Filling the physical gaps in India’s digital push

Non-tech elements like community engagement and governance are important to realise the true potential of India’s digital platforms

Authors: Varad Pande & Rohit Kumar
Published: March 07, 2022 in the Indian Express
 
A lot has been written about the emphasis on ‘digital’ in the 2022 Union Budget (indeed, the word ‘digital’ was mentioned over 30 times in the Finance Minister’s speech). But one aspect of this emphasis that hasn’t been talked about as much is the importance given in the budget to digital public infrastructure (DPI) – the idea that cross-sectoral ‘digital rails’ like ID, payments and data exchanges when combined with open interconnected data systems in sectors like health, education and social protection, can transform service delivery for ordinary citizens.

India is seen as a global trendsetter in the DPI movement having set up multiple large scale DPIs like Aadhar for ID, UPI for payments and sector specific platforms like DIGIT for eGovernance and DIKSHA for education. Each of these have helped push the frontier of public service delivery in the country.

This year’s budget adds to the growing discourse on DPIs by making four key announcements – in health, an open platform with digital registries, a unique health identity and a robust consent framework; in skilling, a Digital Ecosystem for Skilling and Livelihood (DESH-Stack) to help citizens upskill through online training; a Unified Logistics Interface Platform (ULIP) to streamline movement of goods across various modes of transport; and for travel, an ‘open source’ mobility stack for facilitating seamless travel of passengers.

These announcements are a welcome development. Research by Omidyar Network India and BCG shows that the creation of national digital ecosystems in sectors like health, jobs and skilling, agriculture and justice, can lead to economic opportunities worth 50 lakh crore by 2030. Similar analysis by the Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research (C-DEP) also estimates that national digital ecosystems could add over 5% to India’s GDP.

But even as the potential benefits can be immense, there are important design considerations that we must get right if we are to truly unlock the value of these platforms for the larger good of citizens. One way to think about this is by differentiating between the ‘tech’ and the ‘non-tech’ layers of our digital infrastructure – while India seems to have made significant headway on the ‘tech’ layers, the ‘non-tech’ layers of community engagement and governance still need a lot more work. The combination of these three layers – technology, community and governance – is what is critical to making tech work for everyone. Together they embody what we call the open digital ecosystems (ODE) approach.

To unleash the true potential of India’s ODEs, we need to get the ‘non-tech’ layers right, by prioritising principles around data protection, universal access and accountability. While this presents a large menu, three specific non-tech levers are critical to get right.

First, protecting data of all users and giving them agency over how their data gets used. The passage of a robust Data Protection Bill is imperative. But, we also need to go beyond the mere requirement of ‘consent’ which is the core of data protection legislations. Consent as a construct is insufficient, as anyone who has tried to read privacy policies on their phones knows – it forces you to make a binary choice, in quick time, in an environment of information overload in dense legalese. While this is a tough problem to solve, recent research by the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change (CSBC) suggests that users can be “nudged” to make privacy conscious decisions by providing standardised privacy ratings, presenting privacy policies more visually, and mandating users to stay on the privacy page for at least a few minutes.

Second, it is important to address India’s digital divide when service delivery through tech. Research by ORF, for instance, shows that Indian women are 15% less likely to own a mobile phone, and 33% less likely to use mobile internet services than men. This, and other such disparities including India’s rural-urban divide, can undermine the country’s ODE project and lead to large scale exclusion if not consciously addressed.

So we need a ‘phygital’ approach that leverages multimodal service delivery through both online and offline options and strong grievance redressal mechanisms. Research by Aapti Institute and eGovernments Foundation has shown that leveraging trusted local intermediaries who are embedded in communities — local influencers, grassroots NGOs etc — can significantly improve access to tech platforms for marginalised groups.

Finally, as we push the frontier on digitisation, India must also focus on developing anchor institutions and robust governance frameworks to ensure that its tech infrastructure remains fit for purpose and accountable. Just as Aadhaar is anchored by UIDAI under an Act of Parliament, and the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM) is anchored by the National Health Authority, every new ODE requires an enabling and accountable institutional anchor. These institutions are critical for setting standards, ensuring a level playing field and safeguarding consumer interest while ensuring speedy grievance redressal. The sector-specific institutions also need to be complemented by a national level ‘National ODE Council’ to inform coordinated policies and keep the focus on citizen-centricity.

India has embarked on a unique journey of tech led service delivery at unprecedented scale and speed. From Aadhaar and UPI to DBT and CoWin – India’s tech stacks are grabbing the attention of the world. It is now critical to bring the gaze on to the non-tech layers of the stack, so that the potential of these platforms can be unlocked for every Indian.

Authors: Varad is a Partner at Omidyar Network India and Rohit is a Founding Partner of The Quantum Hub

Bridging the digital divide in education

The NDEAR vision does not build a new “app”; it connects what already exists

Authors: Varad Pande & Aishwarya Viswanathan
Published: January 27, 2022 in the Financial Express
 
While the pandemic has accelerated education online, it has also exposed a deep digital divide, with more than 30% students not having access to online learning. This has increased the focus on building inclusive solutions in EdTech. A ray of hope in this context is the National Digital Educational Architecture (NDEAR), the blueprint for which was recently released by the government. Set up as a digital pathway to the policy goals envisioned in the National Education Policy, 2020, NDEAR takes on a ‘Open Digital Ecosystem’ approach, where a set of principles, standards, specifications, building blocks and guidelines seek to enable different entities to create elements of the digital education ecosystem. At its core is the principle of interoperability, i.e., enabling disparate education related tech systems to “talk to each other” seamlessly, rather than operating in silos, thereby multiplying the possibilities of impact.

How will this change the life of a student? Here is just one example of how NDEAR could potentially help: Consider a student, Manisha, whose parents are relocating from Bengaluru to Dehradun. Manisha is worried that she may be behind her new peer-group especially as the curriculum of the Uttarakhand state board may be different. Her parents are stressed about completing the paperwork for the school transfer. And teachers in her new school are concerned about how to accommodate her learning needs. NDEAR can help ease this transition in multiple ways. To catch up with the rest of the class, Manisha can access curated learning material specific to her needs via the DIKSHA platform. Her parents, with access to her student ID, can complete the transfer process entirely online in just a few steps, by instantly sharing verifiable school records and test results. As for Manisha’s new teachers, access to her online learning passbook can enable them to have a better understanding of her needs, while being able to support her, for example, in ‘catching up’ on Hindi language skills using online teacher manuals and other personalised tools enabled by NDEAR.

What is unique about NDEAR is that it is not about building a new “app”, but about connecting what already exists, and reimagining how technology can be leveraged to upgrade the entire education ecosystem for deploying tailored EdTech solutions speedily, sustainably and at population scale.

While this tech enabled vision is inspiring, its success or failure will be determined by its implementation. Specifically, we believe that much of the success of the NDEAR tech infrastructure will lie in getting the ‘non-tech’ elements right. There are four fundamental issues that implementers and enablers will have to factor in.

First, it will be important to ensure that NDEAR’s implementation improves and not worsens access to education in the context of India’s digital divide. As per 2019-20 UDISE+ data, only 38.5% of schools across the country had computers and 22.3% of schools had an internet connection. Therefore, it is crucial that the NDEAR vision is supplemented by concerted policy efforts to equip schools with the necessary ICT infrastructure, like Kerala’s KITE enabled interventions. And in the interim, while the tech infrastructure is being built, it will be critical to drive access to NDEAR services through multimodal channels, including television and low-tech mediums such as SMS delivered through basic feature phones, such as in Jharkhand’s DigiSATH initiative which leverages WhatsApp, television, the DIKSHA app as well as offline learning to connect all stakeholders.

Second, to ensure adoption of NDEAR enabled solutions and build the legitimacy of digital learning, it will be important to recognise the role parents play in both monitoring and facilitating their children’s learning, and engage them meaningfully. An attempt has been made in Himachal Pradesh through the government’s e-Samwad application where schools send regular SMS updates to parents to establish a direct channel of communication.

Third, NDEAR will need to ensure that the data rights of children remain secure. The potential of EdTech solutions delivered through NDEAR will depend on their responsible deployment, which would include responsible collection, sharing and processing of data. Since children will never be fully cognisant of the privacy risks that the digital world entails, the compliance with the upcoming Personal Data Protection Bill, with additional safeguards given the target audience of this platform, will be important. There are good frameworks for this both in the United States and the European Union that can be leveraged.

Lastly, given the pace at which digital learning is growing, NDEAR’s development should be firmly anchored in an ‘accountable institution’ that can guide its quick development while providing independent oversight needed for the management of the platform. The proposed National Educational Technology Forum may be a good forum for this, and such an institution should have representation from tech and domain experts as well as teachers and parents to help ensure the NDEAR architecture delivers tech solutions that are truly student-centric.

NDEAR presents an audacious vision to leverage the power of tech to enhance India’s education system. This vision must now be matched with the right non-tech, student-centric enablers and safeguards to achieve its potential.

Authors: Varad works at Omidyar Network India and Aishwarya works at The Quantum Hub

Will India pay for RBI’s hurry?

Central bank’s no-card-storage rule can severely disrupt digital payments in 2022

Authors: Rohit Kumar & Deepro Guha
Published: December 23, 2021 in the Times of India
 
In March 2020, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) issued guidelines that prohibit merchants (including all e-commerce websites, streaming platforms) and payment aggregators (such as Razorpay and Instamojo) from storing customer card information. The aim of this measure is to increase security of stored card details while reducing the risk of data breaches. Globally, and even in India, there have been several instances of financial data leaks over the last few years. With digital transitions increasing manifold, the likely consequences of a data leak – both financial as well as in terms of trust – can be very real and damaging. Taking cognizance of this issue, the RBI has been progressively tightening regulations to ensure financial data security while also limiting the number of actors who can store sensitive data.

The no-card-storage norms are scheduled to come into effect on 1st January 2022. But even though the first notification was issued early last year, it was only in September 2021 that a reasonably effective alternative to the current system – Card-on-file Tokenization (CoFT) – was permitted, giving the players in the digital payments ecosystem just a little over three months to adapt.

Card-on-File-Tokenization is the process of de-identifying sensitive cardholder data by replacing the actual card details with an alternative code called the “token”, which is unique for every combination of card and merchant. While seemingly ‘simple’, this tweak requires an ecosystem-wide change in tech systems and workflows, with sequential compliance from the many entities in the digital payments transaction chain.

Therefore, even as RBI’s move is well-intentioned, a hurried transition can end up disrupting payment systems in India, adversely affecting both customers as well as merchants. The impact of this measure is likely to be most acutely felt by Indian start-ups and small businesses which may not be well equipped to transition to the new system in a short period of time.

Latest information suggests that at this time not all banks and card networks are implementation ready, and it is only post their operational readiness, that merchants will receive the relevant APIs to build, test and integrate a consumer-ready tokenization solution. It also seems that card networks are still evolving their processes around use cases like EMIs and recurring payments for transactions based on tokens. As a result, the operational readiness of the ecosystem remains uncertain.

If merchants and payment aggregators purge card data and transition to the new system before the ecosystem is ready, consumers would be forced to manually input card details for every transaction. This would make digital payments tedious and could lead to a scenario where the less technologically savvy customers go back to using cash, thus reversing the hard-earned digital adoption gains that India has made over the last few years. Additionally, the need to repeatedly input card details for every transaction could potentially make consumers more vulnerable to phishing attacks, thus increasing consumer risk rather than reducing it as was intended by the regulations.

A hurried implementation could also disproportionately hurt India’s small businesses and start-ups which leverage the digital payments ecosystem to retain and grow their customer base. What is making businesses especially worried and skeptical is their experience with RBI’s e-mandate regulations which kicked into effect on 1st October 2021. At the time, many consumers and merchants complained of widespread payment failures in the ecosystem, with smaller merchants reportedly losing up to 70% of their monthly revenues in the period immediately following the implementation.

Moreover, purging of all existing card data without an effective system in place to replace it could also render the merchants unable to support customers with subscriptions, refunds, cancellations, and other customer service requirements while reducing their ability to mitigate frauds during the transition period.

Taking cognizance of the above concerns, RBI should undertake a thorough assessment of the ecosystem’s readiness before enforcing the guidelines. Ideally, the implementation of the guidelines should be undertaken in a phased manner with current deadlines being reconsidered (with card networks and banks being mandated to set up their infrastructure first, followed by merchants). If possible, during the transition period, both the current system of card storage and the new tokenization alternative should be allowed to co-exist to make the switch seamless. This has been done previously in Europe with the implementation of the revised Payment Services Directive (PSD2). In the case of the PSD2 norms, the European Commission also set up several working groups (including one on APIs) with participation from all major payments ecosystem stakeholders, to ensure coordination on key aspects of the transition. It even worked closely with the industry to adopt standards that would be acceptable to a majority of the stakeholders, while acknowledging the complexity of the payments markets and retaining flexibility to avoid unintended negative consequences.

Similar measures by the RBI to ensure coordination between banks, card networks, payments aggregators, payments gateways and merchants in the Indian context would ameliorate the many risks posed by a hurried implementation of the guidelines. Otherwise, without adequate safeguards, a rush to enforce the guidelines may bring India’s payments ecosystem to a standstill in the new year.

Towards a gender-responsive and inclusive economic recovery for India in the COVID-19 context

Published: November 2021

The severe and disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the most vulnerable and marginalised groups, which includes girls and women, in India has been discussed in much detail. Women have not only faced massive job and income losses with slow revival, but also witnessed an increase in unpaid care work, and have been forced to exit the labour force in large numbers.

As per government estimates, the female labour force participation rate was about 16 per cent in the months of April-June 2020 right after the pandemic induced lockdown was imposed in India. This implies that less than 1 in 5 women aged 15 or older had a job or were looking for jobs. Further, the State of Working India Report 2021 suggests that about 47 per cent of working women suffered a permanent job loss till December 2020, while the corresponding figure for men was only 7 per cent.

The impact of the pandemic on women-owned and women-led micro-enterprises was also severe, with an average drop of about 73 per cent in incomes during the early months of the lockdown, and over 10 per cent of enterprises closing permanently by May 2020.

While the Government of India and the state governments announced a slew of measures to address the health and socio-economic impacts of the lockdown, several of these measures did not reach their intended beneficiaries, particularly the most marginalised and vulnerable women and girls. As India continues to gain momentum in its economic recovery and resumes business activities, particularly after the impact of the second wave, a just and equitable economic recovery plan is needed—one that is also gender-responsive.

Governments and organisations across the globe are rethinking existing systems and ways of working in order to build forward better by adopting sustainable and transformative policies that are gender-just. These measures include prioritising investments in the care economy; generating equitable jobs and livelihoods; and accelerating systemic changes to reduce environmental degradation and catalyse a gender-equitable recovery. This requires reimagining economic models and focusing on a care-focused, climate just and equitable recovery that is based on a rights based model. At the same time, it is also important to mobilise resources and diversify funding mechanisms to address the long-term “scarring” that developing economies are currently facing due to a loss in productive human capital, in order to avoid plummeting into a poverty trap.

Written in collaboration with IWWAGE (Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy), this paper lays out suggestions for a macroeconomic recovery for India in a COVID and post-COVID context with a specific focus on putting women and girls at the centre of the economic recovery. The paper includes short, medium and long-term measures in the areas of monetary and fiscal policy, with a section on innovative financing options to address the challenge of limited fiscal space to achieve gender-equitable outcomes.

Read the paper here

India’s youth must lead the effort to decongest our roads, here’s how

Author: Rohit Kumar
Published: November 30, 2021 in the Financial Express

With rising incomes and car ownership being seen as a status symbol in India, the odds are stacked against policymakers trying to find solutions to this problem.
 
It is widely acknowledged that Indian cities are increasingly becoming congested and unliveable. Our biggest metros — long considered the engines of growth, melting pots of diverse cultures, and vanguards of prosperity — are now ranked among the lowest in the world on quality of life indices.

Stories of people spending 3–4 hours in daily commute are not uncommon, and have now, unnervingly, become a part of the daily saga of life struggle for many people. The internet is flooded with memes of people stuck on the Delhi-Gurgaon border gesticulating aggressively, or Bengaluruians feeling afraid to step out of their houses and of Mumbaikars trying to find unique ways of using their time on crowded trains and taxis. And while one may laugh this off as another thing that is uniquely Indian, our lack of attention to the problem of commute in Indian cities can have very real and unfortunate implications for economic growth, productivity, environment, and mental health. With rising incomes and car ownership being seen as a status symbol in India, the odds are stacked against policymakers trying to find solutions to this problem.

Some commentators have called for greater investments in road infrastructure, but widening roads has never been the solution to reducing congestion — not here, and not anywhere in the world. If we expand roads, additional traffic sweeps in to fill the extra space. In economic theory, this phenomenon is referred to as induced demand — the idea that once supply increases, the suppressed demand for a good resurfaces and more of it is consumed. This is especially seen in the case of transportation systems and is often used as an argument against increasing road capacity as a solution to congestion. The experiences from the highway building program of the 1930s and the 1940s in New York and the Manchester Motorway Box in the UK attest to this fact. The decline in traffic, if any, is only momentary.

While new tech-enabled transport solutions such as Uber and Ola have helped in reducing congestion by reducing vehicle ownership, these alone will not suffice, nor are they affordable for all classes of people. The need of the hour, therefore, is investment in and the use of public transport. What we require for this to work is a conscious effort by people to switch their mobility preferences. While this will be cumbersome in the short term until good (and frequent) connectivity is fully established, the switch will help in increasing the volume of traffic to make investments in public transport viable while also increasing pressure on governments to do more.

Cities across the world have invested heavily in strengthening public transport systems as well as walking and cycling infrastructure. The metropolis of London housing 8.3 million people covers an area of 1,572 sq. km and it is serviced by a dense network of buses and metro (Tube as it is popularly known). London has over 7,500 buses and 402 km of metro length that helps move roughly 9.6 million people on a daily basis. In comparison, Delhi — which is relatively very well served in the Indian context — houses 26 million people and is serviced by a little over 6000 buses and a metro length of 389 km. In terms of provision of public transport per 1000 people, the difference is staggering. It’s no surprise that the gap is filled through the use of personal vehicles.

However, there is hope. Most young people today have been sensitized to environmental issues in school; they have also grown up looking at environmental degradation as a real possibility in their lifetimes. As a result young people around the world have been at the forefront of campaigns to adopt sustainable lifestyles. Examples of Greta Thunberg’s activism speak to the power of young minds to shape the narrative around sustainability.

And undoubtedly, they have the largest stake in the matter. The economic and social cost of over-reliance on private vehicles in our transport systems is immense for everyone, but more so for the youth who are just starting out to explore their personal and professional journeys. Congestion in our cities is forcing people into hard choices and making it increasingly difficult for them to enjoy well-rounded meaningful lives. There is an increasing tussle to manage the time spent in traffic; we are being forced to choose between opportunities for growth and living in cities that offer a better quality of life, the mental space to learn new skills and time to form deeper relationships.

It is therefore important that the youth take on the responsibility of driving change within their cities. It’ll have to start with them, with them changing their lifestyles to resist the lure of private vehicles, setting an example for others to follow and pushing their governments to do more for public transport.

Rohit is the co-founder of Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC). YLAC is a member of the Sustainable Mobility Network, a collective of organizations working together to reduce congestion and vehicular pollution in Indian cities.

Safeguarding The Unsuspecting User: App Stores Taken Over By Fraudulent Apps

Authors: Rohit Kumar & Shivani Gupta
Published: August 20, 2021 in the Business World
 
The Delhi Police recently busted a nationwide syndicate that used fraudulent apps to cheat over 5 lakh Indians of Rs. 150 crore. Some estimates suggest that this amount was upwards of Rs. 300 crore. As the story unfolded across the country, it was found that one of the apps involved in this scam was trending at #4 on the Play Store. It is surprising how such an app managed to trend on the Play Store, let alone get through the vetting process.

Instances of online fraud have rapidly increased over the last couple of years in India as more users have started using web-based services. Many fraudulent apps lure users by offering benefits in the form of some reward or payout. In the Delhi police case, for instance, users were promised an opportunity to double their invested amount within 4-5 weeks. There are also many known cases of fake predatory dating apps that use misleading advertisements, impersonation and chatbots to entice customers to purchase subscriptions. Investigations by journalists suggest that often app-makers manage reviewers to increase their app ratings and improve visibility on app stores.

Not surprisingly, this menace is not specific to India alone, or to only one kind of app store. According to an analysis by the Washington Post, of the 1,000 highest-grossing apps on the Apple App Store, nearly 2% are scams. In fact, app developers in the US have been fighting a public battle against the tech giant for allowing applications that clone popular apps. In the Indian context of course, Apple’s market share in terms of app downloads is small. It is the Google Play Store that accounts for 90% of all app downloads on Android smartphones that dominate the Indian market.

Google’s policy explicitly states that it does not ‘allow apps or app content that undermine user trust in the Google Play ecosystem.’ This includes apps that reflect ‘a pattern of harmful behavior or high risk of abuse’. The policy recognizes that one of the best ways to protect users from bad apps is to keep those apps out of the Play Store in the first place. In fact, there are several checks carried out by the Play Store before listing an app. These include (but are not limited to) checking the app’s privacy policy (to protect user information), content rating and ads for age appropriateness. Despite their thoroughness, however, these checks still do not succeed in keeping all fraudulent apps off the Play Store. At the listing stage, the Play Store review team has little visibility into how an app is going to be used. Users are yet to be onboarded and there is no way to check if an app is going to use bots, onboard paid-pretend users or encourage fraudulent activities in the future.

Google also announced an App Defense Alliance in 2019 to quickly find Potentially Harmful Applications (PHAs) before they go live on the Play Store and take appropriate action for user protection. The Alliance is a collaboration between Google and other technology partners in the business of mobile device protection who use automated scanning and secure communication to alert each other about PHAs. The success metrics of this alliance have not been officially reported yet, but Google’s Transparency Report shows that the percentage of PHA installs has come down in the time since the alliance has been in operation. But while this initiative is effective in some way, it is still unable to identify and remove apps that user impersonation, make false promises or employ fabricated reviews to get attention. At this time, the App Defense Alliance only targets apps that are potential malware i.e. code that could put a user or a device at risk.

The presence of fraudulent apps on app stores poses a grave threat to the burgeoning smartphone user community, especially in India where understanding of digital safety is still relatively limited. But removing such apps is not an easy problem to solve. When India blocked numerous Chinese apps over military confrontations along the international border in 2020, many apps that ended up getting banned were harmful fraudulent apps. However, a quick search on the Play Store reveals that several of these apps managed to find their way back in new avatars. Low entry costs and difficulty in scanning the vast online space with millions of apps in each app store make it easy for such apps to resurface. In most cases, it is also difficult to hold app-makers accountable because they are not based in India.

Given the complexity of keeping fraudulent apps off the internet, there are two potential ways in which the problem can be addressed: first, by strengthening due diligence by app distributors i.e. the app stores and second, by building consumer awareness. While app stores do undertake checks prior to and post listing of apps, there is a case for all app stores to significantly ramp up their monitoring and grievance redressal mechanisms. The need of the hour is proactive detection and quick removal of bad actors to protect users. Apple, through its recently updated App Store review guidelines, plans to leverage its watchful developer community to support this task. Developers can now directly report possible guideline violations and trust/ safety issues that they detect in other apps. The second important way of addressing the challenge may be consumer awareness. While it is time-consuming and difficult to build awareness, ultimately if the consumer is equipped to identify fraud, they are likely to be better placed to safeguard their own interests. This shall overtime also serve to weaken, if not eliminate, the operations of fraudulent apps.

As the number of internet users continue to grow in India and more of our services shift to the digital sphere, it is critical for us to create a safe and enabling digital ecosystem. In the absence of an active policy to mitigate the risk posed by fraudulent apps, online harms await the unsuspecting user.

Scaling up the ecosystem for job and skill seekers

An open digital ecosystem that brings job seekers, employers, skills providers and government agencies can be implemented with ease, with a little help from government and technology

Authors: Rohit Kumar & Deepro Guha
Published: July 26, 2021 in the Hindu Business Line
 
With the receding number of Covid cases, roll-back of lockdowns and cautious optimism about a recovering economy, skilling initiatives are in the spotlight yet again. On the occasion of ‘World Youth Skill Day’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put his weight behind the Skill India Mission and called skill development of the new generation a national need, important to building a strong foundation of Aatma Nirbhar Bharat.

Skilling India’s youth should undoubtedly be a high priority. But government initiatives to improve India’s skilling track record have not been very successful in the past. An analysis by the Sharda Committee (2016) found that skill development courses often offered poor placements to participants and added limited value to their employment opportunities.

While some skilling schemes have since been restructured, the problem has not been fully addressed. For instance, when the government introduced the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Yojana (GKRY) last year to address skilling and unemployment issues that emerged in the wake of reverse migration, it did not pan out as anticipated. Many reports suggest that GKRY’s demand-driven skilling initiatives were not successful; they did not reach the intended beneficiaries.

This hints at a systemic problem that affects the talent ecosystem in India.

Think about Asha — a young woman contemplating her next career move. How should she go about finding her calling? Where should she get trained? And what kind of jobs would be open to her? Stories of many youth in India today mirror that of Asha’s. While they have a strong drive to better their lives, they are limited by a lack of access.

A major challenge that India currently faces with respect to its talent pool is one of ‘matching’ — between jobseekers and jobs, and between skill-seekers and skill-training providers. Search costs are prohibitive for employers and a candidate’s qualifications are difficult to verify. For jobseekers, there seem to be many available jobs but listings are spread across different platforms and there is no real way to establish quality of job roles. For someone like Asha to successfully navigate through this maze would be almost impossible.

Similar issues plague the arena of skilling; candidates looking to upskill find it difficult to connect with credible skill providers, and ‘certified’ trainees often do not have the required skills to make them employable. Data from India’s biggest skilling programme, PMKVY, testifies to this fact. Over the last few years, only one in four persons who trained under PMKVY, were actually placed.

Designing the future of work
Technology can potentially bridge these gaps that we observe in the labour market. Already, several employers conduct recruitment through digital platforms, and there has been a significant ramping up of State level employment initiatives such as the Delhi Rozgar Bazaar — a government job portal.

To extend support to blue and grey collar workers, the Central Government has also announced a beta version of the Unnati platform. Meanwhile, there are a number of promising private sector initiatives that have come up, such as a new hyperlocal job search portal named Jobsgaar as well as other established platforms like QuikrJobs and AasaanJobs.

While these initiatives are impressive, connecting them through a common digital platform can yield immense benefit. In fact, the government has already indicated its plans to develop Unnati as a “platform of platforms” to facilitate interoperability and bring together the entire ecosystem, in the form of a national open digital ecosystem — a Talent NODE.

People like Asha can benefit greatly from such a Talent NODE. In one place, they can find information on accredited skilling programmes including placement records, as well as details about employment opportunities. Private players can seek insights from this platform to create value-added services such as counselling, aptitude testing and credit transfers between training institutes. As more initiatives get integrated into this platform, it can host a wealth of information, offering a bird’s eye view for India’s talent.

Building a robust Talent NODE
While the Talent NODE is a promising idea, its execution will need innovative solutions to address several dogged challenges. The first issue is the verification of existing skills — a problem that has been especially hard to solve. Looking to international examples, Singapore uses “OpenCerts”, a blockchain platform to validate educational certificates.

While this could work for university/college degrees, verifying skillsets for grey collar jobs could prove tricky. This would require further standardisation and certification of vocational courses — a task which the Ministry of Skill Development has already started on through the National Occupational Standards.

The second related issue is that of universal access. The informal sector accounts for approximately 93 per cent of the employed population in India. In the case of the Talent NODE, this population could face a high risk of exclusion. Mitigating the exclusion risk would require engagement with marginalised groups, via both online and offline channels.

Common Service Centres (CSCs), for example, could be used to facilitate last-mile reach. Similarly, user-friendly, vernacular interfaces could greatly benefit job and skill seekers across segments.

The Talent NODE is by no means a silver bullet. But if done right, through an innovative and inclusive approach, between 50-80 million people can be expected to benefit from new jobs or jobs that are better matched to their skills. A million different opportunities firing up a million ‘ashas’ or aspirations, for millions like Asha — all through one inter-connected ecosystem.

How the Model Tenancy Act can benefit homeowners and tenants

Authors: Shilpa Kumar & Shivani Gupta
Published: July 29, 2021 in the Indian Express
 
India is set to double its urban population between 2018 and 2030, with estimates projecting that by 2028, New Delhi would become the most populous city on the planet. This large-scale migration to urban centres in India is bound to create pressure on housing markets. As per the Report of the Technical Group (TG-12) on Estimation of Urban Housing Shortage (2012), the economically weaker sections and low-income groups currently face 96 per cent of the total housing shortage in India. In such a scenario, building a market for affordable and reliable rental housing is an important policy objective to achieve.

According to the 2011 Census data, nearly 11 million housing units were vacant in the country. This combined with a shortage of nearly 19 million units in 2012 presents a perplexing picture. There are several policy bottlenecks due to which homeowners prefer to keep their homes vacant instead of renting them out. Firstly, the existence of pro-tenant rent control laws across Indian states continues to be an obstacle. These laws protect the rights of the tenants while diluting those of the homeowners. In the case of housing that was not vacant, as per the National Sample Survey Organisation’s data of 2012, 71 per cent of households living in rented accommodations did not have a written contract. This informality could be, in part, a result of this pro-tenant character of the rent control laws and partly because of the large proportion of informal housing. Secondly, judicial delays in case of disputes have dampened the spirits of homeowners over time.

Acknowledging the issues with the rental housing sector today, the Union cabinet recently approved the Model Tenancy Act, 2021, which can significantly boost India’s rental markets.

The Act calls for the repeal of existing rent control laws in all states and Union territories, removing monetary ceilings on the rent amount and allowing for negotiation on the duration of tenancy between homeowners and tenants based on market standards. The Act addresses various challenges that exist in the rental market for both homeowners and tenants, ranging from the fear of illegal occupation/eviction, arbitrary security deposit and structural maintenance-related demands, and high transaction and legal costs.

The Act facilitates another long pending demand of experts for special fast-track courts to settle rental disputes. In India, an average commercial civil suit was disposed of in 1,445 days in a district court, as per World Bank’s Doing Business Report in 2018. To fast-track the disposal of rental disputes, the Model Tenancy Act, 2021 envisions improved contract enforcement through a three-tier dispute redressal mechanism. However, protracted litigation remains a risk. While the adjudicatory bodies at the second and third-tier of appeal are required to dispose of cases within a 60-day timeline, no such time limit is placed on the first tier, the rent authority.

Nonetheless, the Model Tenancy Act, 2021 is expected to provide a fillip to private participation with the formalisation of rental housing markets in India. With a legal framework in place, the private sector can enter into affordable rental housing markets through models like “Build to Rent” and “Rent to Own”. Under the “Build to Rent” model, private residential properties, when built in the right locality such as employment and educational hubs, with the target demographic in mind, can serve as a reliable option for prospective tenants, while providing lucrative and regular returns to the owners. Under the “Rent to Own” model, the owner agrees to sell the house to the tenant in the future and the initial contract contains the necessary clauses to affect the future transfer of ownership. This model is popular across the housing markets of United Kingdom, Middle East and Africa and can serve well in Indian cities where developers are sitting on a large inventory of unsold ready-to-move in stock.

Finally, while the Model Tenancy Act, 2021 provides a promising framework for tenancy agreements in the future, past rental agreements under the states’ respective rent control laws will continue. The meagre rents that homeowners are allowed to charge under the rent control laws are the reason behind a large number of dilapidated housing units and chawls, such as in the case of Mumbai. Due to low rents, the homeowner does not have an incentive to improve the quality of their rental units. The low quality of these units is a major threat to the safety of the low-income groups and migrants living in them. This points to the need for a separate mechanism beyond the Model Tenancy Act that ensures the provision of safe and good quality rental units for tenants, while ensuring a fair economic return for homeowners.

As the Model Act has been circulated by the central government amongst the states, it is yet to be seen what changes are incorporated by the latter to suit the local context. While the Act is a much-needed reform for India’s housing sector, one hopes that states use this opportunity to unlock the economic value of vacant housing and increase access to good quality housing, for all demographics.

Kumar is a partner at Omidyar Network India and Gupta is a former Senior Policy Analyst at The Quantum Hub

Balancing privacy and agency: Data governance needs a gender lens

Authors: Mayank Mishra & Aparajita Bharti
Published: September 16, 2021 in the Hindustan Times
 
The rise of big data and machine learning has caused an immense growth in powerful technologies and applications. But simultaneously, the same technologies have become a privacy nightmare for their users. The algorithms behind these technologies amass a huge amount of data from individuals, which is then used (or sold to other firms) to target, persuade, reward, or penalise users. While privacy issues have been extensively debated, a discussion on how data governance laws might impact women differently than men and affect their agency on the internet has been mostly missing.

“As India moves towards an increasingly digital society, how privacy and data governance laws may impact women’s safety and agency on the internet should not come as an afterthought.”

Women and men use digital technologies differently. According to a 2017 survey, women use social media (such as Facebook and Instagram) significantly more than men. At the same time, there appears to be a huge disparity in mobile ownership. The National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-20) indicates significant diversity between states and union territories (UTs) in terms of the percentage of women having a mobile phone, with figures ranging from 49% in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh to 91% in Goa. Areas with less penetration of phones among women indicate shared use of mobile phones in Indian families, which, in turn, impact women’s behaviour on the internet.

Women also face a higher risk of reputational loss online. Between 2017 and 2018, cases of cyberstalking or bullying of women or children increased by 36% while the conviction rate fell from 40% to 25%. Such issues can negatively affect the mental health of victims resulting from humiliation, diminishing self-esteem, and social isolation. These incidents also lead to a perception of the internet as an unsafe place for women.

Given these sensitivities around women’s data and its impact on their ability to use the internet, India’s various data governance proposals that are under discussion currently must be evaluated from a gender lens.

For example, the proposed Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill, 2019 imposes a blanket requirement for parental consent for processing the personal data of anyone below the age of 18 years. This effectively gives parents control over teens’ access to any internet platform. While protection of minors’ data is indeed important, a blanket requirement such as this coupled with the shared usage of mobile phones, may compromise the agency of teenage girls far more than boys, as families exert control over their usage. Most other countries have this age requirement at 13 years as teenagers make use of the internet to learn new skills, build new relationships and explore their identities.

Another example is the governance of non-personal data, a framework that will facilitate the usage of aggregate data to build Artificial Intelligence (AI) to deliver better services to Indian citizens. The Krish Gopalakrishnan Committee on non-personal data has come out with two different frameworks to facilitate this sharing of data. However, a larger discussion around algorithmic biases against women has been missing. AI algorithms learn the patterns in the training datasets to utilise that learning for predictive analytics, among other things. There are multiple ways in which this could lead to discriminatory outcomes for women.

First, through the underlying bias in the training datasets. For example, if an algorithm is trained on outcomes that are unfavourable for women, it will replicate the same in its predictions. Second, if women are underrepresented in the training dataset (very likely due to the existing digital divide), then it will result in products that aren’t designed for women, furthering the digital divide over time. For instance, if an automated speech recognition system is trained on a dataset that has disproportionately fewer voice snippets of women talking, it will make errors while trying to comprehend women’s voices. Therefore, perhaps a policy around AI development is more urgent and needs guardrails around ensuring that underlying datasets are not biased.

Further, from a privacy perspective, the risks of identification by piecing together different sets of non-personal data are far higher for women than men. For example, non-personal data from women’s health apps, when pieced together with shopping data, may risk revealing their identities and their reproductive health issues.

As India moves towards an increasingly digital society, how privacy and data governance laws may impact women’s safety and agency on the internet should not come as an afterthought. We need to have these discussions front and centre as these regulations can be a key building block to women’s agency on the internet and their participation in the economy of the future. We risk deepening the existing chasms in an increasingly digital world, if we do not get this right.

Rebuilding lives: Pandemic an intergenerational event, needs targeted relief effort

Author: Sonakshi Chaudhry
Published: June 22, 2021 in the Hindu Business Line
 
With the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, India has been battling a Hydra, with new issues emerging from the wounds of older ones. In response, the Centre and States have been working on two key points critical for our country’s recovery from the pandemic — the immediate healthcare response, and inoculation drives across the country. While the immediacy of these concerns is undoubtable, in addition to the health contours of this crisis, an equally close watch on its socio-economic aspects is essential towards designing a relief and recovery plan that is both inclusive and sustainable.

Reports have highlighted how different groups have been affected by the pandemic in myriad ways. A slew of measures, tailored to addressing the varying needs of these vulnerable groups, are therefore critical towards ensuring that households and families can sustain themselves through the pandemic. The announcement of the extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana till November is a welcome step, but many more interventions like this are needed.

Need for more data
Perhaps the most fundamental first step towards pandemic relief is the collection of granular data, which can build a path to recovery. Reliable datasets will help assess deaths owing to the pandemic, reach vulnerable families such as those who have lost their primary breadwinners, plan healthcare and social expenditure, and measure adverse outcomes like school dropouts and job losses to better design policy responses. Also, while gender-disaggregated data has always been a consistent need, in light of the current situation — with mounting evidence of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and girls — these datasets are critical.

The next pressing concern that we need to focus on is livelihoods. According to CMIE data, in the week ending 30 May 2021, the unemployment rate stood at 12.3 per cent, a sharp spike from 8 per cent in the month preceding it, and then inched up still further to 13.6 per cent in the first week of June.

Job schemes
This calls for a priority towards generating sustained periods of rural employment through schemes such as MGNREGA, which proved to be a vital support system for returning migrants in the first wave. For urban centres, States could also consider exploring urban employment schemes which guarantee a minimum number of days of work in urban areas. Odisha, Jharkhand, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh have already implemented such programmes.

Relief efforts must also consciously endeavour to provide support to bereaved families. This is important in light of the fact that official Ministry of Health and Family Welfare data reflects that deaths in India have crossed the 3.5 lakh mark. Support schemes have already been announced in several States such as Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir and Madhya Pradesh, among others. These schemes may also aim to provide quotas and special job counselling for individuals from families that have lost primary breadwinners, and businesses can be further incentivised to hire people from the identified families.

Innovative moves
States such as Madhya Pradesh have also introduced schemes such as Anukampa Niyukti to employ dependents of deceased government employees on compassionate grounds. Simultaneously, institutions such as old-age homes, Anganwadis, and paediatric health facilities must be strengthened to support young children and elderly people who have been left without care. State governments must find ways to collaborate with non-governmental organisations in this regard to be able to counsel impacted families according to their unique circumstances.

The negative impacts of this pandemic are intergenerational. For example, families that have lost their primary breadwinners may be forced to compromise on their long term goals to meet short term needs, children who have lost their parents may lose access to care, women who have not been able to access government services may see a drop in nutrition and institutional deliveries leading to adverse outcomes, and children — especially girls — may be forced to drop out of education altogether.

States and the Centre therefore need to proactively identify the most impacted groups and create targeted interventions to help them rebuild their lives. This has to be done through robust data collection, a focus on livelihoods, and the creation of resilient social infrastructure. Combatting this behemoth needs collective, effective responses, planning not just for current requirements but also taking a long term view towards the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives.