Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Jan 15, 2022
To emerge as tech power in the future, India needs to rethink its approach towards policymaking
Technology policymaking in India: The need for a paradigm shift

This piece is part of the series, Technology and Governance: Competing Interests

The emergence of technology policymaking in the Indian context is relatively recent. Over the past decade, the government has formulated policy and vision statements in an attempt to keep pace with evolving technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), blockchain and cryptocurrency, and quantum tech. There isn’t even an iota of doubt regarding the intentions of these initiatives. These are designed, developed, and framed to strengthen India’s technological position globally and for India to emerge as a world leader in the coming years.

However, India must recognise that the future of policymaking will be largely driven by technology and now is the time to set standard technology policy procedures in place, i.e., standardised frameworks to design, develop, and implement technology policies should be forged. To achieve this, India has to step away from conventional policy processes while laying down technology policies. Technology is dynamic and ever-changing while the core objective of policymaking is public welfare. Hence, while technology policies should be designed and developed keeping this objective in consideration, it should have enough flexibility to accommodate the metamorphosing nature of technology.

Technology policymaking is on the horizon

Under the prevailing system, the lion's share of public policies in India are designed bottom up, that is, when the need arises to solve a pressing issue, a policy comes into place. Policymaking is seldom approached from a “systems thinking perspective. Policies under the prevailing system are not holistically designed—they merely endeavour to solve existing problems. Indian policymakers rarely match pace with new tools and methodologies while designing policies. Also, Indian policies lack properly defined outcomes and outputs. This further adds to the timeless problem in Indian policy design: The absence of a feedback mechanism. On paper, these policies might convey the appearance of being ideal but owing to these key provisions, they often fail in the implementation phase or do not bring about the requisite outcomes. Unfortunately, the same approach is being followed while designing tech policies in the country.

Indian policymakers rarely match pace with new tools and methodologies while designing policies. Also, Indian policies lack properly defined outcomes and outputs. This further adds to the timeless problem in Indian policy design: The absence of a feedback mechanism.

The world stands on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), with Big Tech firms like Facebook (now Meta) implementing mind-boggling tech like the Metaverse (based on Augmented Reality); and others like Google, which have achieved quantum supremacy; and SpaceX, which is on the verge of colonising space. With these technological innovations becoming commonplace in the coming decades, India not only needs to push for innovation back home but also design robust policy mechanisms to achieve tech sovereignty. Along with this, these mechanisms and frameworks should also strengthen economic competitiveness, bolster local development, and pave the way for greater collaboration between the private and public sectors. As the world gets interconnected at a far deeper level, India needs to ensure complete hardware, software, and overall technological ascendency. We look at some of these issues in this piece.

Subjects like Design Thinking, Systems Thinking, Game Theory, and Theory of Change have entered the realm of policymaking, ushering in a new era of tech policymaking. While these methods have been adopted by some of the more competitive economies, India lags behind. There are numerous experts on these subjects, in both academia and industry, and India must leverage their knowledge and experience to build sustainable tech policies.

Technology policies should not be seen as standalone programmes. They should not be designed and developed in silos, independent of other socio-economic and security policies. There should be sufficient room for linkages and interdependence.

Most importantly, security and privacy concerns should be readily addressed. Policymakers should consider safety, privacy, and security of the users as basic tenets when designing a tech policy. With the advance of technology, these fundamentals will shape how users adapt to and adopt new technologies.

India needs to decide what to regulate and what to leave out. Since a lot of the technology of the future will be dependent on the internet, policymakers and decision-makers should expedite regulation approvals. More discussion and deliberation about regulation and the involvement of government in uptake of new technology must be encouraged within all groups of society, especially amongst those who will be impacted the most by these policies.

The time is ripe for tech policy to engage in greater public outreach in creating a more nuanced public discourse. Over the last few decades, technology, and decisions around it, have remained elusive to the Indian citizenry. Tech policies might be shaped by the highest echelons of the polity, but they do carry lasting impact on the lives of millions. India urgently needs to move past this form of debilitated policymaking. There is a dire need to make the processes more inclusive and participatory.

Technologies, as are known today, will evolve with time. The government and other relevant agencies must appreciate the fact that tech policies require futuristic thinking. For this, a multi-stakeholder ecosystem must be developed for each of these technologies such that research and development can translate into commercialised applications. This can only be achieved with a proactive approach rather than solely relying on a needs-based approach.

India needs to decide what to regulate and what to leave out. Since a lot of the technology of the future will be dependent on the internet, policymakers and decision-makers should expedite regulation approvals.

An evidence-based decision-making approach, with scientific evidence backing every decision, is critical not only for conventional policies but for technology policies as well. This will make implementation of and compliance to tech policies more realistic. It will also cut out unnecessary losses, optimise resources, reduce disparities, and bring more accountability. Incorporating this approach early-on in the policy-making process can also assist in building a feedback loop (as discussed earlier).

Effective monitoring and evaluation frameworks need to be designed. Since tech policy outcomes and outputs are going to be different from conventional policies, new frameworks and new metrics need to be conceptualised and instituted. For instance, merely achieving a technological feat might not count as a proper policy outcome, instead, indicators to gauge the impact of such policies need to be revisited.

There is also a need to build a cadre of tech policy experts. As the world moves more towards specialisation, the government needs to train experts in tech policymaking who not just understand the know-how of technologies but are also adept at understanding the socio-economic, cultural, and behavioral impact of their applications. Such a cadre of experts will not only assist in framing policies for modern-day technology but also help envisioning tech progress of the future.

Technological sovereignty should be the guiding principle. Policymakers should try to follow this fundamental principle while framing India’s tech policies. India needs to focus on hardware manufacturing and upskilling to reduce reliance on other countries, like its recently announced Semiconductor Mission to aid Aatmanirbhar Bharat. More of these initiatives that are aimed towards making India a hardware equipment leader will be fruitful. With its billion plus population, India has an advantage over other countries when it comes to data collection, collation, and manipulation. India’s data policies should be framed in such a way that it is able to leverage the potential of this infinite resource.

While the Government of India’s approach to designing technology policy leaves much to be desired, with appropriate course correction measures, India’s technology policies can be made more impactful. With deep and disruptive technologies changing and challenging the way the states and societies function, the need of the hour is for greater collaboration and cooperation. Further, policies affect not merely the government, rather, it affects all stakeholders concerned. Therefore, strengthened outreach and incorporation of perspectives outside the state agencies are essential for viable and sustainable policymaking.

Fortunately, India is endowed with an abundance of high calibre indigenous experts, who have been routinely highlighting various aspects of this debate. Outside the government, experts with diverse specialties have offered solutions to better formulate technology policy, incorporating various facets of what has been discussed thus far. While indigenous experts have provided their expertise on technology policy as a whole, a plethora of such expertise can also be found in niche fields as diverse as norms governing Artificial Intelligence (AI), space policy, biotechnology, and quantum computing policy. To attain its rightful place in the world of the future, India must leverage all expertise at its disposal, keeping stakeholders at the centre of the process.

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Prachi Mishra

Prachi Mishra

Prachi Mishra is a Young Leaders in Tech Policy Fellow at the University of Chicago presently working at CSST for their quantum meta-ethics project.

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