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Making serious efforts to provide services to the last man standing in a village: Golok Kumar Simli

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In a detailed interview with Express Computer, Golok Kumar Simli, Chief Technology Officer, Passport Seva Programme, Ministry of External Affairs, talks about how his department is leveraging emerging technologies to improve delivery of passport related services and how the department dealt with Covid-19 challenges. Simli opens up about the plans of adopting next level technologies to simplify services and enhance efficiency in the coming years. Excerpts:

What are some of the major technological initiatives of the Passport Seva Programme under the Ministry of External Affairs in the last three months?

Covid-19 pandemic has given us a kind of a completely different direction in terms of looping in your business processes and also looking into the overall culture. How is the organisational culture behaving in the new era which all of us are witnessing? When the sudden global pandemic had hit us, the good part of the Passport Seva Programme was that it was a mature programme. There was technology readiness at the backend and also at the frontend, the Passport Seva Programme had a pretty stabilising ecosystem, where every one of us, including the stakeholders and the beneficiaries felt connected to the department. But then the culture has to shift, which means most corporate applications, corporate network data centres have to kind of go into the remote environment. It was one of the major challenges we had. The second challenge was skilling and reskilling the workforce. I always say that working in a controlled environment is like a closed users group (CUG) kind of environment. But then the moment you move towards a WFH or remote environment, it is not only that you have to make ready your workforce and culture at large, but also very important that your backend is supporting the same. And the good part of the Passport Seva Programme is that we know that not today or tomorrow, maybe it will be switching towards a cloud kind of environment, where the system has to be agile and adaptive. This turned out to be a positive point for us and believe me, I took only five days to completely get into the new environment, including having access to all the global Indian embassies and consulates. I can say that a Passport Seva Issuance system was one of the programmes which worked uninterruptedly. It was all working and all key guidelines were definitely followed and the system was up and running round the clock. Our entire technical team was fully in control in a remote environment. The team kept all kinds of cyber threats at bay during remote working conditions. That is how you have to plan your digital journey, develop your digital culture, and digital ethics. Today one of us whether I as an individual or somebody as an organisation has to have digital ethics.

How do government departments plan on leveraging digital and ICT, especially after Covid-19, wherein most of the corporate network application and data centre access has been assessed remotely?

We as a Government have created the ecosystem where not only myself, but all my stakeholders including beneficiaries and the ecosystems should work in tandem. And now, when this kind of a sudden new thing has hit us where we have to see that most of the IT work has become 80-90 percent remote. My business application is no longer a kind of closed group, my network has become borderless or there is no boundary because you are now completely into cyberspace accessing over the internet. So, these are the new challenges for every government department whether it is Passport Seva of External Affairs Ministry or any other department. There are three important focus areas that need to be taken care of when one is working under the current environment.

The first and foremost thing is, you must know how to measure your workload in terms of criticality, sovereignty and sensitivity. It is also important how one is segregating sovereign data, public data and configurable data.

These progressive departments understand the risk which is really important in terms of business risk, technology risk, people and manpower. Let’s assume that some ransomware attack has happened. It needs to be checked whether it is the entire data centre, which is affected or only a component of the data centre or an endpoint is attacked. It has now become important not only to develop your skills but to have specialised skills for real time, round the clock monitoring.

The next requirement is to have 24X7 security monitoring mechanism, manpower and the support system. You might have heard about network operations centres but do you really see how many of us have a 24X7 security operations centre. It is no longer a government alone, you have to take an industry participative root.

Another very important area is the public sector. It is high time that one needs to come out of traditional ways of looking at things. One must take an innovative industry-oriented approach, not only for today, but for the future to handle any kind of unforeseen scenario. So, these are some facts we must understand and we must inculcate a new approach and new culture.

How does the ministry plan to further improve the delivery of passports and further simplify it for the citizens?

There are a couple of things which need to be kept in mind like creating an accountable and visible environment for the customers or the users at large. I always believe in providing services to the last man standing in a village. Can I reach out to him and render the services? We have to look holistically to provide passport services to the people in remote and inaccessible areas the same way we provide it to the urban people like in Delhi or Mumbai. There are issues like bandwidth, digital divide and internet facilities which compel the poor people to reach out to agents to get these services. While we are developing this kind of service delivery system, the idea is to provide hassle-free and seamless service to the people living in remote parts and rural areas of the country. That is what is being done by the government.

This is the beauty of new generation technology which allows us to serve people in inaccessible areas. We endeavour to give next level of experience to the citizens. We are leveraging emerging technologies which have enabled people to simply apply for passports online and get it quickly. Another milestone is that we have integrated the Passport Programme with the Government of India’s DigiLocker where people can upload around 13-14 types of documents and while applying for passports they can share the link of their DigiLocker account for online verification. It enables people not to carry original documents when they visit any of the PSKs.

Most of our decisions are based on technological intervention, whether it is AI or Big Data analytics. This facilitates taking decisions quicker and in a right manner and it also leads to having a paperless and cashless environment. We are also utilising the cloud to meet certain demands.

The Government of India has been talking about making the country a five trillion USD digital economy by 2025. What are the focus areas for achieving this goal?

There are three pillars which we need to focus on. The first pillar to create a digital economy is creating a digital environment so that people can benefit from each other. Once the digital environment is made, there is the need of having an inclusive digital society at large.

We also must create a trusted data ecosystem and trusted data workflow environment and these are the two very important factors which are the hallmark of a vibrant digital economy. Unless these two things are created it’s very difficult to deal with a country like us having 1.34 billion people. Emerging technologies like the 5G network, AI and hyperscale data centre are very important.

The Government of India is taking digitisation work globally. I personally believe that the large multinational industries like the large e-commerce industry, having their base in India, need these kinds of hyper scale data centres to sustain.

There will be development of cloud economic zones, data economics zones in place of the Special Economic Zones now. It will add value to the core sectors and the strength of the digital economy brings transformation in all sectors whether it is agriculture, health or education sector.

What are your thoughts about addressing cyber threats which have gone up in recent times primarily because of the remote work environment?

Cyber security has become a challenge for all of us. There are three factors globally and the first one is that cyber security has to be seen holistically in terms of people, process, technology. One has to plan their cyber security, the second thing is the cyber security has to be now by design and every layer of the digital foundation, every layer of the application has to be intrinsic to cyber security defence.

The third very important thing to note is, I always say what, for whom, when and how these four things you must understand before you are devising your cyber security framework. Many of us do not understand the what, whom, when and how and unless you witness that understanding, it is difficult to define a holistic cyber security defence mechanism in place. When you put these 2-3 points together then you can see a holistic approach to a real-time cyber security environment.

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