India’s IT and Communications Ministries registered 7.1% growth even during COVID-19, Communication and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said on Monday. This is despite the global and local recession, he said. In his inaugural address at CyFy, an annual cybersecurity conference organised by the think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF), he hailed the Indian government’s digital schemes and argued that the digital ecosystem brought about “some degree of sanity” during COVID-19. Prasad said that through postal operations, mobile phone, internet and other forms of digital connectivity, his ministries could “afford some degree of relief” to the people during the pandemic when everything was shut down.

“While COVID has caused enormous problem, suffering, COVID has also established one thing: every challenge brings an opportunity,” he said, “and the opportunity here is the potential of digital technologies”.

Since Prasad was talking about digital technologies, he availed the opportunity to give CyFy attendees a list of digital initiatives the Modi government has undertaken in the last six year: Digital India Programme, Aadhaar, Aayushman Bharat, GST (“one country, one tax”, “one country, one ration card”, and UPI. Referring to the National Digital Health Mission, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 15, Prasad said that it is a “public digital health platform” wherein “the health parameters of all Indians are included through a proper health, digital identity”. He also mentioned the BharatNet programme that seeks to connect all villages in the country with optical fibre. That programme has been beset with extraordinary delays and now the aim is to connect 600,000 villages by May 12, 2023.

India’s data sovereignty, data security are paramount: Prasad

While Prasad did not mention the ban on 224 apps of Chinese origin explicitly, he said, “When we heard reports that there have been some technology platforms that have dangerous potential to steal data of India and also create serious threat to security, safety and defence of India, we did not hesitate in taking action at all, and we will not hesitate.”

“We want India to be a big centre of data refinement, data cleaning, data processing, which we collectively call data refining. But it has to be by prescribed norms. And most importantly, India shall not countenance any compromise on the security and safety of the data of Indians and out data sovereignty,” he said. India has historically and in its policies sought to localise personal data of Indians, at least sensitive personal data such as financial and health data. Interestingly, Prasad was preceded by the Finnish Minister of Transport and Communication, Timo Harakka, who said that data should be stored globally, not locally, and that “there are no shortcuts to data adequacy”.

‘Data is oxygen for AI’: Moving away from his favourite phrase, “data is the new oil”, Prasad said that “data is oxygen for AI”, a phrase he used at another, simultaneous event as well. He also said that AI should “bring in inclusion and empowerment of ordinary people”.

‘Privacy is important but so is the digital economy’: “Data has to be free from all the scourges of threats to privacy,” Prasad said. He said that there must be an “element of consent for ordinary citizens” when data is taken. He mentioned the Personal Data Protection Bill and the role of consent there, but said that “some movement of data is important for digital economy”.

Need for safe cyberspace: Given the importance of digital economy, Prasad said that “safety and security of cyberspace has to be maintained for which a global partnership is needed”. This, he said, means safety from “rogue elements, from extremism, from terrorism” who “abuse technology” for their own ulterior motives.

India saw significant investments during COVID-19

Prasad hailed global investments in India, even during the pandemic. He cited Google’s $10 billion investment, Facebook’s $5.7 billion and Qualcomm’s $97 million. What he failed to mention was that a bulk of these investments have been only in one company — Jio Platforms. Facebook and Qualcomm only invested in Jio Platforms while Google invested $4.5 billion of the $10 billion in the same company. ORF, the organiser of CyFy where Prasad was speaking, was set up with financial support from Reliance Industries and received ₹9.82 crore from RIL in 2020. It got about ₹1.6 crore from other sources in 2020. The virtual session of CyFy was also hosted on JioMeet.

‘India should become the centre of manufacturing’

“Aatma Nirbhar Bharat does not mean India in isolation. It means India playing an important role as a major economy to help the world economy grow,” Prasad said. The aim is to make India a “trusted player” in the global value and supply chain. He further said that India has the third biggest start-up ecosystem in the world and is the second largest mobile manufacturer and now wants to become the centre of manufacturing both software and hardware.

Thus, he cited his Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme under which the IT Ministry has approved 16 electronics companies, including three iPhone manufacturers, to avail 4%-6% incentives on incremental sales until FY25. He said that these companies have committed to manufacture products worth $150 billion in the next five years and to give jobs to nearly 900,000 people, including a lot of ancillary units.

Prasad says direct benefit transfers have benefited a number of people

Prasad said that the government came up with the idea of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) under the Digital India Programme through which information and funds can be quickly transferred to the beneficiaries. The claim was interesting because the Digital India Programme was launched on July 1, 2015 while DBT was put into effect on January 1, 2013. He called the Digital India Programme a way to empower “ordinary Indians with the power of technology, bringing in digital inclusion by briding the digital divide”. He gave a few numbers related to DBT:

  • 370 million poor people now have bank accounts. He did not specify the time period during which they were opened.
  • Funds and benefits from more than 400 welfare programmes are disbursed through DBT, Prasad said. However, as per the DBT website, 372 programmes are linked to DBT. He further said that these have cost the government ₹12 lakh crore (~$163 billion but Prasad said $170.2 billion). And in the process, the government has saved ₹1.7 lakh crore (~$23 billion) from being “pocketed by middlemen”.
  • Prasad said that via DBT, the government transferred benefits to more than 420 million “poor and needy people”. The DBT website is confusing there since it claims that DBT has 460.59 crore (4.6 billion) DBT beneficiaries but the population of India is 130 crore (1.3 billion).
  • “More than 200 million [20 crore] women have been receiving ₹500/month in their bank account,” Prasad said. This was a scheme that Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced in March.
  • Prasad mentioned the PM Kisan Scheme, albeit not by name, and said that under the scheme, ₹93,000 crore (~$12.6 billion) have been disbursed to 10 million (1 crore) farmers with DBTs of “almost ₹2,000 every three months”.

Prasad further said that given the lack of bank branches and ATMs throughout the country, India Post stepped in and “delivered and disbursed close to $64 million” to poor people in remote parts of the country. “My postman went on a boat to cross the river in the remotest parts of the country [and] through a mobile app, delivered them digital payments,” Prasad said. Prasad was probably referring to Indian Post Payments Bank’s (IPPB) app here through which postmen are trained to train people in remote areas about basic banking via mobile phone. Despite the lockdown, Indian Post had continued to function throughout the country. In a particular case, the Times of India reported that postmen were instrumental in withdrawing cash for the unbanked sector and delivering it to them in remote parts of the country on boats.

‘Tech has been crucial during COVID-19’

“Aarogya Setu has been downloaded by 160 million Indians,” Prasad said that India’s contact tracing app is a very useful tool that has been developed by the IT Ministry “along with the private sector”. He further said that “the entire data is [retained] for a very, very limited time” though readers might remember that the Aarogya Setu Protocol and its Privacy Policy contradict each other on this issue. The Protocol allows data to be retained for up to 180 days while the Policy allows it for at most 60 days.

Prasad said that 85% Indians in the digital ecosystem worked from home during the lockdowns, especially since “India is home to many backend offices” of global tech companies. He said that the government is looking to make it possible to permit work from anywhere.

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