National Informatics Centre Orchestrating Towards a Digitally Empowered Nation

Dr Neeta Verma, Director General, National Informatics Centre, India shares some insights on how NIC is helping the government achieve its Digital India dream and render the best citizen services to all its people, the role of emerging technologies for public service delivery, and what the future looks like for them

Digital India Program of the Government has laid a lot of emphasis on Digital Infrastructure, Digital Transformation, Digital Services and Digital Inclusion. With a vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy, a large number of initiatives have been launched in recent times across various sectors of socio-economic development. The onset of the pandemic has further accelerated the adoption of Digital Platforms pan India and many more new initiatives are taking shape as well. National Informatics Centre (NIC) is proud to be associated with many of these initiatives of the government.

National Informatics Centre (NIC), established in 1976, has a rich experience in providing ICT infrastructure and solutions to the government for the past four decades. NIC spearheaded “Informatics-Led-Development” by implementing ICT applications in social and public administration and facilitates electronic delivery of services to the government (G2G), business (G2B), citizens (G2C) and government employees (G2E).

NIC has also built many digital solutions to support the government at various levels, making the last-mile delivery of government services to the citizens a reality. NIC is a very uniquely positioned organisation where they work closely with the Central as well as the State governments and district administrations. And today, they have over 800 offices pan India along with data centres across India.

Finding opportunity in adversity

The whole world is going through one of the most challenging times due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Governments around the world are providing a wide range of services to the citizens during the pandemic. Talking about how NIC is spearheading the technology transformation and ensuring effective citizen services delivery in these difficult times, Dr Neeta Verma, Director General, National Informatics Centre, India shares, “We are seeing unprecedented times. When the lockdown started on the 23rd of March, the pandemic was at an early stage, but we were getting ready for extending support to the government. During such times, the scope of work for the government increases manifold as they need to manage day-to-day governance along with managing the pandemic. So, the first thing we tackled during this total lockdown was how we could make the government employees talk to each other, meet virtually and take decisions faster.”

The spread of the COVID-19 was varying in different states and districts, so it was important to understand the situation in places which were most affected and the challenges of the people there. During such times, NIC’s video conferencing service proved to be a big boon for them. They have supported around 1000 to 1500 video conferences every day, and the demand has been rising ever since. Secondly, since, 31st of March was the closing of the financial year, NIC, fortunately, had its successfully running product called eOffice suite which helped convert physical files into digital ones and its pace of adoption accelerated tremendously across central and state governments. They were able to scale up and meet the demands of this increased usage of eOffice because most of their services are currently implemented through the National Cloud.

Dr Verma further added that since the pandemic began, NIC came up with many digital initiatives to ensure continuity of citizen services, whether it was digital payments platform or new applications that could help track inventory of hospitals, COVID-19 testing labs pan India, Quarantine Management, COVID-19 war rooms and many other important services. “NIC developed the Aarogya Setu app, which is a technology solution for contact tracing and has become a household name now. With over 165 million downloads, it is today the largest contact tracing app in the world. We also ensured that digital transfer of financial assistance provided by the government to citizens is happening without any delay in these times of crisis,” she adds.

Digitalising India with every step

In the past few years, NIC has taken giant strides in terms of digitalising multiple citizen services. It has ensured that India is achieving its mission of becoming a digitally empowered nation with each passing day. Sharing more insights, Dr Verma explains, “The access to technology and the stability of the core infrastructure varies in different geographies and terrains. Ours is a young nation with a diverse population and varying levels of literacy. Affordability, in terms of having access to smartphones, etc., is also another factor. So, I always reflected on how our citizens can get seamless access to technology? The good thing for us is that this revolution has already begun in India and is witnessing significant acceptance from everyone. A lot of service providers and government agencies had started providing broadband at an affordable price. Today, smartphones are also available at a lesser price. At NIC, our philosophy has been ‘Mobile First’ where citizens can access most of our services through a mobile phone. The mobile revolution has played a key role in enhancing the reach of government services to citizens and has today become the prime medium for service delivery to citizens.”

Another focus area for NIC was the development of digital solutions which would enable digital transactions in a transparent and efficient manner. Earlier, citizens were able to apply for services online, but when it came to payments, they still had to print the slips, submit the physical application and make the payments physically. But when demonetisation happened, UPI and digital payments started becoming the norm. And at that time, the digital mode of payment was extensively promoted up to the district level by the government. It helped in making their services cashless. The COVID-19 pandemic further added to this as everyone avoided physical interactions as much as possible, and now much of the transactions could happen through digital methods in a safe and secure manner. Things have changed, and the citizens of India have shown that they have an appetite to embrace digital in their day-to-day lives.

Dr Verma also explained how all of this was achieved with the help of robust cloud infrastructure. “With the advent of National Cloud and the concept of virtualisation, we could increase the capacity of our data centres, which brought in a lot of efficiency and convenience. Whether it was election results, exam results, counselling, or even the declaration of the Union Budget, the entire activity had to finish in a specified period, and cloud helped us achieve both speed and scale.”

It is commendable that the adoption of digital technologies is now becoming mainstream into our lives, and we all are becoming a lot more digital along with the government putting in a lot of efforts, asserts Dr Verma. She shares, “In this whole process, there is a lot of data being generated. So, to use this data in a meaningful manner would be a key focus area. Governments and organisations around the world are exploring possible ways to use this data to generate insights out of it which will help them make informed decisions, going forward.”

At NIC, they have been working on the applications of data analytics. In 2018, they established Centre of Excellence in Data Analytics which is providing a wide range of services to the government including data quality assessment services, custom-built data analytics solutions, social media analytics, to name a few.

To further explore the applications of Artificial Intelligence in developing innovative solutions, NIC established the Centre of Excellence for Artificial Intelligence (CoEAI). Even during these COVID-19 times, their CoE for AI has developed multiple chatbots for various state governments to assist the citizens during this pandemic.

Partnerships that make a difference

NIC partnered with VMware to virtualise its infrastructure, consolidate and maximise utilisation of hardware infrastructure that it is using, automation and orchestration capabilities to provide infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, and other user-based services.

VMware has been associated with NIC in its endeavour to set-up the Government Cloud. Establishment of the Government Cloud has led to the provisioning of state-of-the-art scalable infrastructure, on-demand to government ministries and departments. In recent years, with the advent of cloud, the time taken to commission any of the government initiative or scheme digitally has significantly reduced. The effort to roll out a government program on a pan India basis has also reduced considerably, thereby ensuring faster delivery of services and benefits to the citizens.

According to Dr Verma, NIC associated with VMware when they were initiating the virtualisation of their machines. “With the introduction of cloud, we have been able to save huge costs as from one hardware machine, we could cull out multiple machines. This was extremely cost-effective. Further, cloud gave us the ability to scale up any government application on-demand, which we witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic also. So, with any increase in the demand, we could quickly add a few more VMs which was far more convenient than buying 2-3 more machines and then scale it up,” she shares.

Today, under the Digital India initiative, whether it is Swachh Bharat Mission, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, MNREGA, Fertilizer Subsidy Program, or even Jan Dhan Yojana, all these programs were practically born digital. So, from concept to commission, everything is digital. They were not just able to handle things more efficiently; they were also able to do things far more quickly.

She further says that with the availability of the cloud, they have also worked on the consolidation of their solutions and made them scalable at the national level. There is a wide range of solutions, services and platforms that NIC has built over a period and all of them are running successfully with the help of cloud.

Preparing for a digital future

We are embracing a future that is digitally empowered. While we have come a long way in our digital transformation journey, one cannot stop preparing for the future and investing in technologies that will help our country achieve its vision of a digitally inclusive society.

Talking about NIC’s future technology adoption plans, Dr Verma shares, “Since we are talking of technology for the future, we see a lot of development in containerisation. It can give us a much higher order of optimisation of resources and much more agility than what it was earlier. So, we have put in efforts there and established a Centre of Excellence in Microservices, which is completely focused on exploring the applications of microservices architecture in context to the government services.”

In today’s era, agility is a critical parameter, particularly as we witnessed the COVID-19 pandemic. The software that NIC develosp today might not be relevant tomorrow if the policy changes or the surrounding situations change. It must be agile to remove or add any functionality. With a microservices architecture, a lot of agility can be brought-in to the services.

Further, a step ahead in exploring emerging technologies, NIC established a Centre of Excellence for Blockchain Technology (CoEBCT) this year. Although the CoEBCT is in its early stages, but in the days to come, they have envisaged that it will help them create a coordinated, interoperable blockchain ecosystem in the country.

Dr Verma says, “The COVID-19 pandemic brought in unprecedented circumstances. We could experience that organisations that had digital conduct were able to continue their business services. Many other organisations are now exploring various digital solutions which would ensure continuity of their services. NIC’s existing range of services could quickly assist the government in their digital transformation. Services such as video conferencing have ensured effective communication within the government and with the citizens. In addition to this, the eOffice solution had all the facilities for government employees to work from home and ensure that their work is not suffering. Further, NIC is also coming up with a Work from Anywhere platform for the government which will provide access to all the productivity tools as well as domain-specific applications of government in a seamless manner with high-grade security.”

According to Dr Verma, to be well equipped for a digital future, we should also focus on the adoption of a design thinking approach in developing citizen-centric platforms. “In the days to come, we will witness intelligent and smart systems from the government organisations where we can envision latest technology interventions to create smart services.”

Delivering success and measuring the impact

The digital transformation journey so far for NIC has been rewarding, and the plans ahead are equally promising. While there have been multiple initiatives that have been put to action in the past few years, it is also essential to measure their impact.

Dr Verma says, “NIC has been the technology partner to the government of India. As far as government functioning is concerned, the first thing was how do you digitalise and automate government’s internal functions. There, I think, we have been able to make a big stride in terms of having the eOffice solution which handles complete internal processing of the government functions.”

NIC also has eProcurement where all the procurements can happen online along with another platform called eHRMS, which is managing the entire human resources function and even a financial application that takes care of all the payroll and Provident Fund related work. So, these products, along with the email, messaging and video conferencing services, take care of the entire internal functioning of the government on a day-to-day basis.

There are many more government initiatives, and programs where a lot of money gets disbursed to millions and millions of people in India through a digital platform in a very short time, which would not have been possible if they were still following a paper-based system. Earlier, there were a lot of middlemen in these initiatives and what was promised to the citizens could not reach them. Today, with platforms such as Direct Benefit Transfer, benefits are directly transferred to the bank account of beneficiaries.

Another initiative is the development of the Integrated Management of Public Distribution System (IMPDS) by NIC which integrates the public distribution systems of states and Union Territories (UTs) with a central system to facilitate portability of ration cards. This has helped the citizens from one state receive their share of ration in other states where they are working or residing while their family members at home state will continue to receive their share of benefits at their base location. IMPDS has undoubtedly brought in more transparency and convenience in the distribution of food grains, thereby helping us realise the objective of ‘One Nation One Ration Card’.

Similarly, eCourts has helped transform the Indian judiciary by ICT enablement of courts, thereby introducing transparency & improving the efficiency of judicial processes. Over the years, in a phased manner, the project enabled the computerisation of district and subordinate courts first, and then high courts were also covered. National Judicial Data Grid has emerged as a one-stop solution for all its stakeholders including the litigants, advocates, government agencies, police and common citizens providing easy & instant access to status of cases, cause lists, judgments, and daily orders belonging to any of the subordinate courts. A step ahead in this transformational journey is the novel concept of virtual courts which is aimed at reducing footfall in the courts by eliminating the physical presence of a litigant or a lawyer in the court. Virtual courts can be managed by the virtual presence of a judge whose jurisdiction can be extended to the entire state and working hours may be 24/7. This has expedited the hearing of cases thereby saving the precious time of the judiciary to address more and more cases.

And finally, Dr Verma adds that the citizen services are now all about giving a happy experience to the people. “I think we have come a long way in that. We have been trying to eliminate the need to come to a government office for any citizen services, and if we can achieve this, that would be the most satisfying moment for us. As technology is moving, we are also continuously upskilling ourselves. And as I look back, I feel privileged that we have been given this position where we could work with the government across the centre, states and district level administrations. It has been a very fulfilling experience for me personally and NIC as an organisation,” she concludes.

With the advent of technology and its role in various digital initiatives of the government, NIC is certainly the flagbearer of Digital India.