“Digital Public Infrastructure [DPI] isn’t a one shoe fits all model,” said Minister of State for IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar during the opening remarks of the Indian government’s Global DPI Summit today. “It’s about using the power of open source and partnership to create innovative DPI platforms that work for that country and its people. Like in the old days, there is no question [any more] of Multi-National Companies or other tech companies peddling a one shoe fits all model [to a country]. This approach is different. It relies on the fundamental thesis that technology belongs to all those who consume and innovate on it, and every citizen of the world should be able to harness the power of innovation without having to pay a huge amount of money for it.”
The two-day summit will see stakeholders gathering in Pune to discuss global use cases and collaborations in digital public infrastructure. India’s tech diplomacy as G20 President has largely centred around strumming up support for the global adoption of digital public goods and infrastructure—often by amplifying the ‘successes’ of homegrown systems like UPI, CoWIN, and more.
Why it matters: While Chandrasekhar’s stance may appear to be a rallying cry for developing countries, that doesn’t mean India isn’t courting developed countries (from which these companies often spring) to support its DPI agenda. After all, world powers like the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, China, and more sit at the G20 negotiating table too. The catch is that at a different forum—the G7—the same great powers reportedly don’t seem too keen on India’s DPI push, for reasons including “pushback from payment giants Visa and Mastercard, as well as issues pertaining to internet and data governance”. Only time will tell whether India can build global DPI consensus and systems without their support.
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The spirits of Narendra Modi and the opposition’s ‘Rs. 85 governance’ loom large in India’s digitisation story: Chandrasekhar attributed India’s digitalisation spree to Narendra Modi’s “political vision” upon his election as Prime Minister in 2014—a response to preceding decades of ‘corrupt’ governance under the opposition.
“As the world’s largest democracy and now the world’s largest nation, for over 6.5 decades, India’s governance has lagged due to the pressures of size, distance, and other factors,” Chandrasekhar said. “A famous anecdote is used to describe India pre-2014—when ₹100 left Delhi for the benefit of the poor or the citizen, only ₹15 reached the citizen, because the cost of governance and democracy was about ₹85 for every ₹100 dispatched. Due to the power of DPI launched in 2015, the narrative of India has transformed significantly. Now, ₹100 leaves the state or central capital and ₹100 reaches the citizen it was intended for. $400 billion has been transferred from the government as subsidies or benefits to citizens without leakage over the last five years… India stack and India’s record of digitalisation started with a political vision of our Prime Minister in 2014. The status quo of 85% leakage, 85% governance, and 85% democracy was not acceptable. The country needed to grow and people needed to feel the benefits of governance. Technology must improve the lives of people and governance—that is the principle underlying DPI.”
If India and China are capable of digitalisation at par with the West, we in Africa can do that as well—Sierra Leone Secretary signs DPI MoU with India: “Africa is home to 1.3 billion people—70% are below the age of 30 and 60% are below the age of 25. There’s huge potential for digital transformation, for investment,” noted Tamba Edward Juana, Permanent Secretary, Sierra Leone, after signing a DPI MoU with India. “A couple of years ago, I met some Africans about to undertake a perilous journey from Tripoli [in north Africa’s Libya] to Europe. I asked them why they were doing it, it’s dangerous, they could die. They said, ‘you leaders in Africa haven’t made Africa attractive to us. We are following our diamonds, coffee, cocoa, and minerals to Europe where they are transforming them into jobs and a better life’.”
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is the peril of Africa. But, digital transformation or technology gives us the opportunity to invest in our youth. To move away from an extractive industry where we have not gained much…We have an opportunity in digital transformation to leapfrog and be at the same level as other countries. We could invest in our youth, we do more to make the youth look inward not outward. We are looking at developing countries like India which have moved so fast and far, that today are sitting at almost the same level as the West. If India and China are capable of doing these things, we in Africa can do that as well. This [MoU] ceremony is symbolic, but it shows we can leap with India together [to greater heights].” — Tamba Edward Juana, Permanent Secretary, Sierra Leone
Collaboration is the name of the game: “DPI partnerships are about the future of governance in this digital age—they deal with inclusion, transparency and responsiveness, things people across the world are increasingly seeking,” Chandrasekhar added. “The momentum generated by India’s Presidency has garnered significant visibility for the DPI approach—and is endorsed by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the QUAD, and the Indo-EU Trade and Technology Council meetings. These endorsements serve as an endorsement of DPI’s power and relevance. They also highlight what is necessary going forward—there needs to be more active collaboration and participation from member countries seeking to be part of this digitalisation.”
India has also floated the concept of One Future Alliance, a voluntary initiative that aims to bring together all countries and stakeholders to synergise the future of global DPIs, Chandrasekhar said.
India’s cybersecurity approach in a digital world: There are powerful measures of good coming out of DPI, but it’s as important to consider issues of user harm and criminality, Chandrasekhar said. “Our approach to security in the digital environment is driven by three key points,” he explained. “First, it is important for governments to formally recognise…that security threats hamper innovation, trust, essential services, and consumer confidence. Second, security in the digital economy is not a domestic issue nor is it geographically isolatable. The template for cybercrime is that the criminal is in one jurisdiction, the victim is in another jurisdiction, and the crime could be in a third jurisdiction. There is certainly more cooperation and a global protocol that is required. This One Future Alliance could help in shaping future approaches to cybersecurity. Third, skilling is incredibly important as we imagine our ambitions of building and expanding a digital economy. We are happy to partner and offer our capacities to member countries that want to skill their populations as they build this DPI ecosystem.”
India’s fintech growth premised on UPI success: For every country that implements and customises DPIs, there is an ecosystem of start-ups and innovation that gets built, Chandrasekhar noted. “A classic case is UPI, which is at the centre and core of one of the world’s fastest-growing fintech ecosystems [in India],” he said. “It was essentially a solution to a problem that was a government use-case for transmitting subsidies to citizens.”
Changing the narrative from ‘haves and have-nots’ to inclusive digitalisation: “For a considerable part of the last decade, any narrative about digital or digitalisation was about haves and have-nots,” Chandrasekhar added. “It was about some countries and companies controlling technology and offering it at a high cost to those who could afford it, creating a situation of haves and have-nots. The move towards a global DPI framework is about addressing the fact that technology can and must be inclusive and must empower countries that are not the developed and advanced nations of the world.”
Armenia and Suriname also sign DPI MoUs with India: “We are creating technologies which could later create technologies and languages of their own. We are seeing countries impacted by [both] the harms and good of AI,” said Armenia’s First Deputy Minister of High Tech Industry Gevorg Mantashyan after signing an MoU on DPI. “It is important to create momentum with other countries to regulate [these] technologies. Technology is challenging the importance of the state…we want to regulate but we don’t want to limit technology’s growth either.”
The values and emotions behind the technology are also important, Mantashyan added. “In the end, in our life, we are living to bring good memories, which are related to emotions. I would like to call to create technologies that build better emotions and experiences for people.”
“This MoU sets forth cooperation and sharing of successful digital solutions and implementing them at population scales,” said Rishma Nimi Kuldipsingh, the Minister representing Suriname’s labour ministry. “We are all familiar with India’s advances in digital transformation. Suriname is excited that India wants to share its knowledge with us, and go further in assisting us with building a customised [DPI] solution for Suriname.”
Note: this piece incorrectly referred to the summit as a G20 event, although it is happening in parallel to the 3rd Digital Economy Working Group under the G20. The error was corrected on 12/6/23 at 2:30 pm. The error is regretted.
Note: this piece was updated at 2:18 pm on 13/6/23 following editorial inputs.
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