Published on Jan 18, 2024

Astha Kapoor and Trisha Ray

In a press release dated 13 September 2022, India’s Ministry of External Affairs listed “Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI)” as a priority area for the country’s upcoming G20 presidency. The centrality of DPIs to the G20 agenda is not surprising. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have demonstrated that digital infrastructure are useful for responding to crises and building resilience in the long term by ensuring independence from big technology companies and hegemonic technological systems (such as SWIFT payments) that may be influenced by geopolitical circumstances. Concurrently, India has emerged as a leader in DPI; as of September, 13 billion Aadhaar numbers have been generated, and the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) reached 300 million users, an impressive feat achieved through a creative mix of offline, grassroots outreach, and a “mobile-first” approach to reach unconnected areas.

Countries have historically invested in public infrastructure in the form of railroads, highways, and parks that have connected citizens, the private sector, and government. Similarly, DPIs—such as identity systems, payments, data exchanges—are ‘digital railroads’ that allow the government to reach citizens more efficiently. The private sector can build applications and innovation ecosystems, and the citizens can hold both the government and private sector accountable. DPIs are built on open standards that are usable by anyone, which makes them interoperable and implementable across sectors and stakeholders. Digital public goods (DPGs) are types of open-source software, open data, models, and standards that countries can use to operationalise their digital public infrastructure.

As public health systems collapsed and social security nets struggled to reach those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for greater investments in DPIs became clearer. But countries that had invested in robust digital infrastructure were able to respond more efficiently. For instance, in Taiwan, DPIs were used for contract tracing; South Korea spent significant resources to create reliable public data repositories; Togo and Sri Lanka relied on DHIS2, an open software platform for reporting, analysing, and disseminating health programme data to identify patients and reach support to them during the pandemic; Estonia used its digital identity infrastructure to issue immunity passports for people returning to workplaces. The use of DPIs is also evident in the Ukraine war, where the Estonian collaboration with Ukraine has provided decentralised governance infrastructure that have allowed the government to provide services and support to their citizens even through the ongoing crisis.

Beyond gains on efficiency, investment in DPIs can also enable digital sovereignty through open-source software, models, and standards. Digital sovereignty implies the power of governments to make free decisions on issues impacting the digital lives of their citizens and public services, which is sometimes threatened by private sector organisations that use their size and influence to abuse their technological power. Countries with less bargaining power (financial, market limitations) are unable to negotiate with technology companies and can get involved in vendor lock-ins and imperfect contracts that can harm the rights of their citizens. In this context, DPIs offer countries the space to exercise greater control over their digital infrastructure and prevent siloed, fragmented digital relations.

India’s own DPIs—such as Aadhaar, UPI, Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture, Open Network for Digital Commerce, and Open Credit Enablement Network—are examples of government investments in digital infrastructure, help reach services to those excluded at the last mile, and also provide space for the private sector to create applications, use cases, and foster a competitive environment for new, young startups in the country. This investment in DPIs has given India a position of leadership through which it can offer a new path to other countries. Efforts such as Modular Open Source Identity Platform provide support to different countries (such as Morocco and the Philippines) to help them build out their digital identification systems. These platforms have helped share India’s experiences with other parts of the world. India’s UPI payment system is also being touted as a possible alternative to the dominant SWIFT system.

The global DPI project has seen other nations bring their own experiences into the milieu as well. Countries such as Estonia have built extensive DPIs that are being used in their own country and across Europe. Trembita—a data exchange layer built with the help of the Estonian e-governance academy to enable government authorities to speak to each other—ensures uninterrupted information exchange across different organs of the government. Trembita was built keeping in mind Ukraine’s conflict with Russia and, therefore, has a cryptographic layer for more protection. Recently, at the UN General Assembly, global leaders committed to sharing DPGs and best practices to build a more inclusive, equitable world. Donors such as the Gates Foundation and the government of Norway committed US$295 million to support the development and expansion of DPIs.

There is an immense opportunity to showcase the efforts India has made on DPIs at public forums and through bilateral engagement. Through strategic engagements, India can enable a critical G20 sign-off or partnership on DPIs and position itself as a leader with the capacity to help member countries develop and deploy DPIs in their own countries.