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VIEW: Why India needs to reframe its approach towards a holistic tech policy

VIEW: Why India needs to reframe its approach towards a holistic tech policy

VIEW: Why India needs to reframe its approach towards a holistic tech policy
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By CNBCTV18.com Contributor Dec 23, 2020 5:49 PM IST (Updated)

In many developing countries, including India, technology policy and data governance typically exist at the periphery of development agendas, relegated to a niche space.

Authored by Devanshu Jain

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The last time India confronted an opportunity that could revolutionize its economy, create millions of jobs, and fashion itself into a global powerhouse, we missed the bus. India famously “skipped” the manufacturing stage of growth, a foundation that many developing countries leveraged to catapult themselves out of poverty, reinvent their economies, and build their social security systems.
Now, India finds itself on the cusp of another era-defining movement – the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As the third-largest start-up ecosystem, the second most promising source of technological disruption (tied with China and surpassed only by the US), and with the largest young workforce in the world, India is poised to emerge a technological and geopolitical leader on the back of this revolution.
More importantly, with sophisticated capabilities in tech and data, and the global currency that accompanies them, India can begin to find solutions to some of the most intractable socio-economic challenges that has plagued us for decades – if only we can tap into the right opportunities at the right time. Here, I outline four ways that can set India on that path.
Start with semantics
In many developing countries, including India, technology policy and data governance typically exist at the periphery of development agendas, relegated to a niche space. In fact, on the ground, technological and digital innovation is disrupting – and accelerating progress – in almost every sector.
This needs to reflect in our policymaking priorities, starting with defining the role of tech policy as a cross-sectoral, multi-stakeholder issue that underpins several developmental and strategic priorities, including national security and foreign policy. The work only begins there. To effectively legislate on tech and data, India needs to track and collect reliable information on cross-border flows of data and technology and its integration into international value chains; find ways to break siloed decision-making; and establish mechanisms for inter-department and inter-ministerial collaboration.
Leverage the spirit of Make in India
What does “Make in India” mean in practice, and what should the government do to actualise this vision? COVID-19 has demonstrated for countries across the world the dangers of excessive interdependence and the need to develop more self-reliant and resilient economies. The pandemic forced India to accelerate healthcare efficiency almost overnight, but we shouldn’t wait for another crisis to apply this lesson elsewhere.
From a policy perspective, this has two major implications. One, we must invest in enhancing indigenous tech capabilities. This can help us not only bolster domestic manufacturing and employment but also rectify skewed balances of power with important trade partners like China and the US. A robust system of innovation and technological know-how will allow us to gain mileage in global strategic partnerships and safeguard our geopolitical interests.
Two, and consequently, we must invest in an ecosystem that is conducive to building our capabilities. This means doing away with ambiguous regulatory policy and legal frameworks that form deterrents to establishing new businesses and attracting foreign investment; creating resilient, future-ready supply chains for emerging technologies; and establishing mechanisms for cross-border flows of data.
Address privacy concerns
No conversation on emerging technologies is complete without addressing data privacy. The Personal Data Protection Bill, though comprehensive, falls short of adequately addressing privacy as both a means to other rights and a right in itself. India needs legal and regulatory frameworks that are able to plug market failures in the data economy and strike a balance between safeguarding citizen data and incentivizing innovation and growth. This means eliminating, as close as possible, vulnerability to data exploitation and state overreach and surveillance, while ensuring that compliance costs for businesses aren’t unsustainable.
Secure a seat at the international standard-setting table
As it stands today, there is largely no global consensus on matters of tech policy and data governance, with regulation largely existing in region-specific frameworks like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. Because this remains undefined, India has the opportunity to front-end international consensus-building by participating in the efforts of a coalition of institutional actors and powerful nations to encode and standardize norms on data governance and emerging tech. By securing a seat at this table, we can ensure that our domestic and strategic interests are represented – and going forward, safeguarded – in the international norm-setting process.
In this context, the establishment of the nodal agency NEST (New, Emerging and Strategic Technologies) is significant. However, if India is to meet its highly ambitious goals – grow its digital economy to $1 trillion by 2025, emerging as an alternative to China for manufacturing and investment, and position itself a global leader – it must invest in building capacity and credibility in the four aforementioned areas. To start with, building strong, coherent and unambiguous internal policy and regulation on data, privacy, and emerging tech will be crucial.
Devanshu Jain is a policy consultant and former communications advisor to India’s ex-minister for IT & Communications. Views are personal
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