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India ticks off analysts’ steps to a digital public infrastructure

India ticks off analysts’ steps to a digital public infrastructure

The World Economic Forum has published a bulletized list of insights for getting an effective digital public infrastructure out of design. It is a good cheat sheet to be followed with an analysis of the infrastructure well on its way to realization in India.

The global consensus among governments and businesses is that a whole-of-society digital platform will pay for itself by reducing national costs and increasing gross domestic production. Of course, not all nations see the value, notably the United States, whose leaders seem unwilling to see past distractions.

The forum’s how-to describes digital public infrastructures as a “rail” off of which governments and businesses can hang information-based services and products, including digital identity and payments. Rare is the business sector or government agency that cannot shave costs and increase revenue in a fully digitized economy, the Forum and others have repeatedly said.

Several insights need to be applied to a nation’s plans for a more fully digital economy.

The infrastructure must be inclusive, according to the report, and that means planners have to think in terms of the whole society when making the move.

Second, because many digital systems work best the bigger they are, authors of the report say nations should work across borders. In fact, they should use the opportunity to coordinate on regional interoperability, data portability and other aspects related to a public infrastructure.

Citizens have to be at the center of all the work going into an infrastructure to both protect them and increase inclusiveness.

Fourth, bring in local experts in the local networks. Business accelerators and universities are prime examples of people who have essential insights outsiders will lack.

As it happens, the Business Standard published an opinion column recently explaining how India has moved rapidly on elements of what will be a digital public infrastructure. The author, Subhrakant Panda, is senior vice president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Panda focuses on the financial sector, pointing out that India’s Unified Payments Interface processed $1 trillion in fiscal 2022, and in March, it handled 5 billion transactions.

The interface, designed in large part to be inclusive, is based on Aadhaar digital ID accounts, Jan Dhan bank accounts and the ubiquity of mobile phones. The three pieces are so interdependent that they are referred to together, usually as JAM, writes Panda.

Jan Dhan accounts are part of a government program (technically called Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana) created to open affordable access to financial services to Indian residents. There are 460 million Jan Dhan accounts with a combined balance of Rs 1.72 trillion (US$20 billion).

At the same time, 98 percent of Indians have biometrics-secured Aadhaar accounts and 750 million Indians have smart phones.

It is clear that he is describing the financial plank of a national public data infrastructure.

This development came up last week when Singapore‘s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, called out how India’s work on digital identity was quickly making it easier for the two nation’s to integrate their payment systems and evolving infrastructures.

It is not entirely calm seas yet for India, however. Data protection, even with Aadhaar biometric IDs, has proved a challenge.

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