Monday, 15 August, 2022
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India needs National Technology Coordinator. An Indian model in digital infrastructure is ready

India has built a unique digital infrastructure. What is needed now is the grammar that gives firm meaning to India’s Digital Way.

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We would like India to be less of just being a fuel for global tech companies, but to also lead the global tech movement,” argued Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the Union Minister of State for Entrepreneurship, Skill Development, Electronics and Technology.

The quest for leadership is only natural. There is an India model in digital infrastructure that is waiting to be evangelised across its borders.

Indian digital public goods, such as the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) that powers digital transactions, are engineered to be shared across borders. Nepal and Bhutan have adopted UPI. Service providers in France are in the process of doing it. India has a suite of homemade and highly scalable digital public goods.

Moreover, technological partnerships are increasingly at the centre of India’s diplomatic choices. Whether it is the Quad or the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the emphasis on technological cooperation, data sharing, and interoperability in digital services more broadly lie at the heart of these new mini-lateral arrangements.

Yet, to effectively lead “the global tech movement”, India urgently needs to invest in an office of what might be called a National Technology Coordinator (NTC). There are at least four reasons to do so.

First, no ministry or government department is structured to take the lead or invest a hundred percent of its capabilities to track, coordinate, and most importantly, focus its efforts on strategically leveraging all that is happening within India and globally. In addition, it is impossible for already stretched ministries to appreciate the frenzy of activity across India. From the creation of innovative digital products in Bengaluru to the multifaceted debates on the de-regulation of space, and from the formation of a new ‘health stack’ or Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM) to India’s advantages in biotechnologies — there is simply too much happening at any given time.

Second, an NTC should ideally be located in the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). Not the least because there are security implications of any given aspect of emerging technologies. As importantly, the NSCS is perhaps best placed to deconflict domestic rule-making and regulations with India’s position in the mini-lateral structures that promise to define the future of security and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, for example. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is, of course, at the forefront of global negotiations. It has invested knowledge and created new structures for international technology negotiations. Several territorial divisions in the MEA have built their own capabilities in technology policy. The new Under Secretary in the Indian Foreign Service is already a strategic asset, well versed in deep tech. In short, they get it. The combination of tech savviness in this rank combined with the experience and wisdom of those in more senior positions adds unbelievable force to shape the cutting-edge debates of our times.

What India lacks is an administrative link-chain between what the MEA does for India across its borders and the rule-making on technology within India. Take, for instance, the case of data. One of the four pillars of the IPEF — ‘connected economy’ — focusses on trade. Specifically, it aims to “pursue high-standard rules of the road in the digital economy, including standards on cross-border data flows and data localisation.” India, rightly so, has a view on data and data localisation. There is a clear need for a national personal data law, which can provide the domestic framework to shape an Indian position more clearly on the future of global data governance and cross-border data flows. This will, without doubt, become more urgent when India takes over the presidency of the G20 on 1 December 2022.


Also read: India building the future it desires with its own digital infrastructure. EU can learn


Coordination is crucial

Third, the Indian government is on an impressive path to build self-reliance in significant parts of the semiconductor supply chain. There is a clear policy architecture, led by Chandrasekhar, to firmly position India as the “global hub for Electronics System Design and Manufacturing.” One of the Quad Working Groups is in an advanced stage of discussions on semiconductors, where India can best leverage its partnerships with Australia, the United States, and Japan. This is likely, also, to be discussed through a new and dynamic bilateral process between the United States and India known as (ICET) — an initiative on critical and emerging technologies between the NSCs in both the countries. An office of the NTC can make sure that all that is being done internally is leveraged externally, and vice-versa.

Fourth, returning to the point about the India model in technology — this is not just a question of India creating digital public goods that can be exported across its borders, but about better defining India’s global path in technology. As External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has firmly established, there is an “India Way” in foreign policy. Similarly, what appears to be evolving is “India’s Digital Way”.

India has built digital infrastructure that is unique. It has transformed the very meaning of financial inclusion. The statistics speak for themselves. This infrastructure can, more forcefully, serve as a development model across the world. To this end, much is being done within the MEA’s Development Partnership Administration.

In short, there are multiple lines of investments, innovations, rules, and expansions afoot. What India needs to make the most of this electrifying time of change is the grammar that gives firm meaning to India’s Digital Way. The office of an NTC would actively work alongside the MEA, the MEITY, the G20 coordination team; the engineers and talent in Bengaluru, the innovators in Pune, Gurugram, and Hyderabad; and the vibrant Indian start-up ecosystem more generally; among many other departments and agencies.

In doing so, it could consider India’s choices more carefully, and strategically edit India’s digital story into a distinct script that provides the necessary language to effectively shape “the global tech movement.”

The author is the director of Carnegie India. He tweets @Rudra_81. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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