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View from India: Building digital platforms for scale and success

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Public digital platforms Aadhaar, UPI and CoWIN have significantly fast-tracked the country’s digitalisation journey and are now integral to the aspiration to achieve a $5tn economy.

Already many citizen-centric services have gone digital. To date, India has around 20 digital service platforms. The government services are available on platforms that help in mass outreach. People with location challenges may opt for services from these platforms.

“Bus terminals, railway platforms, international airports and sea ports have a national appeal. Their digital presence has unified siloed operations. Consequently, people can avail transport services through the click of a button regardless of location,” said Ajay Prakash Sawhney, secretary, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), Government of India (GoI), addressing an online audience at the Nasscom Cloud Summit 2021.

The value derived from these platforms is phenomenal. “Looking back, when Aadhaar was being launched we did have an ambition of making it big, but never imagined that it would be a game changer. Aadhaar had to be worked out for the burgeoning population. So it had to be low cost and scalable,” recalled Nandan Nilekani, founding chairman, UIDAI (Aadhaar) and co-founder and chairman, Infosys.

Open-source tools have been used. What has made it a success is its value created outside the platform. For instance, Aadhaar is an authentication for the KYC ('Know Your Customer') platform, both online and offline. Marking office attendance, getting mobile SIM cards and opting for digital signatures are among the tangible benefits.  

Furthermore, it has given a unique identity to every individual. Now, the uneducated, the unemployed population and those without a birth certificate also have a registered identity. That means this segment can use the Aadhaar card to open bank accounts, which is otherwise not feasible without an official identity. At an intangible level, Aadhaar may be considered as a population scale infrastructure. All this has perhaps made it transformative in nature.

“Riding on India’s scale, it would be great if we could build the next generation of platforms that are domain specific. We need operational platforms with a well-structured ecosystem,” said Sawhney.

New-age platforms could probably be conceptualised for achieving success in artificial intelligence. Or how about other options, such as natural language-processing (NLP) platforms? It could emerge as an opportunity to create the software-hardware for NLP platforms. Domain platforms may reach out to India’s scale. “Platforms can be extended to new areas like power. A platform could be created for selling electricity on a large scale,” explained Nilekani.

The government has already initiated an electronic toll collection called FASTag. Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is leveraged for prepaid rechargeable tags. Issued by certified banks and e-commerce platforms, FASTags do away with traffic congestion at tolls. Vehicles don’t have to stop at toll gates as charges are deducted from the bank account or e-commerce platform while the vehicle is still in motion.

Driving citizen impact to scale is important and it can be achieved through public digital platforms. Nasscom's report, titled ‘Digital India: The Platformisation Play’, outlines how India's digital rise could be attributed to the low-cost development, interoperable architecture and large-scale adoption of public digital platforms. It also indicates a transition towards a more data-driven model of operation to ease governance. The government’s digital initiatives have built a strong foundation for creating digital ecosystems that generate value through an integrated network of digital solutions.

Like public digital platforms, digital payment platforms are also inclusive in nature. The difference is that public digital platforms render services while digital payment platforms enable financial transactions. Generally, this is how it works. Payment service companies approach banks for collaborations. With technology and other benefits such as cost competitiveness, they serve a large section of people across the country. To that effect, being digital would mean that payment company doesn’t have to build an infrastructure from the ground up.

Having open digital ecosystems helps in adding layers or tweaking them. “How India has led the world in digital public platforms is a fascinating story. The platforms are scalable. BHIM UPI has clocked a total of 3.2 billion transactions in July 2021. Over 500 million vaccine doses have been administered through the CoWIN platform,” observed Debjani Ghosh, president, Nasscom. Co-WIN is an acronym for Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network, a digital platform for individuals to register on its portal as well as a mobile app.

Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) is a payment app whose transactions happen through the Unified Payments Interface (UPI). The UPI ID or the QR scan that happens with the BHIM app results in direct bank payments. UPI and BHIM have been developed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI).

Whether it is public digital platforms or digital payments, both generate tons of data, which needs to be evaluated. Moving forward, it is likely that the demand for data warehouses may scale up and they might have to be built from the ground up. There could be a surge in demand for data scientists. Most of this data will be stored in the cloud.

Taking a broader perspective, India aspires to be among the world's fastest-growing digital economies. Cloud is a facilitator in this journey. “Cloud is projected to be a trillion-dollar industry by 2030, with 800 million opportunities waiting to be lapped up. Of this, around 500 million will be in the software space and the remaining will be job offers within the cloud segment,” added Sangeeta Gupta, senior vice president, Nasscom.  

A lot more could be done than just cloud adoption. “The time may be right for capacity building in cloud. Probably a policy can facilitate the ease of doing business for cloud providers. It could pave the way for the country to emerge as a global cloud hub,” concluded Gupta.

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