Public Digital Backbone/Preface: Empowering India Digitally

Preface: The Confluence of Technology and Society

In the past three to four decades, the remarkable revolution in technology has drastically and fundamentally changed our lives. How has the digital revolution closely impacted the lives of Indians, and what are the associated opportunities as well as risks and problems?

The reason for choosing the title

Ancient Meitei letter meaning Backbone

First of all, it is necessary to explain why we have chosen this title Public Digital Backbone? The title "Public Digital Backbone" embodies the essence of India's digital transformation journey. Just as the backbone is central to the human body, connecting and supporting various parts, this digital backbone serves as the core support system for various digital initiatives in India. It's more than just a network or infrastructure; it's the very foundation that upholds and empowers the nation's digital ecosystem. This backbone doesn't merely provide services but creates an environment where different platforms, services, and stakeholders come together, flourish, and evolve. It gives everyone, from citizens, government entities to private sectors, the freedom to build upon and customize it, reflecting the inclusivity and democratic nature of the initiative. By naming the book "Public Digital Backbone", we want to highlight this initiative's pivotal role in driving India's digital progress, fostering innovation, and ensuring benefits reach every citizen.

Trailblazers of Modern India: Innovations and Pioneers in Science and Technology

This image summarizes the contributions of Great Indian Mathematician Aryabhata.

After India's independence, the past 75 years have witnessed a rapid transformation in the lives of its citizens. This is predominantly attributed to the innovative endeavors of Indian scientists and the unwavering support they received from the political leadership.

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, considered the father of India's space research program, established the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in 1962. ISRO has played a pivotal role in placing India on the global space exploration map, with recent accomplishments like the Chandrayaan mission to the moon being a testament to their capabilities.[1]Dr. Homi Bhabha laid the foundation of the atomic energy program in India by establishing the Tarapur Atomic Power Plant in 1948. This initiative set the stage for India becoming self-reliant in the field of nuclear energy.[2] P.C. Mahalanobis pioneered the realm of statistics and planning in India. He founded the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), which stands today as one of the largest statistical institutions in the country.[3]Former President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was instrumental in developing India's Agni and Prithvi missile systems, fortifying the nation's defense capabilities.[4]Dr. Sam Pitroda brought a revolutionary change to India's telecommunication landscape by introducing modern digital telecommunications systems. This led to the establishment of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and the development of a national-level fiber optic network[5] Nandan Nilekani’s contribution lines up and should be seen in the same league as the great men listed above. Nandan Nilekani, renowned as a significant technologist, entrepreneur, and social innovator, laid the foundation for the Aadhaar project. He also pioneered the concept of Digital Public Infrastructure, which is the topic of this book.[6]

Aryabhata was India's first satellite and was designed for studies of X-ray astronomy, aeronomics and solar physics.

All these illustrious Indian scientists and innovators, through their notable contributions, have positioned India at a prestigious place in the fields of science and technology. Their achievements serve as a profound inspiration for India's future.

The Dual Face of Digital India

Before proceeding, it's essential to acknowledge that every coin has two sides.

The renowned economist Joan Robinson once said, "Anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true," and this aptly applies to the topic at hand.

India is recognized as 'Digital India', but inherent contradictions persist. On one hand, India ranks second globally in the number of active Internet users and is also the second-highest in social media usage. On the other, over the past five years, India has been the country to impose the most Internet shutdowns. In 2022 alone, India enforced 84 Internet shutdowns, the highest amongst the G-20 nations.[7]

Ms. Sunarti from Bantul Yogyakarta benefits from the SME Academy to learn skills that helps her manage business in making a local snack 'Bakpia.' She a member of 'Srikandi' women's business group from Sentolo, Bantul district, Indonesia.

This behavior stands in stark contrast to the objectives of Digital India. The slogan of Digital India is 'Nobody will be left behind'. Without Internet access, there's no connectivity. And without connectivity, how can people fulfill basic needs like ration, or carry out transactions via UPI?

The direct impact of Internet shutdowns not only affects employment and economic activities but also infringes upon democratic rights. Such shutdowns clearly violate citizens' freedom of expression.

The Indian government has repeatedly used this tactic for authoritarian purposes. This was evident during the farmers' protests and before the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly elections when internet shutdowns were imposed in several regions.

If India aims for digital growth and global leadership, it must cease these frequent Internet shutdowns. India has pledged in this year's G-20 Digital Economy Working Group to develop a human rights-centric digital infrastructure.[8]

To honor this commitment, India needs to abandon the path of Internet shutdowns. Moreover, while the world is moving towards 5G and 6G, millions of Indians are still stuck on 2G. Without addressing these contradictions, 'Digital India' remains a distant dream.

But then why to discuss Digital Public Infrastructure at all? Why it is so relevant?

Because the global world is divided between the south and the north. Digital Public Infrastructure is capable addressing this question. It is an instrument in the fight against this divide.

Is it valid to argue that the Public Digital Backbone serves as both a quest and a means of equalization? Is the Public Digital Backbone a pursuit and a catalyst for achieving equality? Can we contend that the Public Digital Backbone is on a mission to promote equalization?

It may sound as a tall claim. The claim is made in spite of knowing difficulties and obstacles. But we feel it is worth debating it instead brushing it aside.

Digital Transformation: Challenging Dominance and Shaping Socio-Political Landscapes

The concept of 'Digital Public Infrastructure' holds the potential to be a solution to the persistent divides of this century. This idea, proposed by Nandan Nilekani and the subsequent practical experiments conducted under his guidance in India, has set the stage for its potential realization.

Historically, developed countries like America and Europe have often advised developing nations that their path to development is to abandon their own traditions and embrace Western culture and values, suggesting that it is in their best interest and is the key to their freedom. The implication is that there's only one path, one option available to the developing world. If they don't follow this, their backwardness and poverty will persist, a sentiment that is repeatedly reinforced. However, behind this seemingly benevolent advice lurks a violent dominance. Mahatma Gandhi recognized this dominance and understood that its resistance couldn't be met with violence. Thus, he equipped the masses with the nonviolent weapon of Satyagraha, leading India to its freedom. But an independent India needed technological support for its development. A nonviolent tech revolution was required, but the essence of this tech remained unexplored in the post-Gandhi era of Gandhism. The Digital Public Infrastructure initiative is a step in this direction.

Language, communication, and technologies are not apolitical and asocial as is commonly believed. It is a misconception that technology is 'neutral'. Technologies have their natural tendencies – both in a positive and negative sense. It's now evident and proved that every technology has its own politics.Their uses is another ball game driven by socio-political forces. It doesn't become apparent unless you listen and read carefully and scratch underneath the surface. The atomic technology that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killed millions was celebrated by democratic nations. The recent movie 'Oppenheimer' sparked significant discussion around and about the politics of atomic technology.[9] The current war in Ukraine is happening before us in today's world is dominantly technological. There were debates around genetic engineering and blockchain technology. Before, there were discussions on computer technology and ethics related to that which is almost forgotten now. Currently, artificial intelligence is a hot topic of discussion. These discussions are not futile and are very close to our daily lives than we realize.

Significance of Nandan Nilekani's Initiatives

Nandan Nilekani's importance chiefly stems from the following reasons.

Firstly, he didn't just limit the 'Aadhaar' initiative to the identification of an individual or citizen. Instead, he ensured that when an identity is established, the related information remains secure with that individual, without it being transmitted elsewhere. This allowed for a massive nationwide system where the privacy of information for millions of people remains intact with the respective individuals or entities. No information was extracted in exchange for services (public goods).

Secondly, by keeping this entire operation within the public sector, it became akin to public goods. Unlike advanced nations where IT systems are largely driven by Silicon Valley or other IT corporate hubs, this was not privatized or corporatized.

Thirdly, while the system remained a public good, he didn't exclude private companies, both domestic and international, big and small. He ensured they had a rightful place and integration within the system.

Fourthly, in terms of software development, there was an emphasis on using free and open source software (FOSS). This eliminated dependence on private institutions or corporations who could monopolize it. So the dependency was eliminated and the services (public goods) available to people became cheap.

It all started with Aadhaar.

However, this was followed by a series of other initiatives:


UPI (Unified Payments Interface)

e-KYC (Electronic Know Your Customer)


Data Protection (DEPA and Account Aggregator AA)

Collectively, these systems have come to be recognized as the 'India Stack'. All these systems together are termed as Digital Public Infrastructure.

The story of Aadhaar and Digital Public Infrastructure has been told so far, but it's still ongoing. The next link in this chain is ONDC (Open Network for Digital Commerce). This platform has the capability to make big online companies like Amazon and Flipkart to make room to the local vendors and small stores in their operations. Similarly, giants like Ola and Uber would have to accommodate small taxi networks in the taxi hiring business. The era of sidelining small businesses can be checked.

Nandan Nilekani suggests that over the next five years, at least fifty countries will adopt the blueprint of India's digital experimentation. However, he is quick to emphasize that each nation must carve out its own path. Every society should derive its direction based on its experiences without sidelining its cultural and social contexts.

Globalization and Digital Evolution and Socio-Economic Disparities in India

So, what are the challenges, what are the opportunities and can these tech initiatives help and intervene in addressing socio-economic disparities?

Globalization and the digital revolution have descended upon India hand in hand. Today, they form an integral part of our lives.

However, alongside this, we notice a rise in inequalities and unemployment within the country. There's a growing concern that if this trend continues, major economic reins will end up in the hands of a few powerful corporations, leaving small traders, manufacturers, and self-employed individuals unemployed.

This fear has been palpable among certain sections of the society. A prevailing notion was that digital technology primarily benefits the elite and was designed for their gain.

From this book and the above discourse, it emerges and becomes evident that if we use this technology judiciously, molding it according to our societal needs, and integrating it seamlessly with our cultural and social environments, digital public infrastructure can prove to be a blessing. It can uplift marginalized sections and enhance the value of their work.

  1. [1] Indian Space Research Organisation.(ISRO)
  2. [2] Department Of Atomic Energy
  3. [3] NSSO:Reports & Publications
  4. [4] Wings of Fire (autobiography)
  5. [5] Dreaming Big: Dreaming Big: My Journey to Connect India
  6. [6] "Imagining India" by Nandan Nilekani
  7. [7] Internet Shutdown Tracker
  8. [8] G-20 Digital Economy Working Group Report
  9. [9] Oppenheimer (film)