NIC: March of the Behemoth
National Informatics Centre (NIC) has been effectively providing technology solutions to support government initiatives since the last four decades. In an exclusive interview with Express Computer, Dr Neeta Verma, Director General, NIC, speaks about embracing new technologies to deliver citizen services better
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been giving a major thrust to Digital India since 2014 and NIC has played an instrumental role in executing some of the key IT projects. Could you please share some of the biggest achievements of NIC in the last five years?
NIC has been closely associated with the government in different aspects of governance. Besides establishing a nationwide state-of-the-art ICT infrastructure for governance, NIC has also built a large number of digital solutions to support the government at various levels, from the Centre to the states, to the district administration. Under the Digital India program, “inclusion” has been the key consideration of any initiative. Over the last five years, the IT ecosystem in the country has also expanded manifold and we now have an enhanced penetration of the network, therefore the last-mile delivery of government services has become a reality. There are also a number of IT solutions where not only the services are provided online but the benefits are also directly transferred to the citizens. Developments in technology has also provided an enhanced user experience to the citizens.
NIC is in a unique position to deliver ICT services to executive, judiciary and legislative institutions in the country. In the recent past, a large number of government initiatives such as Swacch Bharat Mission, e-Way Bill, MyGov, e-Hospital, fertilizer distribution, etc., have been completely managed using digital platforms, from concept to commission. Our services are creating a perfect interaction of the government with citizens, government employees and businesses. Look at services such as e-Hospital that has connected patients, doctors and hospitals on a digital platform, thereby ensuring efficient delivery of services.
Towards the internal functioning of the government also, NIC has consolidated its offerings and put up a cloud-based platform which is available to all the government departments as a service. Digital solutions such as E-Office, E-HRMS, E-Procurement have helped government organisations in streamlining their internal functioning. Besides this, the State Centres of NIC are also helping the respective state governments in the delivery of citizen services through a variety of digital solutions.
In the last few years, how has NIC progressed in terms of infrastructure and its relevance in projects of national importance?
NIC has been providing ICT infrastructure to the government for over four decades. Much before the advent of the internet, we had introduced VSAT based communication to the government. With the ever developing technology, our infrastructural capability has also been growing continuously. Today our ICT infrastructure encompasses of multi gigabit nationwide networks NICNET, NKN, National Data Centres, National Cloud, and pan India VC infrastructure.
NICNET, the pan India communication network for exclusive use of government today connects government offices across the length and breadth of India using a combination of technologies. Our 1852+ video conferencing sites across India have brought administration at all levels close to each other and have by far recorded more than 30,000 VC hours. National Knowledge Network (NKN), the multi gigabit nationwide network, acts as the National Education Research Network (NREN) of the country. NKN has made significant progress by connecting over 1700 institutes, five crore students, researchers and faculty members.
We now have our own dedicated state-of-the-art large data centres at Delhi, Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad and Pune offering a robust, highly available infrastructure with adequate redundancy to enable the government, effectively render variety of services to the citizens. Mini-Data Centres are also operational in all NIC State Centers to cater to eGovernance requirements at the state level. Our data centres and cloud services have together played a significant role in delivering citizen centric services and eGovernance by providing support to over 10,000 eGovernance projects.
With the advent of technology and Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) coming-up, a paradigm shift has been experienced in the way benefits are transferred to the citizens. Services such as Public Financial Management System (PFMS) electronically interfaces with all banks and facilitate DBT in a big way. Our Immigration, Visa and Foreigner’s Registration and Tracking (IVFRT) platform is modernising and upgrading the immigration services and providing a centralised system to share the information between various agencies involved. E-Visa service of the Government of India is also powered through this platform. Similarly, our messaging services have helped the government connect with citizens to provision efficient delivery of services to citizens. Through SMS integration, citizens with a simple mobile phone can also receive message updates about various government services.
Cloud based technologies are evolving rapidly and India also needs a robust cloud network. MeghRaj Cloud has certainly proved to be a milestone for India when it was rolled out in 2014. How exactly are you strengthening MeghRaj and taking it to the next level to fasten up citizen services?
NIC set up the first national cloud, MeghRaj, for the Government of India in 2014, so as to utilise and harness the benefits of cloud computing. Earlier, provisioning of digital infrastructure was an extremely time consuming process for every new initiative. However, with the setting up of a secured cloud infrastructure, the amount of time required in provisioning of digital infrastructure has considerably reduced. On-demand services and scale-up of infrastructure during peak loads has also been made possible by cloud infrastructure. With a modest beginning, our cloud services have scaled up considerably catering to the needs of over 1000 eGovernance applications and citizen centric services.
Our National Cloud initiative, MeghRaj, is unique in the way that it was set-up by the government, for the use of government, and is also managed by the government. MeghRaj cloud has also accelerated the delivery of e-services to the citizens while optimizing ICT spending of the government. The turn-around time for overall execution of any scheme has drastically reduced, ability to scale-up existing set-up is much easier now. Various government initiatives and schemes such as Swachh Bharat Mission, My-Gov, e-Hospital, National Scholarship, e-Transport, etc., have been successfully launched due to a robust and agile cloud infrastructure.
Our cloud services have brought in a lot of convenience in the way government services/ICT systems are brought online by government departments. It has saved a lot of time and effort of the departments in terms of estimation, approval, procurement and installation of infrastructure which may often take months. To take this spirit further, we are currently focusing on Software as a Service (SaaS) and upscaling some of our services in SaaS. S3WaaS is one of our popular SaaS based service. S3WaaS empowers the district administration to generate, configure, deploy and manage secure, scalable and accessible websites for publishing specific information and services without much effort and technical knowhow. So far, 543 districts portals have been powered through S3WaaS.
We are also launching new set of services such as Data Analytics as a service (DA-SaaS), Artificial Intelligence as a service, and Blockchain as a service to facilitate quick adoption of emerging technologies in eGovernance.
The cybersecurity impetus has become more relevant given that the government’s push for a cashless economy and Digital India has expanded the threat of data breach. With cybercrimes opening up a new battlefront, how well is the NIC prepared to tackle growing threat of cyber attacks?
With the increased span of digitalisation and introduction of various digital initiatives under the Digital India Program, the spectrum and sophistication of the cyber threats has increased manifold. Therefore, there is a need to be aware of such threats and build a defense mechanism appropriately. Cybersecurity is one of the key concerns of any digital infrastructure today and it becomes all the more pertinent when it comes to government infrastructure. At NIC, we treat cybersecurity with utmost priority and therefore we have a dedicated team to enhance security posture of the government infrastructure. Cybersecurity efforts are not just limiting to network security but also to application security. We also focus on end-point security as a lot of threats emanate from end-point in the absence of proper security measures. As we manage almost over 10,000 government ICT applications, portals and websites, we have also set-up Centres of Excellence for application security across India to continually protect the government applications from cyber threats.
To address ever increasing threat of cyber attacks in terms of their magnitude as well as their sophistication, Computer Emergency Response Team (NIC-CERT) is set-up in NIC with an objective of analysing, monitoring and responding to cyber threats on government cyber infrastructure like websites, emails and digital solutions. NIC-CERT coordinates with other stakeholders to mitigate the cyber threats by monitoring network for security incidents and issuing advisory for vulnerabilities. NIC-CERT works in close guidance of CERT-In, which is the national nodal agency for responding to computer security incidents as and when they occur.
How has NIC helped in social development projects that are aimed at delivering citizen centric services? How do you see the need for creating digital infrastructure in the rural parts of the country to ensure social development?
NIC is closely associated with induction of technology in the launch, implementation as well as monitoring of a lot of government schemes, which are focused at the social development of the country ensuring that even the poorest of the poor is benefitted by these schemes. NIC has developed digital solutions for many of these schemes. Over a period of time, we have also consolidated these solutions to evolve them into a concept of One Nation One Platform leveraging on the power of cloud technology.
At NIC, our focus has always been towards delivering the best of citizen centric services, keeping in mind on how to transform our rural areas. Our State Informatics Centers have been the true partners in ensuring that the citizens are well informed of the various services and are also reaping their benefits. There are various Central government projects that are percolated efficiently in the rural parts of the country.
Some of our notable platforms in recent past are National Scholarships Portal (NSP), which acts as a one-stop solution through which various services starting from student application, application receipt, processing, sanction and disbursal of scholarships directly to the bank accounts of students, are provided. More than `2162 crore has been disbursed through NSP, benefitting students even in the remotest parts of the country. Similarly, Swachh Bharat Mission extensively used Direct Benefit technology and Geo Spatial technology toward successful execution of the mission across the length and breadth of the nation.
Similar platforms are also developed for rural development such as Pradhan Mantri Aawaas Yojana (PMAY), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), National Social Assistance Program (NSAP), Deen Dayal Upadhyay Grameen Kaushalya Yojana (DDUGKY), Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana – National Rural Livelihood Mission (DAY-NRLM), to name a few.
The North Eastern states have poor infrastructure in the far flung areas. Do you have any plans to expand NIC’s services in NER?
NIC has its presence in all the North Eastern states. Besides having full-fledged centres in state capitals, it has district centres in each and every district of the North East. These centres have provision of ICT infrastructure in the states, keeping them well connected as well as ensuring delivery of services to citizens. This ICT infrastructure also provides them access to cloud services, messaging services as well as video conferencing services. Through S3WaaS, our cloud based offering, we have provisioned secure, scalable and sugamya website presence of the districts of North Eastern states.
An established infrastructure has also enabled these North Eastern states to access digital platforms such as e-Office, e-Procurement, e-Hospital, e-Transport, etc., from National Informatics Center. We have also augmented our Nationwide Network (NICNET) with VSAT in those districts of North East where connectivity through other medium is not stable or is not even feasible.
We are also planning to set-up a state-of-the-art data centre for dedicated use by North Eastern states, thus enabling them to deliver enhanced quality and quantity of services to the residents of North East.
What are the plans of NIC for embracing new technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, 5G, edge computing and IoT? Do you believe these new technologies would change the way people get services from the government?
At NIC, we have been continuously working towards a meaningful use of emerging technologies in governance across all levels, i.e. from Central government, state governments to district administrator and Panchayats at the village level. Use of mobile technologies, geo spatial technologies as well as big data and analytics has greatly helped in delivery of services to citizens along with planning and decision making in the government.
To take the mission further, we have set-up Centres of Excellence in Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence while our Centre of Excellence in Blockchain is going to be launched shortly. These Centres of Excellence are set up with the objective of focused study of new technology, and explore and experiment their use in governance. Development of proofs of concept around these technologies and then their rollout on the field is another major activity of these centres besides providing consultancy and capacity building in the government.
What is the next level of eGovernance to be seen in India?
It is imperative that access to high speed internet and affordability of smartphones is going to bring a paradigm shift in eGovernance. It is going to transform the way government services are delivered to citizens. Aadhaar, Direct Benefit Transfer and digital payments shall help in transforming more and more citizen centric services into a faceless, cashless and paperless mode. Use of emerging technologies such as Natural Language Processing, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Conversational AI, etc., shall introduce a lot of innovation in enhancing the user experience and reach of government services to the citizens of India.
If you have an interesting article / experience / case study to share, please get in touch with us at [email protected]