Bridges to the digital mainstream

Cover of Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology's People Problem. Credits: Amazon.in
India is the world’s largest free-market democracy. No other country compares with India in its entirety. The country, however, severely lacks the important and timely data that is crucial for informed policy-making. Most decisions are made with partial, delayed or faulty data combined with deep experience and intuition. Technology is slowly changing India’s data problem, though, with more and more citizens and consumers connected to the digital mainstream.

 

Variously called jugaad,  frugal engineering and desi  innovation, the best solutions for India now involve low-cost options that use some technology and a lot of ingenuity. It is not a surprise, then, that even global tech companies are eagerly watching how India innovates in full public view (China does it behind an opaque curtain mostly).

 

Consider Google’s endorsement of United Payments Interface (UPI). Google wants the US Federal Reserve to follow a similar structure in which government, banks and tech companies collaborate to deliver financial services.

 

India has demonstrated surprising success with digital services. Bridgital Nation  takes forward the argument for enhancing low-cost digital access to the masses. In many ways, the JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) trinity is all about this.  JAM has improved the efficiency of welfare and government service delivery to hundreds of millions in India. Stepping up the pace of enabling such access is key to India’s development. Although JAM has a strong emphasis on financial inclusion, two important dimensions of social development still lag in terms of use of technology. Education and health services have the most potential to use low-cost digital technology for targeted solutions but have been relatively slow to do so. 

 

This book is about accelerating the approach the government has adopted and refining policies around it. “The future, if India is to harness, has to come from a mutually beneficial relationship between its citizens and new applications of technology,” the authors say.  They underline the importance of an effort that is underway. Technology has to be deployed in India for creating unique solutions for challenges unique to India. Global companies that have tailored their products and services to India have achieved greater success in the market. Similarly, developmental policies that leverage private participation with technology must have delivered. It is easy to look for solutions in other countries especially at a time when several global organisations are trying to influence India’s thinking. Copying the West or even China would be a mistake. The West doesn’t have the scale and diversity of challenges. And China does not have several layers of democracy that often requires dialogue and engagement. The best solutions are being created locally.

 

Bridgital Nation  is also an effort to introduce a new word in our lexicon. A construct of bridge and digital, the new word is explained in its various dimensions. A “bridgital” process is a “rethink [of] conventional approaches to who does what in a value chain of service delivery” especially for those who don’t have access.  Bridgital technology is “digital technology and low cost delivery models that push the limits of how efficiently we can make use of valuable assets such as physical infrastructure and the time of high skill workers.” And Bridgital workers are “digitally literate and technology augmented workers.”

 

The format used for the book is eminently readable since it intertwines the lives of individuals with how they are impacted by policies and processes.  Bridgital Nation  narrates the life stories of people such as like Nikhil in Tripura or Jasleen in Bhatinda and interprets the current state of India’s social services.

 

Nikhil’s story is about the weaknesses in healthcare system, while Jasleen represents the lack of access for women in the workforce. The solution for Jasleen is to create a “care economy” and “smart gender policy” for women and mothers. “Allowing quick and low cost access to global markets for small scale and growing ventures,” using digital platforms is one of the solutions emphasised.

 

The smart writing puts individuals at the centre. It personalises and humanises policies that help connect policy action to impact on citizens. Slick quotable phrases such as “escalator sectors” and “everywhere entrepreneurship” seemed to be aimed at the social media generation. For the more traditional, there are several charts and graphs that endorse the writers’ arguments.

Bridgital Nation: Solving Technologies People Problem
Author:  N Chandrasekaran 
& Roopa Purushothaman
Publisher: PenguinPrice: Rs 799
 

The reviewer is author of  India Automated , Pan Macmillan, 2019

 



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