Digital Infra: How Can we Realise Budget 2022’s Ambition?

India’s Budget 2022 presents digital infrastructure as key to economic recovery for the pandemic-hit economy. Several proposals suggest the ambition for digital resilience: Universal last-mile broadband connectivity, DESH-Stack e-portal for digital enskillment and jobs, delivery of hi-tech services to farmers, and digitalied backbones for health and education sectors.

Many of these initiatives have been in the making for sometime. Their unification under the digital infrastructural canopy is in keeping with the global trend to signal the rapid acceleration of a new industrial paradigm defining economic growth.

Public finance for digital infrastructure creation is an urgent and vital agenda. However, digital innovation is path-dependent, and its outcomes for development are rooted in appropriate choices. The socio-political process underlying technology development is, therefore, crucial. Connectivity, platform and data infrastructures are not mere technical artefacts, but complex socio-technical systems shaped by the interactions between technological objects and the institutional environments in which they are embedded. The bundle of proposals in Budget 2022 need to be placed in this necessary symbiosis.

Innovation as a decentralised endeavour

A ₹350 crore national programme for the digitisation of primary agricultural cooperatives to transform them into successful economic entities has been launched, along with a new PPP scheme for the delivery of hi-tech digital services for farm livelihood promotion. Institutional frameworks are urgently needed to enable participation of farmers and their organisations in the creation of these services and to prevent new players in the agtech-fintech domain from displacing traditional actors and cornering value and benefits. The cooperative digitisation programme needs to have a dedicated data infrastructure component.

The PPP arrangements for data-supported agtech services must provide for adequate safeguards to protect farmers’ data rights – including their economic rights in the agricultural data commons. Investment is needed to build decentralised and federated agricultural data exchanges through voluntary data pooling by farmer producers’ groups and cooperatives, on top of which data-based services could be created by private players. Sustaining public benefits from such data-enabled infrastructural systems may also need compulsory licensing conditionalities. The India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA) proposal mooted by the ministry of agriculture and farmers’ welfare a few months ago could be rebooted in this direction, into a decentralised, bottom-up, farmer-owned and controlled data infrastructure.

For non-farm livelihoods as well, the budget offers a digital infrastructural strategy in the form of the DESH-Stack e-portal that intends to provide “API-based trusted skill credentials, payment and discovery layers to find relevant jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities” for citizens. While such a State-led intervention for demand-supply matching in the labour market is welcome in the face of the burgeoning job crisis in India, many concerns remain with respect to ensuring the portal’s efficiency.

The government has completed a massive data collection exercise of informal sector workers across India for the e-Shram portal. Trade unions and civil society organisations have raised concerns about the use and re-sharing of data on the portal, including risks for intrusive client profiling by unethical market actors. It is also unclear what welfare benefits and schemes will be rolled out using this database. While these considerations remain unaddressed, initiating yet another national-level portal for collection of labour and employment data seems ill-advised. Also, a significant proportion of the target group of the DESH-Stack e-portal are informal workers engaged in on-demand work in specific local geographies. Decentralised employment portals embedded in a localised ecosystem of district governmental agencies, labour welfare boards, local employers, skill development centers and NGOs, may better serve demand-supply matching, rather than a mammoth pan-Indian effort. The central government’s role may be better served in contemplating appropriate governance arrangements for worker data rights and safeguards.

Institutional capabilities

Budget 2022 also envisages expansion of the PM e-Vidya supplementary teaching programme from 12 to 200 channels and the development of high quality e-content for digital delivery. Several studies have highlighted the urgent imperative in the Indian context to reopen government-run schools, address the multi-level learning gaps, and fill teacher vacancies. Remote learning models have not helped the majority of children who hail from marginalised households. Over-valuorising online education can distract from the need to rebuild the school system and bring children back to the physical classroom. It can also misrecognise the true potential of digital infrastructure to localise and contextualise educational processes, catalyse teacher capabilities, promote meaningful learning outcomes, and enable community participation.

In the health sector, the budget focuses on the roll out of the National Digital Health Ecosystem (NDHE), intended to serve as a “holistic” and “interoperable” digital public infrastructure that encourages “public and private innovation by providing the essential techno-building blocks (aggregate anonymised, non-personal health data sharing mechanisms and APIs) for the development of health service apps and health analytics solutions”. The absence of data governance safeguards to prevent privacy violations and corporate capture of data value from the health data commons is an important consideration in this regard. Equally, the lack of institutional data capabilities of the public health system stands exposed during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is important to address on priority so that the health data commons that is created through NDHE is geared to meet the health needs of all citizens and not just the data needs of insurance companies.

Enhancement of public value

There is one leitmotif in Budget 2022 – the call for blended finance to promote “Deep-Tech, Digital Economy, Pharma and Agri-Tech”, with government share limited to 20% and the funds being managed by private fund managers. The experience of the European Union in the development of broadband and cloud architecture has demonstrated that public funding has an important role to play in ensuring techno-sovereignty and inclusion of under-served populations in digital systems.

In a 2020 analysis, the European Commission observed that market forces will not guarantee the achievement of European digital agenda and telecommunications infrastructure development. Similarly, in France and Germany, joint venture partnerships with multinational companies for development of domestic cloud infrastructure are seen only as a partial solution. Public financing for the development of foundational digital, platform and data architecture continues to be important. In the platform economy, corporate tax reforms have emerged as a key macroeconomic imperative to generate fiscal revenue, as also wealth and inheritance tax proposals mooted by organisations such as the Fight Inequality alliance.

While public financing of digital infrastructures is non-negotiable, access and use controls to prevent free-riding and corporate capture are also equally important for preservation of their public value. Data governance frameworks that guarantee economic claims of communities in the aggregate, anonymised social data commons, while bounding the data market’s operations to prevent intrusive data profiling become crucial in this regard.

The digital infrastructural road may not lead to the recovery we desire, without a focus on these details.

This article was first published in Hindustan Times as an op-ed on 14th February, 2022. Read it here.

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