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World's sixth largest economy's Digital India initiative has so far stayed on course. But, certain challenges could still create hiccups for the programme in the short and medium term.
In what should have been a major story that was buried under other headlines, India achieved a significant milestone in its Digital India programme when 100,000-gram panchayats, or village councils, across the country were connected through a high-speed optical fibre network called BharatNet. This was achieved as per the targeted deadline of December 31, 2017 for the first phase.
The network envisages delivery of high-speed broadband services in over 250,000 villages benefitting more than 200 million rural Indians. The project also achieved a global record of laying 800 kilometres of optical fibre per day. The federal government has indicated that the second phase of the programme might be completed well ahead of its March 2019 deadline. It proposes to bring 250,000 village councils onboard the broadband network.
BharatNet is important because the success of India's ambitious Digital India programme hinges on its timely implementation.
The infrastructure is expected to promote digital delivery of services such as those pertaining to health, education and job skills, which will also include those in e-agriculture and e-commerce. The government revised the tariff on BharatNet to attract more telecom service providers (TSP) to use the infrastructure to provide high-speed broadband services in the rural areas through Wi-Fi and fibre to the home (FTTH) technology, and for developing utilisation models by TSPs and Common Service Centres (CSC).
According to Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister for Law & Justice and Electronics & Information Technology, 'Digital India is a profound programme to transform India and empower ordinary citizens. It is its declared mission to bridge the divide between the 'digital haves' and 'have nots' through digital inclusion based on affordable technology.' Speaking at the ASEAN-India Business and Investment Meet and Expo, organised by the industry lobby group Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), he added that Digital India, Skill India, Start-up India, Smart Cities programmes were all working in unison to technologically empower the country.
'The government's flagship Digital India has begun to impact, and we can already see that most of the private players have started leveraging broadband infrastructure to expand products and services. The very first step in forming an organisation, the registration process, has been simplified through digital registration,' said KK Shetty, CEO & Managing Director of the fibre optic solutions start-up Citadel Intelligent Systems Pvt. Ltd. Although there was plenty of scope for improvement on especially the compliances front, but some areas like hiring the right talent had been simplified through digital incubation, he added.
In 2017, there was a 27 per cent jump in the investment on electronic manufacturing where the total volume reached Rs 1,570 crore compared to Rs 1,430 crore in 2016. Production of mobile phones rose almost 60 per cent to reach 175 million units compared to 110 million units in 2016, adding 400,000 direct and indirect jobs in the sector.
The past year witnessed several new initiatives, including India Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) Promotion Scheme, Software Procurement Policy for faster delivery and effective monitoring of services and Tele-Law through CSCs to mainstream legal aid in rural areas, being launched.
Power of the hand(held)
Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the apex industry association representing the country's major telecom, internet, technology and digital services companies, released the latest telecom subscriber numbers, for the month ending November 2017. As per the data, India's private telecom service providers have a total of 975.40 million subscribers.
In a press statement, Rajan S Mathews, Director General, COAI, said, 'All the operators have significantly expanded their services across the country, and have begun heavily diversifying their services beyond voice and data for the consumer.'
With a population of over one billion, the world's second most populous nation has 1.21 billion mobile phone users. Out of that, 400 million are smartphone users. India surpassed the US in Google Play downloads in the year 2017, revealed a report by app analytics firm App Annie. At six million, this is a notable increase as in 2014 the country contributed to around 2.5 billion downloads and the US around 5.75 billion downloads.
In India, the estimated internet penetration has reached 27 per cent in 2016, which is an increase of 5 per cent from 22 per cent in 2015, according to a report by the US-based venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. The estimated internet users in India were 355 million as compared to 277 million users in 2015.
A report from the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI) and market research firm IMRB International released last year claimed that that 77 per cent of urban users and 92 per cent of rural users consider mobile as the primary device for accessing the internet. A significant portion of internet users accesses the internet mostly via patchy 2G or 3G networks.
This incongruity presents a plethora of growth opportunities for homegrown smartphone, consumer durables and IT accessories maker INTEX as well as American computer data storage company Western Digital. Rajeev Jain, Director & CFO, INTEX observed, 'We find a lot of mobile phones in use in our big cities. But in rural India there are still people who are waiting to be served. We operate in tier-2 and tier-3 cities as we see a lot of scope there.' He feels that the government's initiatives to increase the personal disposable income, electricity supply and internet connectivity will all further spur demand for smartphones.
Khalid Wani, Director Channel Sales, India, Western Digital, opined, 'Since the government is moving towards technological innovation, we are witnessing induction of concepts of Digital India, smart city, IoT, big data, etc. These are few initiations which require huge storage capacity as well as smart devices, and in the end, it drives the demand of our products.
Hence, we will also continuously focus on addressing the requirement of Indian market.' In the last two years, the company has been actively offering its storage solutions to Digital India and Smart Cities Mission.
Spike in digital payments
The surprise demonetisation move by the federal government in November 2016 was more than an attempt at curbing the nation's humongous black economy. It also seen as the country's first major step towards taking a leadership position in the global digital revolution by migrating to digital payment systems.
Latest Reserve Bank of India (RBI) data has revealed digital transactions further peaked in January 2018, in volume terms, after crossing over 1 billion in December 2017. They climbed 4.73 per cent to 1.11 billion in January from 1.06 billion in the previous month. Around Rs 131.95 lakh crore worth of transactions were carried out through credit and debit cards, unified payments interface (UPI), unstructured supplementary service data (USSD), prepaid payment instruments (PPI) and internet banking during the month.
The government's decision to bear merchant discount rate (MDR) for a period of two years on transactions made through debit cards, BHIM UPI and Aadhaar-enabled payments system (AEPS), from this year has provided a further fillip to such transactions.
Hike in budgetary allocation
However, Digital India is not merely about improving online infrastructure. It is also about transforming India into a $1 trillion economy by 2025 and making it into a global manufacturing hub in a bid to create 100 million new jobs by 2022. Analysts believe that formulation of the right policy framework would go a long way in ensuring that. The government's focus on the electronics manufacturing sector has resulted in establishment of 108 new mobile phone manufacturing centres in 2017 from only two in 2014.
International manufacturers are already vying for a piece of the emerging opportunities. At a smart cities conclave held last year in New Delhi, Mei-Hua Wang, Taiwan's Vice Minister of Economic Affairs told INFRASTRUCTURE TODAY that the island nation was providing a talent training programme for Indians in smartphone development. The programme covers basic level manufacturing to creating good designs for handsets.
As India gears up for general elections next year, the budgetary allocation for the Digital India programme has been doubled to Rs 3,073 crore for the 2018-19 fiscal. Addressing the Parliament on February 1, Arun Jaitley, Minister of Finance & Corporate Affairs, said that NITI Aayog would initiate a national programme to direct efforts in artificial intelligence (AI) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) will launch a mission on cyber-physical systems. The government will establish centres of excellence (CoE) for research, training and skilling in robotics, AI, digital manufacturing, big data analytics, quantum communication and internet of things (IoT).
Hailing the move, INTEX's Jain said, 'If the intent of the government is good then the initial or intermediate hiccups are not a problem. We have seen how when the government started supporting the automobile industry from the 1980s, from completely imported cars we today only have to make royalty payments.' Jain is confident that with the amount of support being extended by the government, India's electronics industry will be bigger than automobiles.
The aggressive push to Digital India has also resulted in people living in the country's rural hinterland accessing digital tools. Today applications such as Kisan Suvidha, IFFCO Kisan Agriculture, RML Farmer - Krishi Mitr, RainbowAgri, Pusa Krishi and AgriApp are helping both cultivators and livestock farmers to seek relevant data on soil, crop prices, buyers and veterinary advice.
Some significant achievements
In January 2017, the state capital of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, became the first city in the country to 'go smart'. The project, a partnership between Gandhinagar Municipal Corporation (GMC) and telecom products manufacturer Sterlite Tech, has resulted in measurable improvement in the city's overall governance system, including smart communication, which has helped nearly 190,000 city dwellers and visitors with seamless data connectivity across 57 square kilometres of the city limit.
The citywide surveillance has helped reduce traffic violations and overall security, while smart lighting has reduced electricity spends. KS Rao, COO & MD, Telecom Products Business, Sterlite Tech, remarked, 'One of the interesting use cases is the smart signage, which not only provides live environmental readings but also helps promote public good messages on the digital screens. It is also used for private promotions in a bid to monetise the investment.' These smart services have helped the city municipality to offer citizen-centric connectivity, innovative services and bring transformative changes to the day-to-day lives of residents.
Around the launch of Digital India in July 2015, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had committed to bring low-cost broadband technology to 500,000 villages across India. Internet search giant Google has a partnership with the Indian Railways to provide free Wi-Fi services at several major railway stations. The railway has currently commissioned Wi-Fi services at 216 major stations enabling about seven million rail passengers to log on to the free internet facility. The national transporter recently decided to progressively extend the service to all its 8,500 stations at an estimated cost of Rs 700 crore.
The government also aims to provide mobile connectivity to 55,669 villages across the country by 2018.
A scheme called the DigiLocker was also launched in February 2015. A cloud-based platform, it can be used to securely store digital files. Operated by Department of Electronics & Information Technology (DeitY), DigiLocker has over 9.5 million registered users with 23.28 billion uploaded documents and counting.
Also, with over 99 per cent of the adult population of the country covered through the unique identity Aadhaar, the country is now looking at moving to the next phase of the programme.
Obstacles ahead of a digitalising India
Despite all the successes that the Digital India Programme has had so far, some major challenges remain. For fibre optic solutions providers right of way (RoW) remains an area of much concern. Currently, RoW charges vary from a few hundred thousand to Rs 1,050 crore per kilometre across different states. 'With states having different RoW policies, telecom companies are losing out significant amount of their infrastructure investments to municipal bodies. As the industry evolves to the next level of growth through 5G, operators are likely to face the brunt of RoW even more,' cautioned Sterlite Tech's Rao. He looks forward to the issue being addressed on priority.
However, the biggest worry is availability of the skilled manpower to sustain the Digital India story in the long-term. Speaking exclusively to the magazine at his office in Gurugram, Chairman & Managing Director, Quatrro Global Services Pvt. Ltd & Chairman, National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), opined, 'The digital skills will continue to evolve. What do we understand of big data, artificial Intelligence or of machine learning? I am not saying that there is zero understanding. What I mean is five years from now the demand will be dramatically much more and we have to train people to evolve to that level.'
'Within the IT industry 40 to 50 per cent of our workforce require re-skilling. The IT industry employs about four million people. Outside of the IT industry, Mackenzie has done a study for the country. I think the number is in excess of 20 million,' added Roy. He believes that it is important for colleges to churn out digitally literate graduates for the job market.
Other suggestions from the industry are on the need for standardisation in order to ensure speed and reliability of broadband networks and additional measures to boost investment in infrastructure.
Now, tracking road projects in India becomes easy (NHAI opts for PMIS)
To ensure timely delivery of its projects, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is now digitally monitoring them through a state-of-the-art Project Monitoring Information System (PMIS), which has been developed in-house along with the Boston Consulting Group. PMIS has a comprehensive database with over 180 data fields being tracked for each project, and a further 500 fields specifically for complex PPP projects, covering all key progress matrics such as design progress, contracting progress, construction progress, land acquisition, compensation disbursement, toll and traffic information and concession / contract information.
A series of Executive Dashboards have been designed to provide updated progress on all these data fields at various levels, such as national, Regional Office (RO) level, Project Implementation Unit (PIU) level and project level. The data for these dashboards is submitted at an individual project level by the responsible Project Director, and is reviewed at regular frequency at the level of the NHAI Chairman and NHAI members. An in-built algorithm automatically highlights focus projects with key pending issues, so that focused interventions for these projects can be discussed during these reviews. Apart from dashboards views of data, the PMIS is also enabled with Geographical Information System (GIS), which provides a geographical visualisation of all NHAI projects on an India map. This is a unique feature of PMIS, which enables geo-visualisation of projects rather than searching through a database.
The PMIS has enabled significant progress, with a 32 per cent increase in construction in 2016-17 over the previous year, and with over 60 per cent of the projects identified in 2016 with issues, now being back on track.
To facilitate access to the PMIS, which was so far available as a desktop version, NHAI has now launched a PMIS app in coordination with the Boston Consulting Group. The app, available in both Android and Apple versions, will be accessible to all of its officers in the field and headquarters, and will enable access to any project dashboard in just two clicks of a button. The app also comes with a host of additional features - a Task Manager, so that tasks can be assigned and tracked through the organisation; a Photo Upload functionality, so that Project Directors can click photos at project site and upload the latest status on PMIS; a Check-In feature, so that every visit to a site by an RO / PD can be tracked; and quick access to stalled issues, which are issues flagged with projects that have not been resolved in 30 days.
LDB hits a new milestone (crosses 6 mn EXIM containers tagged at port terminals)
Logistics Data Bank (LDB), the award-winning container tracking solution from DMICDC Logistics Data Services (DLDS), marked the start of 2018 by crossing a milestone six million EXIM containers tagged at the port terminals of Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone in the western corridor of India.
Launched in July 2016, LDB is a one-of-its-kind Indo-Japanese technology partnership that provides easy-access, single window digital visibility solution to streamline container logistics operations. After successful implementation at ports in the Western Corridor including India's biggest port JNPT where it was piloted, the service will be expanding to pan-India starting from Krishnapatnam, Kattuppalli and Ennore ports in the Southern Corridor. LDB has already brought nearly 90 per cent of the traffic along the Western Corridor and 70 per cent of the total container volume of the country under one tracking system.
LDB is an IoT, BigData and Cloud-based solution that uses RFID technology to provide near real-time visibility of container movement through the portal www.ldb.co.in. It provides users a single window interface to check the location of the container along its entire journey, from ports to Internal Container Depots (ICDs) and Container Freight Stations (CFSs), with complete trace back information on intermediate points crossed and time taken.
The web-based interface enables search from any location and any device, and it sends SMS/email alerts to track priority containers and inform users of any delay. LDB helps identify the potential bottlenecks in the logistics supply chain and benchmarks the logistics container operators amongst each other to induce competition. It has been hailed as a potentially game-changing technology for the Indian logistics sector that has been plagued by high costs and delays arising out of inefficiencies and lack of a streamlined system.
'The project has enabled quick decision making and has improved competitiveness of logistics and manufacturing industries. It has also provided better governance and complete transparent and visible management for performance evaluation of ports, inland container depots, container freight stations and supply chain industry,' said Piyush Sinha, CEO of the DLDS.
LDB is likely to be extended to bulk cargo which will further ease operations. LDB provides detailed analysis of dwell time, average delivery time, efficiency of different port operators, CFSs / ICDs and Toll Plazas that are helping identify bottlenecks across the supply chain.
The data published by LDB Analytics report has helped in improving the Dwell Time of the ICDs by 18-20 per cent, which means goods are moving around faster and delays are being reduced. The DLDS analysis also shows that when compared to June 2017, the lead time for truck routes has improved by 25-27 per cent.
- Manish Pant