DigiLocker can become a transformative governance game-changer

Amit Ranjan, Chief Architect, Digilocker
Amit Ranjan, Chief Architect, Digilocker

One of the biggest initiatives and comparable to Aadhaar, DigiLocker is a key initiative under the Digital India programme, and aims to eliminate the use of physical documents and usher India into an era of paperless governance. DigiLocker’s creation is interesting, as its founder, Amit Ranjan, was an entrepreneur, and interestingly, moved to the government ecosystem to become one of the key architects for DigiLocker. Amit Ranjan, was earlier co-founder of SlideShare, which was sold to LinkedIn.

In a detailed interaction with EC’s Srikanth RP, Amit Ranjan, Architect, National DigiLocker Project (National eGov Division, Ministry of IT, GoI) shares why he chose to become a part of the national initiative. Some edited excerpts from the interview

From being a co-founder of SlideShare to working as the Architect of the Digital Locker Project, how has the transition been for you? What are some of the major learnings?

My role in the government was not planned, but a spur of the moment decision. In 2014 after a decade long entrepreneurship journey, I was exiting SlideShare/ LinkedIn and planned to take a year or two off, before going back to start another company. That’s when I bumped into some people from the government- they told me about this project and invited me to be a part of its team. My first reaction was – “Off course not – I have no plans to work for the government, not even in my dreams!” But on careful introspection, the enormity of the project, its transformational nature and the roleit can play in nation building as a key national technology infrastructure became clearer to me. It seemed an unparalleled intellectual and operational challenge. I guess SlideShare has intrinsically made me more risk taking, so I thought – “Let me take this risk, hopefully I’ll be able to make some contribution towards the country. Besides I’ll get a chance to work in a totally different environment after my industry and startup stints.”

To make this transition, I started off by trying to set the right self-expectancies.I realize the government is an incredibly complex organization and operates very differently than the private sector. To succeed in this environment, I’d need to start up from scratch (think a government startup!) but avoid dialling back too much into my previous experiences. I’ll need an open mind, be a quick learner and continually keep adapting to the emerging situation. Personally I’ve been a big believer in the Darwinian rule that it isn’t the strongest that survive and thrive, but the ones most adaptable to change. And there’s no reason why the government would be an exception to this universal rule.

The learnings are immense and are continuing every day. At a broad level, I’ve now aware of how the government system works and the rules, procedures and practices that drive its rhythm. I’ve been exposed to the vast socio-economic differences that exist in our society, and why the government often takes a very bottom-of-the-pyramid approach. One of the key learnings has been the contrast between the government and private sectors. In the private sector (particularly in startups), one has the advantage of converging on a problem and working in a narrowly focused area. The government sector is fundamentally divergent – the work area is broad, you get pulled from different directions and often don’t have locus of control. It’s like the difference between solving a quadratic equation versus a higher degree polynomial equation!

What were some of your key challenges in building this platform? Can you share some views on the initial days to the final delivery of the project?

The Digital Locker project is attempting to build a complete paperless governance ecosystem in the country. The core idea is to digitize the documents and certificates that get issued to an Indian citizen over his/her lifetime and build a paperless platform where the entire document transaction happens digitally in a safe and secure manner. Imagine a world where you are never issued any paper documents – everything comes to you on the internet and you further use it digitally in a paperless way.

There are three parts of this challenge. First, you need to conceptualise, design and build the core technology platform and the APIs, infrastructure that will power it. Secondly all documents and certificates (past and future) need to be digitised and made available on this platform. Thirdly you have to build out the larger ecosystem whereby this technology is available to everyone in the country through a public – private partnership model. This ecosystem has to interoperable, based on open standards and systems without technology or vendor lock-in. And all of this has to be backed by appropriate changes to the Indian IT Act and its subordinate rules and regulations, so that it can stand legal and constitutional scrutiny.

One important point to mention is that the government wants to invoke a strong public private partnership in building out this ecosystem. Digitising documents and certificates across government and private issuers across the length and breadth of the country is a gigantic task and no single entity can do justice to it. This necessarily means that multiple players have to be a part of the paperless ecosystem in an economically sustainable model and contribute to expanding its footprint.

DigiLocker was launched as a secure platform for Indian citizens to store and access their documents on an electronic repository provided by the Government of India.What are some of the key highlights/ achievements for DigiLocker?

The National Digital Locker project was launched by the Prime Minister in July 2015. This marked the rollout of the government digital locker called “DigiLocker”, which is being built by the Ministry of IT. Since then, about 4 million citizens have registered for their DigiLocker accounts on the website and about 1 million citizens have downloaded the DigiLocker mobile app from the Android PlayStore.We have succeeded in integrating 25 government agencies and departments as document issuers. These 25 agencies have collectively made available about 1.65 billion digital documents on the DigiLocker platform. The digital documents include Aadhaar cards (issued by UIDAI), driving licenses and vehicle registration certificates (issued by Ministry of Transport), LPG vouchers (issued by Ministry of Petroleum), CBSE Std XII & X mark-sheets and certificates, besides a host of other documents like income certificates, caste certificates, domicile certificates, birth certificates at al – the document list consists of 208 different types!

Getting issuer departments to undertake digitization of their databases (many of which are based on standalone, legacy systems) and subsequent integration with DigiLocker has been a very demanding effort. It has taken a lot of dogged persistence to convince issuers about the feasibility of the platform and get them to be amongst the early adopters of this untried system. We have undertaken a nationwide roadshow of sorts – pitching Digital Locker to hundreds of central, state and municipal government entities across the country. Our team is really proud of the effort that has gone into this.

In your view, what are some of the major areas/functions on which Digilocker has made a major impact in the country? Can you cite some examples?

It is early days for Digital Locker, since the platform is still being built. The pace of its adoption partly depends on the speed at which digitization can happen i.e. availability of digital documents are a prerequisite for usage. But people have already started using it in their daily lives.

The digital driving licenses and vehicle registration certificates available on the platform are used by motorists across the country for verification when they get flagged down by traffic policeman. People are using the digital Aadhaar card from DigiLocker to prove their identity at railway stations, trains, airports, etc. STD XII CBSE students who passed out in 2016 were issued their digital certificates on the day of result announcement itself. Many of them started applying for universities and colleges using the digital certificates immediately without waiting for the physical certificates (which takes a few weeks). Indian citizens applying for PAN cards online via the Income Tax Department’s appointed agencies – UTI & NSDL can directly use DigiLocker documents as part of the application process.

An additional feature of DigiLocker that is getting used extensively is the eSign facility. Citizens can also upload scanned copies of their certificates, digitally sign it using eSign and share it with requesters – this is an online equivalent of the self-attested documents required for availing various services. As more digitised documents enter the digital locker ecosystem, we hope a multiplier effect will kick in and lead to a critical mass of users nationally.

As a creator for DigiLocker, what kind of apps or services in other sectors would you like to see DigiLocker being leveraged?

As I explained, Digital Locker is planned as an interoperable ecosystem in which multiple digital lockers will co-exist to cover the document footprint across the country. The Ministry of IT is in the process of notifying the licensing norms for this multiplayer architecture. This means that in a few months from now, you will have not just the government built DigiLocker, but other digital lockers offering their services. Citizens can choose any one or more of these digital lockers and they will get to see a unified view of all their documents (made possible by interoperable APIs). This is similar to how the credit card infrastructure works – your credit card is issued by your bank, but it can be operated in any banks’ ATM across the country.

We expect vertical specific digital lockers to emerge eventually. These could take the form of a digital locker exclusively for health records, or for aggregating insurance policies, or banking documents. Specialized digital lockers for education are already being built. So the concept can be extended to any domain.  

Your future vision for DigiLocker (which is going to become more important, especially in a cashless paperless world that is being actively pursued by the Government)? What are the sectors (education, healthcare) can be transformed using the power of DigiLocker?

When we started the initial work on Digital Locker, the end goal looked BHAG – big, hairy and audacious. It took us some time to break out the goal into logical building blocks which can be explained to others in a simple way. One of the analogies I’ve used to explain it – imagine if you were building a complete transportation system for your city. You’d have to first build the car (i.e. digital locker tech platform) followed by building a steady supply of fuel (i.e. digitised documents). Finally you’d have to build out the interconnected roads and formulate the driving rules (i.e. ecosystem). Only once all these are in place can one say that the traffic is smooth across the city and delivering people from one point to another. My personal vision for paperless governance using digital locker is inspired by this example.Our tech platform is ready, the digitization engine is firing up, now what is needed is the multiplayer ecosystem to kick in – that will complete the loop and get the national paperless flows running.  Coupled with cashless payments, we hope digital locker will become a transformative governance game-changer and make the lives of Indian citizens simpler and more convenient than before. It will also lead to reduced bureaucracy, result in massive cost savings and usher in a new era of technology enabled governance. 

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