In her Budget speech, India’s finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman mentioned the word ‘digital’ a total of 35 times. It was one of the most repeated, if not the most repeated, word of this Budget speech, one of the shortest ever made at just over 90 minutes.
The digitisation of various aspects of the India economy appeared under almost every topic that the minister tackled, from promoting rural growth and development (fast-tracking broadband to villages), building new infrastructure (construction of a Digital University), and even tackling mental health problems in the country (through a national tele-helpline connected digitally to relevant hospitals and research centres).
Whether it be the proposal to use drones in agriculture, or digitisation of land records, every kind of activity seemed to have been wrapped in or fronted by digital tools.
The other theme of the Budget was ‘amrit kaal’ or the conceptualisation of a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity from now till 2047, when India would celebrate 100 years of independence from British rule. The Budget sought to lay the groundwork for the edifice of sustainable growth that is to unfold, said the government, during this period of amrit kaal.
This essay argues that one of the less understood transformations that the Budget suggested – and which is already underway in India – is the digitisation of the fundamental nature of governance, and the identity and role of the citizen.
In short, the amrit kaal has been envisaged as digital-first, possibly to be live streamed.
Two fundamental problems have always plagued Indian policymaking – arbitrage and leakage. Both are usually facilitated by human interface. A digital interface has the advantage of reducing a lot of this graft, which has already been observed in the crores of rupees (at last count ₹2,22,968 crore) that India has saved in recent years by using a digital mechanism for direct benefit transfers of government funds to beneficiaries straight to a bank account and without an intermediary.
Digitisation helps remove arbitrage in issues like land sale and purchase, one of the thorniest transactions in the Indian economy, for instance experiments are being made in using blockchain for formalising land records. Internet of Things (IoT) use in monitoring irrigation is helping moderate water use in agriculture, especially crucial in water-stressed areas like in parts of northern and central India.
From digital banking (rolling out 75 digital banks) to the introduction of the digital rupee, a skilling and livelihood stack (the DESH-stack), there are few, if any, subhead of governance which is left untouched by digitisation.
Now the Budget gives an even deeper, and broader, context to India’s deep digitisation. The government is being reimagined as a digital-first institution and the citizen as a digital-first entity where identity, rights and duties charted out on a digital matrix – the citizen identifies using digital platforms, interacts with government using digital tools, receives goods of governance via digital methods and channels, and participates in ‘feedback loops’ (as mentioned this year in the Economic Survey which precedes the Budget) based on which governance processes and regulations are tweaked.
There is an effort, as the Economic Survey mentions in context to the Indian government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, to make ‘governance response real-time’. What is meant by this? It means that the digital-first approach allows for a gathering of data and analysis at a faster pace than ever before, and this potentially makes governance more responsive and nimbler.
Two different entities are emerging – digital government (better understood), and the digital citizen (this is still in the process of being fully understood).
The interaction between these two entities would be the most important for the amrit kaal. This interaction, while it would naturally carry forward some processes from the analog world, is an entirely different being in terms of expectations, anticipated speed, value of feedback and design of negotiation.
This will be the biggest democratic experiment of taking government onto a non-analog-first mode of functioning in the world. The use of data (and its security parameters) adopted in the course of this experiment has the potential of transforming ideas of what is means to be ‘governing’ and ‘being governed’. It would not be a stretch to say that a new kind of democracy could well emerge through this process.
India’s amrit kaal and its digital-first nature, therefore, has implications and will have impact on not only the world’s largest democracy (and one of its largest economies) but also to the future of democracy as the world hurtles towards the metaverse.
All of it, of course, will be live streamed.