A watershed moment for creating a Digital Atmanirbhar Bharat

G Krishna Kumar | Updated on July 27, 2020 Published on July 27, 2020

We need to achieve much more indigenously to cater to the ever-demanding digital consumers. The present Chinese apps’ ban serves as a great opportunity for India to develop indigenous apps that are relevant from an Indian context

Ever since the Central government announced the ban of Chinese apps, Indians have been forced to look for alternate applications. This is certainly a shot in the arm for the Indian app developers, who were ignored in the past due to the easy availability of popular apps like Tiktok, Helo etc. It is heartening to see over 10 million downloads of the “made in India” app Chingari (a Tiktok equivalent). It will take some time for this Indian app to take Tiktok’s position, considering that Tiktok had over 200 million subscribers in India.

India has the third-most Internet users in the world. India is still a consumer of digital apps and solutions created from other countries. With digital nationalism gaining importance in the world, perhaps the time is right for India to implement a three-pronged strategy to transform its digital ecosystem. Before we look at this, a quick view on the impact on the Chinese companies due to the ban.

Chinese apps like Tiktok, ShareIt, UC Browser, Camscanner, Likee etc, are so dependent on India that their consumer base in the country accounts for 70-80 per cent of their global consumer base. In fact, almost 100 per cent of Helo’s subscribers are in India. UCBrowser, used for accessing the Internet, has about 15 per cent marketshare in India, second only to Google Chrome.

Clearly, the decision of the Indian government will hurt the Chinese companies. They are hoping for the ban to be revoked after providing clarifications on privacy and security matters. While the outcome of this is awaited, this decision to ban the apps has impacted thousands of entertainers/artists who attained a ‘celebrity’ status. This will also impact the thousands of employees who are working for these companies in India.

Learn from Russia, China

Internet censorship has been in vogue in China for decades, although the norms have been gradually tightened over the past few years. Google, WhatsApp, Facebook and many other globally popular apps are banned in China. It is well known that the Chinese government supported multiple start-ups to provide alternate locally developed apps. Today Baidu is the most popular search engine in China; it boasts of over 80 per cent of the Internet search in China. Wechat (Equivalent to WhatsApp, with the additional feature of payment services) has close to 90 crore subscribers, while e-commerce marketplace Alibaba has over 70 crore subscribers in China.

Russia has been critical of Google’s presence in the country and hence has encouraged local players. Yandex is the most popular Internet search engine in Russia. In fact, Yandex has the highest market share across Europe and CIS (the Commonwealth of Independent States). Similarly VK (a direct competitor to Facebook) is a very popular Russian app for social media and networking

Ecosystem for alternatives, funding

In addition to the success stories from other countries, we should celebrate and learn from our own success stories with the world-class Aadhar, Aarogya Setu and the IRCTC digital solutions. Can this be a watershed moment for India to create a holistic approach for building a strong digital ecosystem?

We have an Indian equivalent for Zoom. Why can’t we have our own Twitter or Google or Facebook? We need to achieve much more indigenously to cater to the ever-demanding digital consumers, with the complexity of a digital divide prevalent in the country. As part of the Athmanirbhar Bharat and the ‘VocalForLocal’ movement, the government would do well to earmark a budget for encouraging start-ups. The start-up mantra “Fail fast, fail often and learn faster” should be implemented in the right spirit, supported by the government.

The present ban serves as a great opportunity for India to develop indigenous apps that are relevant from an Indian context. While pushing for alternate apps, it is extremely important that the end-user experience is at the same level as the banned apps. Else, consumers will find ways to use the banned apps again through VPN. In China, for example, despite the strict Internet censorship, VPNs are popular for accessing banned websites and apps.

Innovation through education

For supporting/sustaining innovation, changes in our education system is needed. As pointed out in the draft National Education Policy (NEP), India needs to move away from the streams-based educated system and instead look at the multi-disciplinary approach in higher education institutions. While a science student specialises in specific domains, the system would encourage the student to pick up liberal education like music or philosophy. It is well proven that a multidisciplinary set-up is needed for fostering innovation.

The draft NEP has recommended that standalone professional institutions become multidisciplinary by 2030. A national research foundation as a vehicle for funding and supporting innovation in all academic disciplines is a step in the right direction. Let us hope the NEP will soon be passed in the Parliament and the implementation begins.

Digital infra, data privacy and localisation

The government would do well to come up with a 2025 vision for bringing India into the top 10 countries providing high quality internet speed. Policies on data privacy and data storage need to be addressed on top priority and the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill enacted soon.

The other issue is on data localisation, a term used to indicate if data is stored and processed within the country. The government’s plan to relax the tricky local storage clause, by allowing certain category of data to be stored outside the country, is a progressive step. However, a strong audit framework should be set up and compliance ensured.

For the Digital Atmanirbhar Bharat to be a reality, we need a holistic approach to spur innovation in the country through a multidisciplinary education system and support for start-ups along with best-in-class digital infrastructure.

The writer is an ICT professional and columnist based in Bengaluru. Views are personal

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Published on July 27, 2020
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