A Hindu holy man at a kiosk showcasing the ArdhKumbh Fair in New Delhi. Photo: AFP
A Hindu holy man at a kiosk showcasing the ArdhKumbh Fair in New Delhi. Photo: AFP

For the first time, India has made it into the top 100 in the United Nations’ survey that evaluates countries on various parameters of e-governance.

Of the 193 member countries assessed in the United Nations E-Government Survey 2018, India was in 96th place in the E-Government Development Index. In 2016, India was ranked 107th. The UN releases the ratings every two years. In 2010, India ranked 119th.

While the expanding range of online services worked in India’s favor, poor telecommunications infrastructure and a lack of human capital were identified as major weak points.

The survey assessed countries on three criteria: the quality of services provided; literacy rate and level of education; and access to internet and phones. Countries were assigned scores in each category, with one being the maximum score.

India was awarded 0.95 for the quality of online services. In the literacy-related index, it scored 0.54, while in the infrastructure index, it managed a mere 0.20. India’s grand total was 0.56 out of 1.

Digital strides

In the fiscal years 2014-15 and 2015-16, the number of online transactions across India’s Union ministries were 5.8 billion. In the fiscal years 2016-17 and 2017-18, the number increased more than eightfold to 41 billion.

The rise in numbers came after the Narendra Modi-led government’s Digital India initiative, which was a central government scheme launched in mid-2015 to improve the country’s online infrastructure. The budget for 2018-19 saw the allocation for the initiative increase twofold to Rs 30.73 billion, or approximately US$427.6 million.

India’s state governments have also been moving a host of their services online, from utility bill payments to issuing birth and death certificates and land records to approving building construction plans.

The federal government’s Smart City Mission has also incentivized 100 shortlisted cities, which are being developed as smart cities, to launch official apps where people can post complaints and suggestions about civic issues.

There’s also the Unique Identification Authority of India, the central government wing that oversees assigning of a 12-digit code – the Aadhaar number – to every Indian citizen. The government has linked many of its welfare initiatives with Aadhaar, the Hindi word for foundation. Be it a subsidy for cooking gas or food grain distribution to the poor, Aadhaar has been projected as the foundation of the government’s public distribution system.

Troubles galore

While these plans look good on paper, their execution has at times brought misery to people.

In February 2017, verification of Aadhaar-linked biometrics – fingerprints or iris scans – became compulsory for those getting subsidized food grain from the government’s fair-price shops. Soon after, reports started pouring in from across the country about network failures and issues with fingerprint verification were depriving many poor families of food.

In a village in north India, people had to climb onto the roof of the ration store on a shaky bamboo ladder to get biometric verification, otherwise the device would not receive the patchy signal.

A major factor that led to India’s low ranking in the UN survey was also limited digital penetration. In June, the Pew Research Center released a report which found internet penetration in India was similar to that of Sub-Saharan Africa; with both regions having about 25% of the people using the internet or owning a smartphone.

According to data released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the country’s internet subscriber base was 38.02%. It revealed that while 84.7% of urban Indians use the internet, only 16.4% of rural Indians have ever been on the world wide web.

Osama Manzar, the founder-director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, a non-profit organization that specializes in digital governance, pointed out how the government’s initiative aimed at connecting 625,000 villages with 100 MBPS broadband flattered to deceive.

He said many village clusters that have been marked as service ready do not have functional internet connectivity.

Access to the internet is not the only issue. Gayatri Doctor, an urban management expert and academic, said low awareness among people was another factor. She said even the educated, urban populace was largely unaware of many e-governance facilities.

She highlighted the fact that many government websites were not user-friendly, here were non-responsive websites, slow servers and outdated or incomplete information.

Amit Prakash, an associate professor at the International Institute of Information Technology in Bengaluru, said a lack of support for regional languages was another problem.

He noted, however, that the scope of e-governance should not be restricted to services offered via websites and apps alone. He said many cities and even village headquarters in India have well-equipped common service centers where internet-based activities are handled.

He also mentioned the role of these centers in promoting online service delivery. The UN survey’s methodology document did not mention if such centers were factored in while awarding marks.

Neighbors’ ranking

India’s neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh were ranked 148th and 115th respectively in the survey. Smaller neighbor Sri Lanka finished in 94th position.

In Asia, South Korea (ranked three), Singapore (seven) and Japan (10) were among the best performers. Denmark bagged the top spot, with its small population and high literacy rate boosting its score.

China, with a population similar to India’s, was placed 65th on the list. While it scored better than India on the parameters of infrastructure and human capital, the quality and range of services offered online was found to be inferior than its South Asian neighbor. At the same time, its internet penetration rate of 71% dwarfed India’s.

Experts and academics say that the while Indian administration has invested resources in digitization of services and made many right moves, a lot more needs to be done to eliminate the problems that have cropped up.

The author is a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.