGs. In fact, this is not just an India only vision, but has been on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as well. Empowerment through digital public goods has become increasingly significant in the modern era as technology continues to play an integral role in society.

According to the latest Economic Survey, India’s Digital Public Infrastructure or DPI can add nearly 60-100 basis points (BPS) to India’s potential GDP growth rate and there is a lot of justified optimism around it. The Economic Survey 2022-23 also emphasised India’s leadership in digital public goods which is being applauded globally.

The Indian government’s push for adoption of DPGs is also rooted in the fact that the country has a large population with diverse socio-economic backgrounds. This huge population, when armed with accessible knowledge, will contribute to the betterment of the society. This can be by aiding innovation or by finding solutions to the most pressing challenges faced by the humanity.

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What are digital public goods

The term refers to digital resources that are available to everyone and can be used and reused by anyone to create innovative solutions to problems. These digital resources can empower individuals and communities, create new opportunities for economic growth, and foster innovation and creativity.

These goods can be open-source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content. They can be used by anyone without any harm. These resources are developed by public and private organisations with the goal of making them accessible to all. This accessibility can be achieved through various means such as open licensing or public funding.

In recent years, India has made significant strides in promoting the use of digital public goods. One of the most notable examples is the development of the Aadhaar system which provides a unique identity number to every citizen. This system has facilitated access to government services and has enabled financial inclusion for millions of individuals who were previously excluded from the formal financial system.

Another example is Unified Payments Interface. UPI is a real-time payment system that allows users to transfer money between bank accounts instantly. It is an open-source platform that enables interoperability between different banks and payment service providers. The other DPGs include National Digital Health Mission (NDHM), DigiLocker, and Open Government Data Platform.

The Open Government Data portal provides access to government data in various sectors, including health, education, and agriculture. This Portal has enabled researchers, entrepreneurs, and citizens to access data that was previously inaccessible, leading to new innovations and solutions to societal problems.

In the coming months, platforms such as Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC), Open Credit Enablement Network (OCEN) will open avenues for e-commerce market access and credit availability for smaller businesses and strengthen the expected economic growth in the medium term, according to the Economic Survey.

Several universities such as IGNOU have also made academic notes accessible to all with portals like eGyankosh. This not only benefits students from respective universities but also aids learning of students from other colleges and varsities which do not have a provision of quality education.

In addition, the Indian government has launched several initiatives to promote the use of DPGs in education. For example, the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning provides open and free access to high-quality educational resources for students and teachers. This programme has helped to bridge the digital divide in education and has empowered students from marginalised communities.

Digital public goods have also played a critical role in empowering women in India. For example, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has developed a digital platform to connect women entrepreneurs with resources and support networks. This platform has enabled women to access funding, mentorship, and training opportunities, leading to the creation of new businesses and economic opportunities.

DPGs: The challenges ahead

Despite these successes, there are still significant challenges to be addressed in promoting the use of digital public goods in India. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of digital infrastructure in rural areas. While digital technologies have been widely adopted in urban areas, many rural communities still lack access to basic digital services such as high-speed internet connectivity.

This digital divide can further exacerbate existing inequalities and limit the potential impact of DPGs on empowerment. The government must hence first focus on strengthening digital connectivity in all areas.

Another challenge is the lack of digital literacy and skills among many individuals, particularly those from marginalised communities. This can limit their ability to access and effectively use DPGs, further widening the digital divide. Addressing this challenge will require concerted efforts from the government, civil society organisations, and the private sector to promote digital literacy and skills development.