India Stack fights 'tomorrow's battle' for making innovators self-reliant

Sharad Sharma, one of the main proponents of India Stack
She is just like any other lower income group urban or even rural woman, but ‘Rajini’ — the pseudonym of a real Indian street vendor — has been the reason behind bringing out several public good digital infrastructure that will go a long way in making the country and its innovators self-reliant in several segments.

But yet, the people who kick-started this process of building what they call ‘India Stack’ — a set of technologies that looks at empowering the Rajinis of the country — feel that the battle is far from won. This is because “the country is still fighting yesterday’s battle than those of tomorrow”.

This assumes significance at a time when there is growing clamour, at least among certain pockets of India’s start-up and digital ecosystem, about the dominance of global players over internet infrastructure.

Recently, a group of Indian start-ups and entrepreneurs, led by digital payments company Paytm, has kind of waged an open war against internet giant Google over the latter’s delisting of certain Indian apps from android Playstore. This is for alleged policy violation and imposing steep commission during in-app purchases. These firms have now even gone to the extent of working towards building an Indian version of Playstore, to end the ‘monopoly’ of Google over android app listing.

There is also a growing clamour against the dominance of Chinese players on the Indian internet space, which augmented by the recent Indo-China clashes along the border, led to the suspension of hundreds of apps of Chinese lineage. 

Sharad Sharma, one of the main proponents of India Stack, likens such efforts to that of acquiring the capability to assemble a car whereas somebody else owns the engine and the design. “Everybody is very focused on building another TikTok app or another app, but I wish that was the power of the nation. The power of the nation does not come from simpler apps, but from deeper technologies,” he said. The ‘awakening moment’ with regard to the battles India, as a country, should fight has not yet happened, he said.

“While today, the fight is against Google Playstore, may be three or five years down the line, we will be fighting the battle on why our language stack and voice engines are in foreign hands. It is because since most Indians won’t use English, one has to use some language stacks and voice engines like Alexa,” said Sharma.

“So, instead of fighting that battle today, we are fighting yesterday’s battle,” he added.

The move towards building India’s own technology frameworks, platforms and standards started around 2013 after DBT or direct benefit transfer became a success leveraging Aadhaar, India’s own digital identity programme for its residents. After DBT, the focus shifted towards democratising ‘credit’. “The last seven years have gone towards democratising credit for ‘Rajini’ but we have not yet reached there. That’s why I am not yet declaring victory,” Sharma said. Over the past eight years, hundreds of volunteers of industry think-tank iSpirt and other independent innovators have been working towards building technology stacks meant for public goods. These include in areas like digital identity authentication, seamless money transfer, sharing of documents and data helping in setting up of frameworks, platforms and standards.

The threat of ‘digital colonisation’ what some people are now talking about, is real, said Lalitesh Katragadda, a key volunteer of India Stack initiative.

“Without Aadhaar, UPI or eSign, we would not have the farmers getting rations through Aadhaar. We would not have DBT towards gas payments reaching the people. It could never have happened through players like Visa or MasterCard. So, for democratisation of digital, democratisation of identity and for democratisation of financial services and health, we need digital India,” he added.

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