At a G20 session in March, India’s burgeoning digital services architecture received high praise from Microsoft Co-founder Bill Gates. “No country has built a more comprehensive digital infrastructure than India,” Gates, also Co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said.
Just a few months later, towards the tail end of India’s presidency of the G20, Gates’s views had found deep resonance among almost all the dignitaries who visited the country to participate in the Summit. What was also appreciated was the leadership role India had taken in promoting access to this infrastructure, called India Stack earlier and now India Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI). The Reserve Bank of India even had a pavilion at the Bharat Mandapam where the New Delhi Leaders’ Summit was held on September 9 and 10 to showcase the financial applications that had done so much to improve inclusion.
There is good reason for this recognition. What began with the Aadhaar digital identity way back in 2009—joined later by services like the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), JAM (Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and Mobile number) trinity, and Co-WIN (for managing the Covid-19 vaccination programme), among others—helped India achieve 80 per cent financial inclusion in just six years, which one paper from the Bank for International Settlements estimated would have otherwise taken 47 years to achieve. Besides, the impact of these services hasn’t been restricted to just digital identity and financial inclusion; they now support efforts in the health, education, and sustainability sectors too.
Highlighted by the Digital Economy Working Group (DEWG) under the G20, and now acknowledged as a success story, several developing nations have expressed a desire to adopt India’s DPI. Keyzom Ngodup Massally, Head of Digital Programming at United Nations Development Program Chief Digital Office, says DPI is appealing to every country because each one is building its own DPI, though they are at different stages of their journey. “For low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), in particular, who may not have the technical know-how and resources to start from scratch, the adoption of a DPI approach can reduce implementation cost and shorten the learning curve through shared lessons, learnings and technologies, thereby increasing society-wide impact of digitalisation.”
It is here that India is showing that it can genuinely be a leader of the Global South, as is evident from the fact that eight countries have already signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with India for the stack and several others, especially African nations, have shown a keen interest in adopting the payments and healthcare systems. Besides, it isn’t just developing countries that have been all praise for India’s DPI; France and Germany were effusive in their appreciation of the UPI at the recent G20 discussions.
DPI isn’t a new concept. It is built on foundational principles such as open source—or software with a source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance—‘open APIs’, ‘interoperability’, ‘privacy by design’, ‘inclusive design’, and ‘universal access’.
Most developed countries have their own DPIs. For instance, Estonia, a tech pioneer, has the X-Road digital infrastructure that enables the government to provide 99 per cent of public services online. France had FranceConnect, its central ID authority, made available free of charge, allowing citizens to use an existing credential to identify themselves electronically to other digital services.
But the inflection point for digital services came with the outbreak of Covid-19. First there was the test and track systems that countries—including India—that had the know-how deployed. Then there was the roll-out of the vaccination programme. Kunal Walia, Partner at Dalberg Advisors, says, “The pandemic created a demand for DPI in health, only amplified by the success of India’s vaccination DPI.” He adds that India set an example with its direct benefit transfers to more than 160 million beneficiaries within a month of the Covid-19 outbreak, “while countries like Germany, known for their advancements in technological development, were not able to reach their citizens”.
The attractions of DPI are obvious. It can help provide citizen services at scale, and at low cost. Interoperability allows a multitude of third-party solutions to be built on top of the existing architecture, fostering innovation. But even in this large field of DPIs available globally, India DPI appeals to many countries, say experts, as some problems that it is solving around identity, payments, healthcare, and education, and at scale, are common in developing countries.
“These solutions have been in use in India for more than 10 years now and have reached a level of maturity and robustness. Multiple use cases have been built and implemented in India, which means countries adopting it don’t have to start from scratch and can use these solutions to scale up fast,” says Devroop Dhar, Co-founder of consultancy firm Primus Partners.
This success is evident from the eight MoUs signed with other countries that was mentioned above. Armenia, Sierra Leone, Suriname, Antigua, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Papua New Guinea, and Mauritius have all signed pacts that allow them to access the India DPI at no cost and with open-source access. These nations can now use these resources to develop their unique innovations.
Among the bouquet of services, there are clear favourites. Apeksha Kaushik, Principal Analyst at Gartner, says, “The countries signing up with India are mostly interested in UPI and DigiLocker (the cloud-based platform for document and certificate storage, sharing and verification).” She adds that the government is offering many other platforms in the agreements, including Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP), Covid-19 vaccination platform Co-WIN and the National Health Stack. Some countries are also said to have expressed interest in the Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA) and National Digital Education Architecture (NDEAR).
Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Union Minister of State in the Ministry of Electronics & IT (MeitY), says the interest in India’s DPI is so deep that the country can sign deals with 30 more countries.
But the popularity of India’s DPI has run up against a challenge that is stopping it from signing more MoUs—the limited talent pool and developer ecosystem to support the extension of this architecture. Though India is quickly building on its talent base, it will also release courses to certify developers and system integrators to use and deploy India DPI, adds Kaushik.
Given the enormous interest in India’s DPI, the government also intends to build and maintain a Global Digital Public Infrastructure Repository (GDPIR), a virtual repository of DPI, for the use of other G20 members and beyond. “This will include India’s DPI and those adopted and tweaked by other nations. This will be a ready repository for more nations to adopt DPI,” adds Union Minister Chandrasekhar.
The road ahead
During the G20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi in September, the declaration called for a secure, trusted, accountable and inclusive DPI. It suggested a framework for the development, deployment and governance of DPI. It also asserted that safe, secure, trusted, accountable and inclusive DPI, respectful of human rights, personal data, privacy and intellectual property rights can foster resilience, and enable innovation.
During its presidency, India also proposed the One Future Alliance (OFA) for building capacity and providing technical assistance and funding support for implanting DPI in LMICs.“The OFA has the potential to support developing countries in their adoption of DPI by offering capacity-building programmes, sharing knowledge and expertise, establishing an open-source solutions repository,” explains N.S.N. Murthy, Partner and Government & Public Services Consulting Leader at Deloitte India.
After all, DPI is more than just a tech stack. Strong governance systems and a participatory ecosystem can help DPI deliver economic and social benefits. It can help scale various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well. Murthy of Deloitte explains that DPI has already played a crucial role in increasing financial inclusion through Aadhaar, electronic Know Your Customer (e-KYC) processes, and payment solutions like UPI. These components enable access to formal financial services, promote savings, and facilitate access to credit, contributing to SDG 1 (No Poverty) and SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth).
Similarly, open networks across health, education, commerce, and energy sectors are contributing to goals like SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), and SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure).
Though many services have been incorporated into the DPI in India, the government is planning to add 20 to 30 new ones to the stack. “Prime Minister [Narendra Modi’s] vision is that there will be no part of government that will be left without any digital asset. So, effectively, you will see DPI [that] spans the entire spectrum of current government public services and anything that we are planning in the future,” says Chandrasekhar.
The possibilities aren’t confined just to newer digital services. There is also the potential of harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI). It is a new paradigm that is transforming solutions in the digital world and is likely to play a transformative role in the DPI ecosystem, too. “It forms a natural next step as DPI systems around the world today hold a treasure trove of powerful and standardised data collected at scale. Entrepreneurs have already started leveraging this data for AI solutions,” says Walia of Dalberg.
For instance, providers of financial services use AI on data shared with consent through the Open Credit Enablement Network (OCEN) and account aggregators to evaluate credit-worthiness. Data from France’s Health Data Hub is being used for medical research. There is the potential to unlock value through AI in areas of climate prediction, agricultural advisory, health research and more. AI is also being increasingly built into DPI functionalities, like with India’s Bhashini, which offers openly accessible AI models for translation.
While Kaushik of Gartner believes other technologies like superapps will also be crucial, Murthy of Deloitte says Internet of Things (IoT), biometric authentication advances such as facial recognition, edge computing, cross-border payment solutions and voice and natural language processing can also be integrated into DPIs.
That does sound exciting, but the biggest challenge countries face is the lack of capacity, apart from challenges associated with scaling pilots, say experts. Countries often lack a cohesive vision to bring together funders and other players with fragmented and misaligned incentives. Even countries with political will often lack the capacity to lead large-scale technology projects. Dhar of Primus Partners explains, “DPIs need a global governance structure, standards and regulatory framework to enable seamless adoption across countries.” Also, while privacy is one of the founding principles, strong regulations and mechanisms are required to ensure data protection and privacy globally.
Despite these challenges, DPIs have the potential to effect profound changes, both in India and other countries. Business Today