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What I learnt about Digital India when I decided to buy a TV from defence canteen stores

Buying a TV through the Canteen Stores Department should be easy, or so I thought. After all, I had an updated digital canteen card. Here's what happened.

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India has seen a dream of Digital India. From the latest science to the latest technology, everything should be available at the tip of one’s finger.’ This is one among the many popular quotes from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Eventually, what matters is the ease with which Indian citizens can fulfil their material needs. But unless the existing practices of ‘filling forms’ are simplified, the ‘Digital India’ dream cannot be realised.

The majority who are not digitally proficient and lack the means to get assistance are unable to partake of the dream. Despite extensive efforts at digitisation, the tip of the finger has to still confront old and redundant information gathering and analytical processes. Previously, the filling of forms was physical, now it is digital. The change has bypassed the fundamental purpose of change – ease of transaction. A recent experience is illustrative.

Nearly two months ago, we decided to buy a TV through the Canteen Services Department – a privilege accorded to serving and retired personnel and their dependants. ‘It should be easy’ was my initial thought. Ater all, I had an updated digital canteen card. An immediate search on Amazon identified the model and make.

Not having bought any major item from the Canteen Stores Department since retirement a decade ago, I requested a serving officer to let me know the procedure. A reply on WhatsApp followed.

The entire process has been digitised. A central server in Delhi was the interface. But the amount of information required and the need for payment order and PAN card, was, to put it mildly, astounding. This is even though all veterans have a digitised canteen card that is more than sufficient for ascertaining their bonafides. One wondered how a retired soldier in rural India for whom it should have been designed would ride the gauntlet of such processes.

Also read: India has cheap internet & good e-governance, but lacks good digital life quality, finds study

Implementation matters

The central purpose of the bureaucratic process is not the ease of transactions, but prevention of misuse. It was also obvious that the power of algorithms, which could easily minimise misuse, was missing in action. On the contrary, when viewing the processes in practice, the Digital India dream may have been turned into a nightmare for the vast majority of veterans.

If this is the state of affairs in the defence forces’ Canteen Stores Department, which is directly under the Ministry of Defence, one can imagine what is happening in the other governmental organisations at the central and state levels. The duplication of documents for identity proof, and variance of their acceptability across governmental organisations, buries ease of transaction. The plethora of documents that have to be signed, attested, and uploaded for even mundane services is mind-boggling. Middlemen and touts remain indispensable. So, transaction costs for the citizens have only increased.

Digitalisation is a laudable move. But eventually, it is the implementation that matters. It is high time that a purposeful effort is made by government organisations at all levels, to use the principle of simplification and revise the digital and printed forms that Indians are expected to fill to obtain its services. It is a major governance reform that has chances of success only if it is driven by enlightened political and bureaucratic leadership. Otherwise, the tip of the finger dream of PM Modi would remain just that – a dream. Like mine for a new TV.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon is the Director Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Prashant)

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