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India needs to find its digital dharma

Pandemic gave a push to the digitalisation of many analogue processes. But this rapid change should not be without an original philosophy that must cater to the needs of the nation

Published: Nov 1, 2021 05:49:33 PM IST
Updated: Nov 1, 2021 06:30:15 PM IST

Rampant digitisation during the pandemic outlines how digital dharma was enacted
Image: Shutterstock

India has been a land of dharma. Dharma does not mean the same as religion. It is a representation of the ways that lead to a better life. In other words, dharma represents the principles that lead one to the state of highest being. These principles evolve through rigorous thinking and inquiry about certain aspects. What is Indian digital dharma? Contemporaneously, one predominant human inquiry is related to the relevance, purpose, and value of digital technologies. The resulting digital dharma is widely influential. Rampant digitisation during the pandemic outlines how digital dharma was enacted. Vegetable vendors and many other small traders and businesses are taking orders on phone, everyone is accessing their vaccine certificates through digital messaging, children have moved online to learn, healthcare services are being offered digitally, and work from home has become the norm, amongst other examples. Indeed, the use of digital wallets, mobile currencies, and many other technologies is changing the Indian way of life. What is, or should be, India’s digital dharma—the organising principles guiding digitisation in India?

While not explicitly stated as dharma, large countries—notably the US and China—have followed organising principles that have led them to create cutting-edge and advanced technology products and organisations. These are influencing India as well. We are rapidly using WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and many others. However, whether digital India will be based on the various foreign digital dharmas—the principles espoused by the US or Chinese companies and people—or will we be guided by the Indian digital dharma. Currently, the answer seems to be the former. We develop software and organisations often with values (e.g., languages) foreign to us. Some of the countries such as China demonstrate the power of being true to the national dharma, as they build large companies in the space of social media, such as Sina Weibo, and many others that can customise and create products that serve their local interests and populace. India has some such companies as well, however, we seem to largely follow others’ dharma. Finding and establishing Indian digital dharma is required for overall social and national interests.  

How may we develop the Indian digital dharma? The simple first step is to drop the resistance to the use of digital technologies in various processes. However, the more important step is to not adopt it in any which way that is told to us. Instead, think about the value of technologies for Indian social and organisational goals, by unravelling the following two dynamics–complementary and substitutive.  

First, complementary dynamics indicate how digital technologies may be used to complement or catalyse existing activities to give us a competitive edge—globally, nationally, regionally, or locally. The use of artificially intelligent (AI) technologies in cricket to understand the competitor strategies and win them is one example. AI-based technologies may be used to complement the performance of sportspersons and teams. Leveraging digital technologies to complement human efforts, to defend cybersecurity attacks on our assets such as the national grid. In general, how may we complement our competencies is one principle to leverage digital technologies effectively. Identifying complementary domains to build the next generation of the Indian ecosystem for work, play, relationships, family, trade, health, education or others, may transform the nation effectively.  

Second, effectively using digital technologies for substituting the inefficient and ineffective. Many of the principles and ways that have served us well in the past may need to be retired in the digital age. We do not need to stand in line to pay the bills for various utilities or get our tax refund. A new way of leveraging digital technologies is available. Setting an auto pay is one way that is freeing our time and contributing to building the digital ecosystems.  

In summary, building the Indian digital dharma requires a search for ways to complement and substitute. As a civilisation, we have believed in our ability to think and search. We should do that even more now to unravel the Indian digital dharma. The ongoing pandemic has forced us to search for these in all walks of our lives. However, only regressive societies act out of compulsion. As a progressive society, we must continue to lead the search for the Indian digital dharma. 

Pankaj Setia (Ph.D., Michigan State University, 2008) is a Professor and Founding Chair of the Center for Digital Transformation at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad, India. He studies how organisations leverage IT applications and digital capabilities for superior organisational performance.