As Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of a difficulty lies opportunity.” This has again been proved by the rapid emergence of innovative technology solutions across the globe as a response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Covid-19 has not only changed the way we live and work but the functioning of democracy too almost overnight. However, is that this crisis is accelerating an already growing trend towards digitalisation?
This pandemic brought many adverse effects on the Indian economy but one must admit that the outbreak of the Covid-19 has also helped the Centre to boost not only the economy but also the Digitalisation of Democracy. Earlier in 2015, in the wake of digitalising India, the Narendra Modi-led Government had launched Digital India, and had accordingly pushed at every end.
However, the rate of success was not enjoyed by the government as much as it achieved during the lockdown, due to Covid-19, Going Digital became mandatory, even things we used to think cannot be digitalised now has been digitalised. Primarily, the Centre had planned digitalisation of democracy through its flagship program “Digital India” had three major plans called three D’s—
1) Development of safe & secure digital infrastructure
2) Delivering government services digitally
3) Digital literacy. However, even though India was short of digital infrastructure, out of these three, one will flawlessly admit that this Corona outbreak has helped the Centre achieve delivering government services digitally.
Digital Democracy or E democracy is nothing but the use of information and communication technologies to enhance and in some accounts replace representative democracy. Thinking of Digital Democracy with around 50 million internet users across the country was not convincing, as the major population would not be availing the services digitally.
Therefore, Digital Democracy was a mesmerising idea. We called it a mesmerising idea because then digital democracy was a dream but today realizing in true sense as the Covid-19 pandemic rages, governments at all levels have to work remotely, and postpone elections and parliamentary sessions. To further complicate things, they have to do this while delivering fast-paced and effective decision-making. But democracy must go on.
Thankfully, digital tools helped to keep parliaments and governments thriving in a way that enhances rather than threatens democracy. In fact, the lockdown was a key opportunity to experiment with digital methods to support democratic institutions and citizen engagement into the future. Digital tools certainly can support remote decision-making. Further a research into digital democracy shows how such tools can be used to harness the wisdom of the crowd at different stages in the democratic process.
At a personal level, whether you’re a politician, a policymaker, or just an interested citizen, digital tools can efficiently collect information from different sources to provide an overview of the options and people’s views on them. To weigh the pros and cons of a particular policy or idea, for example, platforms such as online grievance redressal, My Gov, DigiLocker, National Scholarship Portal, E-Poll etc. allows people to contribute to the voice.
Before Covid-19 ,we were discussing the challenges of going digital. But now, despite lack of proper digital infrastructure and digital illiteracy, the government is enjoying the idea of Digital India, as many service providers, including banks and telecom operators, have significantly reduced their offline operations (some have even closed) and are asking their customers to embrace the digital form for any assistance. This trend could possibly help in speeding up digital transformation in the long term. But the challenge is that, not many customers are prepared for this drastic change.
Transformation: From physical to virtual interaction
It is said that Change is hard to accept but now it has been proved wrong. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, people who had a conventional approach towards all services used to go to banks, government offices, forums etc. Covid-19 has brought a shift in this lifestyle.
To maintain social distance, all services, operations, where physical interaction, appearance was mandatory have now shifted to virtual. To encash this opportunity, the RBI, the National Payment Corporation of India (NPCI) and other government bodies , financial institutions have already teamed up to promote faster adoption of digital payment. Even RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das has urged people to use banking facilities digitally and started promoting digital payments.
From Desk to Digital
Covid-19 has helped the Centre to achieve the sagging digital dream, with the current situation forcing the digitally reluctant and the digitally illiterate to break their complacent mindset and take their first step towards going digital. The conventional desk-based service has witnessed an unprecedented change and services that are offered offline are made available online, this shift was never easy but the outbreak has paved the way for digitalisation.
In India, gram panchayats are always considered a mini democracy. With the Covid-19 outbreak, gram panchayats are at the forefront, preventing the virus from spreading in villages, where 66 percent of India lives.
Their success will also depend on the extent to which state and Central governments involve gram panchayats in decisionmaking. In such an environment, the Centre’s digital initiative E-Gram Swaraj Portal has a been a solution to bridge the communication gap between gram panchayats, the state and the Centre. The E-Gram Swaraj Portal, which will mark the complete digitalisation of villages to strengthen egovernance in Panchayati Raj institutions in the whole country, is one of the most suitable examples of boosting Digital Democracy which is the outcome of Covid-19.
Covid-19: Opportunity for E-Governance.
The techno-savvy Centre always been trying to push all its services digitally. For that the government is working with stakeholders, to build India on this digital dynamism to deepen, widen, and scale up its digital economy in the coming years, creating huge economic value and empowering millions of people across all walks of life. Numerous schemes introduced by the government like Jan Dhan Yojana to provide financial inclusion to unbanked people has enabled banking, pension (PMSBY and PMJJBY) and insurance (Atal Pension Yojana) services to common citizens, thereby digitally empowering them.
The impressive number of more than 1.21 billion Indians already enrolled for the government’s biometric digital identity programme, Aadhaar, is one of the examples of the digital amplification bringing massive number of users onto a common digital platform. The data generated through Aadhaar-based identification is helping the government maintain health records under its ambitious healthcare programme, Ayushman Bharat-National Health Protection Scheme, making it accessible to all citizens. These government initiatives have turned into a blessing for the Indian government to bat against Covid-19 and facilitate the citizens in such a health crisis.
Hence, admittedly the coronavirus has forced a rapid move towards online methods of administration, communication, decision-making—accelerating a process of adoption which was previously predicted to take years rather than days.
But this period should be seen as a rapid prototyping phase of digital democracy on a large scale. We can now test and adapt innovative tools and methods without the usual levels of risk aversion acting as a barrier. Manjunath Kakkalameli is a cyber law expert, a columnist, and a practising advocate at the Bombay High Court.