The mirage of Digital India: Why the app-ification of public services is a dangerous trend

A large section of the population doesn’t have access to the internet. But the government has made it an overarching element of its policy making.

ByVinay Aravind
The mirage of Digital India: Why the app-ification of public services is a dangerous trend
Kartik Kakar
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The delusion of a "Digital India" has weighed heavily on this government and influenced its policymaking right from its early days. For any policy challenge that the government encounters – and some that they entirely manufacture – the response seems to be to offer an app.

Take, for instance, India’s Covid vaccination programme. The New Indian Express reported that while India has supplied 75 million doses of the vaccines to the states, as of date, only 37 million doses had been administered. While there is a range of reasons for the relatively poor utilisation, one factor that has been highlighted in news reports, is that online registration could be an impediment for a lot of people who don’t own phones or use the internet. This is symptomatic of a larger malaise, which is the government’s obsession with making every citizen interaction digital, in a country that is still largely analogue and unconnected.

The most glaring early example of the government’s digital delusion, of course, was the demonetisation disaster. By grossly over-estimating the potential reach and capacity of digital payments, the government decided to ban 86 percent of currency notes in circulation, by value, and plunged the economy into a crisis from which it has still not recovered. From here, the government has moved on to putting out apps whenever the fancy strikes them.

For instance, it’s widely known and reported that India faces a grave problem with regard to women’s safety. This is an urgent policymaking challenge that requires deep analysis, and a thoughtful multi-pronged approach. But the government launched with great fanfare in 2019 was an app called 112. What does this app do? It sends emergency alerts to the police, and to volunteers who’ve signed up on the platform.

While the intentions behind it are certainly noble, there are multiple problems with this. The app, over a period of two years, has garnered a little over 500,000 downloads, roughly 0.03 percent of India’s population. The reviews are replete with people complaining about (and praising!) the fact that they were accidentally sending emergency alerts and getting callbacks from the police. This app is evidently a combination of niche, unhelpful and dangerous, that is entirely in keeping with the government’s typical policy interventions.

As of 2020, India had a little over 500 million internet users, with 65 percent of them being male. This means that at least 60 percent of the country has no access to the internet, whatsoever. The estimate for smartphone users is also in the same range. In a country where over 80 percent of the people earn less than Rs 10,000 a month, this is not surprising. And yet, the government is oddly obsessed with digital-first policy interventions, where they labour under the assumptions that most of the country are just people like them.

The first and most striking problem of app based interventions is that, even in the very best case scenario, it is something that will be of benefit to the elite. In addition to the fact that a large majority of people in India do not have access to smartphones, even among those who do have such access, the technological knowhow and familiarity required to install and navigate a range of often unintuitive apps is a higher barrier.

Take a look at Aarogya Setu, the government’s Covid contact tracing app. Despite it being publicised heavily and made mandatory for essential activities like travel, it’s had over a 100 million downloads. That’s well below 10 percent of the population of India, and this is the best case scenario, for any app. Even the old and established IRCTC app has about 50 million downloads.

The second problem is simply the poor quality of these apps. The apps are often buggy, hastily coded and pushed out to meet deadlines, and the server capacity at the back end is insufficient to handle volumes. Glitches with the CoWIN app have delayed and disrupted vaccine administration.

While it makes sense to have an app or website as a secondary interface for registration/administration of something critical like the vaccine, to have it as the primary/sole interface is potentially dangerous. App failures should not disrupt something critical like vaccine administration. This is further exacerbated by the fact that essential components for app usage, like power supply and connectivity, are by no means to be taken for granted in vast swathes of the country.

Add to this, the predilection of this government towards head-in-the-sand denial of problems – the health minister’s response to CoWIN glitches was to go on record and say, “As of now, there is no issue in the app” – and it is a recipe for disaster.

The other glaring issue with this app-ified governance is that many of these apps come with surveillance baked into it. While the previous government set the ball rolling in terms of mass surveillance, with the Aadhaar project, the present government has done its best to take it to new heights via apps.

Everything from Aarogya Setu to relatively innocuous apps like Khelo India, which is for schools to assess the fitness level of their students, are built around precise tracking of your location. Even an app like the UTS app for booking unreserved train tickets, relies exclusively on precise location, to enable the buying of tickets. There’s no reason for a ticket buying app to have this constraint, but the instinct to make location tracking an intrinsic feature of apps overrides any considerations of good sense or utility/functionality. Add to this the fact that all these apps collect a great deal of personal data, in a country which has no laws governing privacy or data protection, and it is a deeply worrying situation.

And finally, this app based approach allows the government to abdicate its actual responsibilities, and the obligation to analyse problems deeply and thoughtfully and arrive at potentially complex, expensive and challenging solutions. For a government that lives for optics, announcing a mostly useless app that will benefit very few people, allows them to fool themselves and their constituency that they are “at least trying to do something about it” with the bare minimum of thought, while saving them the effort of doing the hard labour of governance.

The latest twist in this saga is the government announcing an entirely local app store which will host the 965 government apps across the country. Take a moment to think about it. If you need to avail all the services offered by the government, you would have to install literally hundreds of apps on your phone. This absurd situation would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic.


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