Category Archives: Digital Economy

Will Aadhaar be the Same with PC as FM?

Well, if media reports have to be believed, P Chidambaram, the Union home minister is all set to return as the finance minister. It does not sound too surprising, considering PC has been one of the best finance ministers that India has had in the recent past. What is more, his track record in the home ministry has been anything but spectacular.  Not only has he failed to achieve much, his tenure has seen continuous friction of his ministry with the states.  In short, his transfer from the finance ministry to home ministry has neither been good for the economy of the country nor for its politics. So his return should be good news for most.

Except those strongly backing UID/Aadhaar.

His dislike of the project—or rather the way it is being rolled out—is well-known. Not only has he disagreed with UIDAI’s way of collecting data, he has written to the prime minister multiple times complaining about it. It is in his insistence that the cabinet discussed in January the possible security loopholes in the way UID was collecting data and decided that while  NPR and UIDAI would use the biometric data collected by each other, in case of discrepancies between UIDAI and NPR data, NPR would prevail.

Again, as recently as last month, he had written to the PM that UIDAI was not cooperating with Registrar General of India (RGI), which was working on the NPR. This is what Mint had reported, quoting from the letter.

“The decision of the cabinet is crystal clear and I am unable to comprehend the reluctance of UIDAI to allow the NPR camps and to accept the NPR data. I had taken these issues with Nandan Nilekani, chairman, UIDAI, dated 14.05.12. The home secretary (R.K. Singh) has also discussed the issue at length with the UIDAI director general and mission director. However, despite our best efforts, issues remain unresolved,” he said.

It is difficult to believe that once he takes charge of finance ministry, his opinion about the Aadhar project would change drastically.

The question is: will it impact the effectiveness of UIDAI?

While it is true that UIDAI is part of the Planning Commission, the reason it became the government’s flagship program so soon is because of strong support from the former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. Not only did Mukherjee generously provided for the funding of the project in three of his budgets, he made it the basis (aadhaar) of most of the government programs. There were nine reference to Aadhaar in Mukherjee’s budget speech this year. Whether it is for subsidy being credited directly to beneficiary’s bank account, creating a more efficient public distribution regime by creating a PDS network, or for disbursement of government payouts—such as MG-NREGA payments, pensions and scholarships—the finance minister seemed confident that Aadhaar could be leveraged as a platform to deliver. National Payment Corporation of India (NPCI) even created the Aadhaar Payment Bridge Systems.

In short, while the UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilkeani created a new generation platform in form of Aadhaar, it is Mukherjee who was instrumental in making it the flagship platform of all developmental activities in India. So much was Mukherjee’s liking for Nilekani that he made him head some half a dozen task forces, groups, and committees entrusting him with most changes. I wrote about it in a post in this blog earlier called The Importance of Being Shri Nandan Nilekani. Mukherjee had even gone to the extent of openly backing Nilekani on PDS reforms when the food ministry was ignoring the recommendations of a committee headed by him.

From there, it would be quite a change for Aadhaar/Nilekani if Mukherjee is succeeded by someone who very recently complained so strongly about the project to the prime minister, taking the name of its chairman.

Things would probably have been a little different had the UIDAI been a independent statutory body. A proposal to make it one was rejected by a Parliamentary Standing Committee headed by Yashwant Sinha a few months back. Interestingly, in its report, the Committee had extensively quoted news reports about the home ministry’s objection to/criticism of Aadhaar to justify its decision.

Both Chidambaram and Nilekani have proven track records. The country will benefit if they work in tandem. Another conflict in the government is the last thing that we want in the time of this apparent policy paralysis. Not only will it make another fresh and fairly successful experimentation in the government go astray, any drastic change in the path will make very wrong signals to international community. After 2G decision and GAAR, the last thing the country would like to see is going back on UID plans.

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RBI Slashes Debit Card MDR

In a circular issued by RBI on 28 June 2012,  the central bank directed the commercial banks to cap the debit card merchant discount rates (MDR) at 0.75% for all transactions upto Rs 2000 and at 1% for all transactions above Rs 2000.  On 28th May 2012 — that is exactly one month before this directive came — in a post titled Containing Black Money: Promoting Debit Card Usage Holds the Key, in this blog, I had argued that increased usage of debit card could go a long way in reducing the black economy.

This is what I wrote

RBI can well go proactive on promoting use of debit cards, as they provide a risk free way for banks to increase electronic payment. Just asking banks to promote/build awareness on debit cards can go a long way in growing the use of debit cards. Removing artificial blocks like high transaction fees can further accelerate the trend.

RBI noted in its circular that debit card is a secured product with the card usage being linked to the availability of funds in the accounts of the customers whereas credit cards are a part of the unsecured credit product portfolio of the issuers and there was no rationale for having similar MDR for both.

“Given this scenario, it is necessary to encourage the use of debit cards, especially at smaller merchants/service providers and location by way of lower MDR. This move would encourage all categories and types of merchants to deploy the card acceptance infrastructure and also facilitate acceptance of small value transactions. Further, in the case of the acquiring banks, a certain element of guarantee on the Return on Investment (ROI) is required for deepening the card acceptance infrastructure. A lower MDR with the expected increase in transaction volume on account of network effects would result in a reasonable ROI for acquiring banks,” said the circular.

Could not agree more!

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National Citizen Database/Unique ID: Is Chidambaram Speaking the BJP Language?

It is ironic. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may be baying for his blood after Madras High Court rejected Union Home Minister P Chidambaram’s Plea in his Lok Sabha election case, but the minister is actually fighting a bitter battle within his own government to implement a plan that was, by all means, envisioned by the BJP.

A large section of media has reported that the home minister has complained to thePrime Minister about the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) (part of Planning Commission) not cooperating with the Registrar General of India (RGI) (under Home Ministry) in a letter. Both are collecting biometrics based data of people–UIDAI for issuing Aadhar numbers and RGI for its National Population Register (NPR)

In a report today, this is what Mint said

In his letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week, Chidambaram accused the Nandan Nilekani-led UIDAI of not following the 27 January cabinet decision where it was agreed that the purposes of UIDAI and the home ministry-led National Population Register (NPR) project were different. Under this truce, both projects were to continue simultaneously and each would use the biometric data collected by the other. Also, in case of discrepancies between UIDAI and NPR data, NPR would prevail.

“Despite these directions from the government of India, UIDAI is objecting to the conduct of the NPR camps in certain states and is also refusing to accept the biometric data of NPR for de-duplication and generation of (the) Aadhaar numbers,” he said in the letter, which was reviewed by Mint.

“The decision of the cabinet is crystal clear and I am unable to comprehend the reluctance of UIDAI to allow the NPR camps and to accept the NPR data. I had taken these issues with Nandan Nilekani, chairman, UIDAI, dated 14.05.12. The home secretary (R.K. Singh) has also discussed the issue at length with the UIDAI director general and mission director. However, despite our best efforts, issues remain unresolved,” he said.

On the face of it, the fight seems to be about the data collection. But there is a bigger issue. And no, it is not about ego clash between Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Or if it is, we do not know that. The big issue is that while both UIDAI/Aadhar and NPR are collecting data for creating citizen databases, their objectives are entirely different. And hence the details vary. While it certainly is a laudable idea that there should be no duplication of efforts and national resources for doing similar kind of work, it requires more than a cabinet meeting to pan out how that could be done. Else, the cabinet decision is like a patchwork; pushing the dirt under the carpet.

Without getting into too much details, there are certain important differences that must be pointed out.

One, the sacrosanct thing in the Aadhar number  is the number. There is a card but that is like a PAN card. The card is just a piece of plastic. It is the number that matters. On the other hand, the citizen card would be like a passport (or so it is believed). It is not just the number but the physical document that is important.

Two, the Aadhar number is not mandatory; the citizen card would be mandatory. That is a major difference.

Three, the Aadhar number—since its main aim is to facilitate the smooth access to services like banking—could be issued to anyone residing in India, even a foreigner. The citizen card of NPR is a proof of citizenship.

The above two characteristics of UID together ensure that the Aadhar number is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to citizenship of India. That is the whole purpose of the resident identity card of NPR.

These differences are fundamental. The Aadhaar project was launched by UPA to ensure financial inclusion, which was a big requirement for achieving social inclusion, UPA’s top election promise. The way in which NPR is being projected suggests that central to it is security. “The resident identity card programme was launched in India’s nine coastal states after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The home ministry is seeking to extend the scheme to the rest of the country and has sought Rs. 6,700 crore to fund the program,” reported Mint.

Interestingly, this is what was originally BJP’s idea. In a story that I did in Dataquest, way back in January 2010, I had pointed this out. Calling it “Inclusion Vs Security”, I argued that while the central idea behind BJP’s national citizen database was security, it was inclusion that drove UPA’s agenda when it created UIDAI.   “While it is true that it was the NDA government that had taken the first step on creating a national identity system, its objective was entirely different,” I wrote. I cited an August 2003 press release issued by PIB on this.

“Illegal migration has assumed serious proportions. There should be compulsory registration of citizens and non-citizens living in India. This will facilitate preparation of a national register of citizens. All citizens should be given a Multi-purpose National Identity Card (MNIC) and non-citizens should be issued identity cards of a different color and design. This should be introduced initially in the border districts or may be in a 20 Kms border belt and extended to the hinterland progressively. The Central Government should meet the full cost of the identity card scheme”.

This is exactly what Chidambaram’s home ministry is now talking about. In fact, even in 2009, BJP’s Elections Manifesto had an IT vision in which a lot of emphasis was laid on this (MNIC).  It claimed that the centrepiece of the implementation of the BJP’s IT Vision is the Multipurpose National Identity Card (MNIC). This is what the vision document said.

We would amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to combine the offices of the Registrar General of the Census of India and that of the UIAI to set up a Citizenship Regulatory Authority of India (CRAI). The CRAI would be responsible for maintaining a National Register of Citizenship (NRC), and keeping it current up to the minute.

This is what the BJP IT vision said further.

The amended Citizenship Act would make it mandatory under law for all citizens to acquire an MNIC, and parents of newly born infants would have to apply for one for their child, immediately after the baby’s birth.

So, whether it is the “mandatory” requirement, NPR (BJP’s NRC) or starting with coastal areas (BJP’s border belt), the home ministry idea is an exact reflection of what BJP wanted. In fact, these differences were also the basis of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance headed by BJP MP and ex FM Yershwant Sinha for sending back the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010. “The Committee have received a number of suggestions for restricting the scope of the UID scheme only to the citizens and for considering better options available with the Government by issuing Multi-Purpose National Identity Cards (MNICs) as a more acceptable alternative,” it noted. MNIC was BJP’s phrase.

What Chidambaram’s home ministry is doing is to reintroduce BJP’s plan under a different name. Not surprising considering Chidambaram has been a hardliner when it comes to security.

So, which one is a better objective? There is no straight answer to that question. But as I had pointed out in another story, The Politics of Identity, in Dataquest after the Sinha-headed committee sent back the bill, “the primary objectives of the two projects, though their means are the same, are completely different. To measure one with the yardstick of the other, is not just unfair but would never yield any result.”

Even if one can debate this versus that, it is too late to do that as the government has decided to go for both. The good idea is that someone is thinking about minimizing on the national resources. But that is easier said than done.

While I did point out the fundamental differences between the two projects above, there are some more differences that have come the way that the two are being implemented. And while they are less sacrosanct to be changed, they need to be examined before one tries to work out a synergy.

One, UIDAI, in its wisdom, has decided that it would respect citizen’s privacy, something that is traditionally not a big issue in India but increasingly, citizens are getting more concerned about their privacy. UIDAI has taken a proactive stance on that. So, it is looking at collecting only the essential information for identifying and no more. NPR wants to have all the information and still operates with philosophy that government has all the rights  over citizen. While that is essential for somebody trying to ensure security, it should happen only when the government ensures that there is no information leakage.

Two, UIDAI has taken a mission/marketing approach rather than a typical government mandated top-down approach. It has marketed the program, got buy-ins from partners and has shown the benefits accrued to each stakeholder such as banks, telcos and state governments because of Aadhaar. By doing so, not only has it created a feeling of ownership, it has managed to share the cost of collection of data. NPR wants to do a massive centralized exercise.

While it is true that both are trying to collect similar data and hence should cooperate with each other to avoid wasting of national resources, it cannot just be wishful thinking. It has to be planned out properly. One thing about Aadhaar project is that, all its small flaws notwithstanding, it is fairly thought through program. It is halfway. The Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has emphasized its significance many times. Most of the development programs of the government now use Aadhaar as a platform. In fact, this year’s Budget speech had as many as nine reference to Aadhaar. So, you cannot do something that creates problems for UID project. That will affect all these development programs.

But NPR, even though it is an original BJP idea, is an important requirement too for security. And the fact that the government has decided to pursue it with all seriousness means going back in not an option. Certainly, duplication of efforts is certainly not a great idea.

The two projects have no option but to find synergies. But it cannot just be wishful thinking. It has to be thought through further. It requires more than a cabinet meeting or a letter by the Prime Minister for that.

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Containing Black Money: Promoting Debit Card Usage Holds the Key

Recently, RBI released its annual data on electronic payment transactions in India. The retail electronic payment systems data showed that the downward trend that credit card numbers had started showing from 2008-09 onwards has continued through 2011-12. Total number of outstanding credit cards dropped to 17.65 million by the end of March 2012 from 18.04 million a year ago. This was a 36% drop from the peak of March 08 when credit card numbers rose to 27.55 million. This was a conscious exercise on part of banks to minimize NPA. Most of the banks drastically cut issuing credit cards to those without good credit history. As a result, defaults went down drastically.

“In the last one year, the percentage of cardholders who have not met their payment obligations for more than 90 days has dropped from 2.82% in the fourth quarter of 2010 to 1.62% in Q4 2011,” says this recent report by Moneycontrol. By and large, analysts have interpreted it as a positive trend. As credit cards were denied to those with bad/suspect credit history, the limited number of cards remained with affluent people and professionals. That naturally took up the average spend on the cards. While the overall aggregate spend on credit cards jumped from Rs 57985 crore in March 2008 to Rs 96613 crore (that is a 68% jump), doing a little arithmetic on RBI data shows that during the same time, the average monthly spend increased more than two and half times—from Rs 1754 to Rs 4562.

There are, of course, reasons to cheer up the trends. But here is the stark reality. The total number of credit cards are just 17.65 million in a country of more than one billion people. Accounting for multiple card ownership by individuals—most of the people that I know have at least two active credit cards; I have three—the penetration of credit cards hovers around just a little above 1% of the population.

On the other hand, look at the rise of debit cards. In the same period—March 08 to March 12—when number of credit cards fell by 36%, debit cards grew 172%. At the end of March 2012, there were 278 million debit cards. Not surprising considering most banks today give ATM cards to their account holders which double up as debit cards. But look at the spend data. The 278 million cards accounted for a mere Rs 53423 crores. Simple calculations show that the average monthly spend on them is a mere Rs 136—that is 3% of the average monthly spend on credit cards.

That is not an encouraging figure. Especially when the finance ministry acknowledges that the card payments should be incentivized to arrest black money growth. The white paper on black money tabled in the Parliament by the finance minister Mr Pranab Mukherji was quite unequivocal about that. “Use of banking channels and credit/debit cards should be encouraged, while trade practices such as cheque discounting should be discouraged,” notes the paper. “Payments by debit/credit cards through e-service intermediaries will simplify and encourage payments in these modes and reduce the cash economy,” it further says. Reducing the cash economy is vital for arresting black money.

But so far, banks have not cared to do much for promotion of usage of debit cards. Most users do not even know that they can directly make payments through debit cards. They still rush to the ATM to withdraw cash to pay in a shop. In small towns, many shopkeepers actually encourage that even though they are aware about debit card payment. That is because they save on paying the transaction fees. Yes, banks still charge similar kind of transaction fees that they charge on credit cards.

Of late, RBI has voiced its concern about that. G Padmanabhan, Executive Director, RBI, in charge of payment and settlement systems recently called the practice illogical. “We are saying that the debit card interchange fee should be lower because credit cards get paid after sometime, whereas in debit cards, there is an instantaneous debit into my account. Hence, logically debit cards charges should be lower,” Business Standard reported him as saying, at the launch of RuPay debit cards, promoted by National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI).

There is no participation fee in RuPay for banks and there is aggressive plans by NPCI to take up its market share. If successful, it may actually cut down the transaction cost drastically—something similar to what the National Financial Switch (NFS) has done for ATM transactions. NFS, started by Institute for Development and Research in Banking Technology (IDRBT) is now managed by NPCI.

But that is some time away. Till such time, RBI can well go proactive on promoting use of debit cards, as they provide a risk free way for banks to increase electronic payment. Just asking banks to promote/build awareness on debit cards can go a long way in growing the use of debit cards. Removing artificial blocks like high transaction fees can further accelerate the trend. Any other incentive can only help.

We may well see some concrete action on this front this year, if the government is really serious about minimizing the hold of black money on our economy.

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Crackdown on Illegal Music Sites: The Solution is Not So Simple

In a well-coordinated move, the Indian Music Industry (IMI), a consortium of more than 100 music companies, recently managed to get an order from Calcutta High court directing ISPs in India to block 104 music sites on charges of piracy. Some of these sites such as songs.pk, musicindiaonline.com, dishant.com, and smashits.com are extremely popular destinations for music lovers. Medianama.com, one of the top websites focusing on business related to digital media and entertainment, said that the IMI had made a case against each website, quoting Apurv Nagpal, CEO of Saregama, one of India’s largest and oldest music company. Medianama further said that the court orders were obtained on different dates and the first order was against songs.pk.

The order against songs.pk was widely reported in media and we had even discussed it in our editorial meeting in Dataquest. But I came to know about the blocking of the other sites when, while searching for the lyricist of a 60s Hindi film song, in the third week of March, I clicked on a Google link and found the message that the site has been blocked because of orders from DoT. It is only when I did a couple of more queries that I saw a few write-ups (none in the traditional media) about the sites being blocked because of the orders from Calcutta High Court. Medianama even gave a list of all the sites. I found that many of the sites that I often visited to find/confirm info about songs (esp the year of a film/lyricist etc) are in the list. Most of them are music streaming sites.

According to IMI, these are illegal sites while there are a few sites such as raaga.com, gaana.com, in.com, and dhingana.com that have legally obtained licence to stream music. The average user of the sites, however, have no way of knowing which one is legal and which one is not. Most of the people I know who use these sites are heavy purchasers of legal music. When I asked a few of them, most of them said they choose these sites because of ease of navigation/look and feel. I agree with that but have one more parameter: accuracy of information about songs. This, because, there is little to choose when it comes to the quality of sound or speed between one site and another. The Saregama site scores heavily on the accuracy-of-information front while it is poor when it comes to presentation and does not work quite often. Flipkart’s Flyte—though much better in terms of presentation and navigation—has quite a few mistakes when it comes to information on songs—one common and frequent error being combining films of the same name (one released in 40s and another in 90s, for example) to a single album.

So, while feeling good about the success of the anti-piracy moves, I was a little sad that these sites—to which I often trurned for a quick check-up of info—would not be accessible any more. But as feared by many analysts and legal experts, they resurfaced under different names. Songs.pk became songspk.pk; musicindiaonline.com became musicindiaonline.co; and dishant.com became dishant.co and so on. So, while the music industry may have won a battle—that too partially, what with all the resurfacing of some of the sites—the war is still far from being over.

But what is this war all about? On the face of it, it is piracy and loss of revenue to the music industry. From a moral and legal point of view, the IMI action looks plausible. But when you look at it practically, it is bound to fail because of two reasons. One, well discussed by many bloggers, is technical: it is virtually impossible to completely ban sites. In any case, restricting through ISPs would work only in India.

But the other reason—and I think it is far more important—is that the music industry is not yet prepared to embrace the change that would actually give them back the power. We have come to a situation like this because the music industry has been lax in moving with the times. People’s unwillingness to pay is only part of the reason for piracy. An equally strong reason is access to music. In my school/college days, for example, there was virtually no way to “get a song” without “recording it (read piracy)” till Gulshan Kumar exploited a loophole in the law to re-record many of the yesteryear’s hits in newer singers’ voice and offer an alternative. And even though these songs stood nowhere in comparison to the original, people lapped them up because they were affordable and more importantly, they were widely available. In fact, many people in my generation might have first listened to a song in Babla Mehta’s voice before listening to the the Mukesh original! Kumar created a few star singers such as Kumar Sanu and Sonu Nigam in the process! And brought about the first big change in the industry.

While Kumar’s method and today’s illegal websites’ methods vary in terms of their legal status, their basic raison d’ etre is the same. T Series under Gulshan Kumar and many sites of today were created to make music reach people in a music-hungry nation in an easier, friendlier and cheaper manner.

Today, the users of those sites, if asked to pay some money, could actually end up paying, provided pricing is right and paying is trouble-free. After all, they have been paying for things like caller tunes amounts which are often 20-30% of their montly spend on mobile!

My argument is not meant to justify illegal streaming, but to point out that the music industry is as much responsible for the problem as anyone else. And it cannot fight the disease by trying to cure the symptom.

A look at the table here would tell the story. The data is from Google AdPlanner and may not be 100% accurate. But even if you take 30% error margin, you get to see the point. Why should an obscure name like song.pk would get millions of pageviews while India’s best known music brand—which also has a vast collection available in its site for downlaod—can muster only a few thousands? Yes, the fact that they are free could be a big reason; but you will be fooling yourself to argue that it is the only reason.

And yes, these traffic figures are for Marh 2012, which for the blocked sites, are a mere fraction of what they used to get before the ban. As one can see, the loss of these sites has translated to gain for some legal streaming sites and not for Saregama.com.

Traffic: Music Sites in India

SITE TYPE UV (India) PV (India) COMMENT
Songs.pk Illegal/blocked 5.6M 23M Dropped by almost 2/3rd between Jan-Mar
Smashits.com Illegal/blocked 830K 8.3M Dropped significantly between Jan-Mar
Dishant.com Illegal/blocked 570K 2.2M Dropped significantly between Jan-Mar
Musicindiaonline.com Illegal/blocked 320K 3.8M Dropped by almost 3/4th between Jan-Mar
Hummaa.com Legal 680K 2.6M No major gain between Jan-Mar
Gaana.com Legal 2.9M 16M Significantly moved up between Jan-Mar
Raaga.com Legal 2.2M 9.8M No major gain between Jan-Mar
Saavn.com Legal 1.1M 70M Significantly moved up between Jan-Mar
Dhingana.com Legal 1.6M 7.5M Actually dropped between Jan-Mar
Saregama.com Music Label 130K 230K No major gain between Jan-Mar

Source: DoubleClick AdPlanner by Google. All figures for March 2012 and for India traffic. K stands for thousands and M for millions. UV: Unique visitors. PV: pageviews

Most music companies believe that they can continue to do what they have been doing so far—recording the music, owning the copyright, and revenue should come to them automatically, even from newer channels. Legally, it is a valid stance. Practically, it is not.

So, what is the solution? It surely is not rocket science. Most of them know the answer; it lies in mainstreaming these sites and not excluding them. Medianama has carried an interview with Saregama CEO, who admitted as much.

We don’t want these sites to be shut down, we want them to pay a license fee and flourish as a business. There are legitimate businesses in operation too. The scope is there, and we want these sites to be legal.

But they must act. It should be right approach; right and transparent pricing. In another story, Medianama said that IMI was unwilling to share pricing. While sharing any exact pricing may be tough, it should reach out with a rough idea, because many of these sites are run by young kids in their 20s. They will not come running to get into sophisticated discussions.

It is not really lack of intention that is the problem with the industry. It is the discomfort with the disruptive changes. Take Saregama for example. It takes one step at a time. As a buyer of legal music all through, I have tried everything and can say with some authority how it has evolved. First came hamaracd but not with mp3. So, you could get around 10-12 tracks for Rs 300 or so. It won’t work half the time. Then came their current website with provision to download mp3s for a price. Then came a set of MP3 CDs—really beautiful compilations of old Indian light music—film, bhajans, ghazals—priced for Rs 75 for 40 songs. Almost all of them are gems. But try to look for them in any big store—Landmark, MusicWorld, Planet M—you will never find too many of those titles. The company site is silent about this series. Then came Flipkart’s Flyte, which made the downloads far easier and friendlier. Yet, unlike books, music is a mass market product and e-commerce with credit card/online banking is still pretty unreachable for many. Not surprisingly, cash on delivery has been the preferred mode for most e-commerce buyers in India. That is not an option in downloads.

With always connected devices, the future is clearly streaming. My own experience says that 80% of the music that I buy, I do not listen for more than 2-3 times. So, I will not mind if I can pay a very small price per listening a song. That requires a completely different kind of pricing. So, any song that costs Rs 6 at Flipkart Flyte should probably cost no more than 30 paise for listening once. This is not a suggestion by me based on any calculations, but just an illustration. The actual calculations may show even more dramatic pricing. What I want to point out is that it requires disruptive thinking.

But I must reiterate the point I made earlier. The bigger issue is ease of paying and not pricing. Even if it is 30 paise, a user with no credit card or online banking can do precious little. If, on the othe hand, the payment is through, say, a mobile, it is absolutely possible to target a much biggger base of users. It can be really simple. An SMS goes out with a code. Once the user enters the code, he can stream/download the music and it gets debited from his mobile balance. Yes, it requires talking to a couple of players—an operator/an independent payment gateway etc—but it is not impossible. And I am not stupid enough to believe that these ideas are my original and have not occurred to the bright guys who run the music business. Or for that matter, this is the only way it can be done!

The problem is not lack of ideas; it is not even lack of intention. It is just lack of strong will to disrupt a model that has been in place for so long. If the music industry does not do it, someone else will do it. Apple has already done it to a great extent, creating value for itself but making the music companies a little richer, which they seem . But as Apple without Jobs is beginning to face the possibility of an anti-trust trial in case of e-books, the closed model is being threatened.

As of now, the illegal web sites may be getting a few ads, which makes them sustain the business. But if they have to be in this business, they will have to charge the consumers or get targeted ads. These sites have to be convinced that they have to walk half way. The music industry must walk the other half. But as big boys, the onus is on the music industry to drive the change. Else, change will just happen—to them.

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Open Government Platform: Beginning of A Great Journey

In the next few hours, the Union Minister for Communications & IT, Kapil Sibal, is expected to announce the launch of open government platform, in the presence of some representatives from the US government. This will be the first major announcement after the cabinet approved the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) 2012 last month.

The idea of open governance, spearheaded by the US, under then then Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, has been gaining popularity the world over. The Open Government Partnership  is a multilateral initiative that aims to “secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

The Open Government Partnership as a global partnership is not too old and started just about six months back. Formally launched on 20 September 2011, with an initial declarationby eight countries—Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States—the partnership now has 53 member countries, including the original eight.

With its time-honored policy of under-commitment, India is yet to formally join the partnership but is working with the US government to work on open access to data.  To become a member of OGP, participating countries must embrace a high-level Open Government Declaration; deliver a country action plan “developed with public consultation”; and commit to independent reporting on their progress going forward.

It may be noted here that publishing data collected by government is just one—though, at present, arguably the most important—aspect of the move towards this openness.

The Platform

While the actual beginning of the move towards open government began with President Obama signing the Memorandum of Transparency and Open Government on Day One of assuming office, it was with the appointment of Vivek Kundra as the Federal CIO that the real momentum started. Barely two months after his appointment in March 2009, Kundra launched Data.g0v platform (in May), for providing public access to raw datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government in order to enable public participation and private sector innovation. It drew from the DC Data Catalog launched by Kundra when he was CTO of Washington, D.C., where he published vast amounts of datasets for public use.

Though open government is a broader objective and is not just about releasing raw government data, this was nevertheless considered a major step, as the public availability of these datasets would not only help in transparency and openness, it also would allow anyone who wishes to do so—companies, individuals, NGOs—to create innovative applications using these data. And it actually did.

But when Kundra announced his resignation in June last year, there was a lot of apprehension whether the open government movement will lose its momentum. Many believed Kundra’s resignation was because of a drastic cut in funding for the e-government initiatives that he had undertaken. In a column titled, The Death of Open Government,  in Washington Post, renowned technologist, academician and commentator was drastic in his observation.

But, with Kundra gone, I am not optimistic about the program. Whenever a program loses its key evangelist, it normally dies. The Open Government Initiative is likely to suffer a slow, inevitable death.

But nevertheless the progress continued.

And when there is something around IT, can India be kept out of it? When the US government started to look at open sourcing the data.gov platform, India—the land of techies—was of course, the first stop. And this began around August, even before the Open Government Partnership was announced. India was not to be a member of that; it still isn’t.  But when it comes to tech work, the world’s most business savvy nation, surely knew where to turn to.

In December, it was publicly announced that India and US were working together to create a platform, called data.gov- in-a-box, an open source platform that would help governments globally to produce their own version of data.gov. This is what the data.gov site said at that time.

Among the actions in the U.S. National Action Plan announced by President Obama is an effort under the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue to produce “Data.gov-in-a-Box,” an open source version of the United States’ Data.gov data portal and India’s India.gov.in document portal. The U.S. and India are working together to produce an open source version available for implementation by countries globally, encouraging governments around the world to stand up open data sites that promote transparency, improve citizen engagement, and engage application developers in continuously improving these efforts. Technical teams from the governments of the U.S. and India have been working together since August of this year, with a planned launch of a complete open source product (which is now called the Open Government Platform (OGPL) to reflect its broad scope) in early 2012.

Today is that day, when that formal announcement about that platform is likely to happen by the Indian IT minister.

All the best for the journey together of two great nations, which are not just the most influential democracies in the world but are also the most competent when it comes to IT. And nothing marries democracy and technology like this initiative does. It takes the tool to be transparent on a platter to the governments around the world.

Additional Note: This should also convince critics of outsourcing to India (many within the Obama administration itself) that companies that seek Indian help in IT  do not do that just because it is low cost.

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Digital Divide is Now Political. And That Can Be Dangerous…

The power of Internet and social media in bringing about political change is now no more unrecognized. The role social media activism, led by the likes of Wael Ghonim, played in the uprising in Egypt that led to fall of the Mubarak regime, has convinced many of its potential.

But it could be a double edged sword. In many countries across the world the penetration of Internet is extremely low. Penetration of social media is even lower. Take India for example. The number of regulr Internet users is less than 8%. The number of Monthly Active Users (MAUs) of Facebook in India as of December 2011 was 46 million. If one takes into account only the individual users, the number of Indian people on Facebook would be somewhere between 2-3%. In a country like India, that is not bad at all, measuring purely from the point of view of ICT penetration.

In fact, a consumer product company trying to market a lifestyle product, there is no other media that is as efficient as Facebook for reaching out to say, affluent youth aged 18-25.

But the danger lies in assuming that the opinion of this tiny section of Facebook users is the opinion of the citizens of India. While many ordinary people do that fairly innocently, there are pressure groups who know this and do all they can to manipulate the activities on social media—often camouflaging their message as popular opinion.

Sometimes, even if there is no concerted effort, there can be huge disconnects between the kind of people who arre today on social media and other sections in the society.

I myself learned it the hard way. During the Anna Hazare agitation, the road in front of my house was converted to a virtual Dharna ground for 3-4 days, when Anna was in Tihar Jail. My house is very close to the jail. Seeing so many autowallas, vegetable vendors, and rickshawwallas among the protesting crowd, I asked a few of them what they were agitating about.

And I was shocked by the commonality in their views—and how different was that from “our” common view. For the Bedis, Kejriwals, Bhushans and most of us—whether someone is a supporter or detractor of the Anna movement—there was no doubt that the whole movement was against corruption.

But to the people on the street, I was stunned to find out, corruption was, at best, one of the issues. And it was not even the top issue. Mehngai was the issue. Anna, to them, was a mascot of the common man, not a mascot of anti-corruption, as his team had projected and many of us had accepted.

Whoever I told this to in my “friends’ circle” thought I was making too much out of it—by speaking just to a handful of people. I do not blame them, as I myself was shocked when I first heard it from a couple of the rickshawallahs. But when one after another started getting into the pain of mehngai setting aside corruption, I was convinced about what was really hurting them.

But have you even seen one FB post on this, leaving aside, possibly, comments about the petrol price hike?

So, in hindsight, it does not look so surprsing to me that they saw as the villain, not just the ruling UPA government, nor the political class alone but what they termed as “jyada padhey likhey log”, “bade bade log” and so on—the elite class in general. The same elite class which was spearheading the Anna movement on Facebook.

Today, much is being made of “people’s opinion” in social media. But who are these people? They represent a tiny section of the population. There is a real danger of getting overinfluenced by their opinion, when it comes to deciding on crucial policy matters.

This is digital divide of the worst class. This political divide is far more dangerous than the economic divide that we keep talking about.

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Flipkart’s Flyte: A Digital Aggregator Can Revolutionize Music

A couple of days back, one of the leading Indian e-commerce stores, Flipkart launched its digital music store, called Flyte. Flipkart has clearly stood out in the nascent e-commerce market in India, with its quality of services—be it in terms of online experience or more importantly, fulfilment.

The launch of the digital music store, that would enable buyers to download MP3s of albums or individual songs, has the potential to transform the music industry in India, if the company plays it well.

The fact that digital music is increasingly replacing physical media sales is no secret. According to the FICCI-KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2011, in 2010, digital music sales in India, with an estimated value of Rs 4.2 billion overtook the physical sales, that recorded a total sales of Rs 3.2 billion. Larger companies like Saregama have also witnessed the trend. In FY 11, more than 60% of Saregama revenues came from digital music sales. In fact, two years back, Saregama revamped its e-commerce site and a lot of its tracks are now available for online purchase, with good searchability functions.

So, what does Flyte bring in to the table, when the music labels already make it available on their site? On the face of it, it is the same thing that Amazon brings to the table, even though many publishers sell their books online. It aggregates music from different labels; gives a much better experience to the customers and offers far more interesting pricing models—combining individual track sales, full album sales and some amount of bundling. The fact that many small music publishers as well as some big labels do not have e-coommerce sites of their own only adds to the need of an aggregator like this, Surprising it may sound, Sony Music India does not have a dedicated web site and Universal Music India’s site is not e-commerce enabled!

But that is not the point. When the FICCI-KPMG research points out that digital music will grow more than four fold between 2010 too 2015, clocking Rs 14.8 billion in 2015 or that it will account for 79 percent of total sales by 2015 as opposed to 14 percent in 2006, they have taken business as usual growth—maybe taking into account the growth in digital device usage.

But there is far more that a strong independent digital music aggregator can do. In fact, it can not just disrupt the way music is sold, it can change the way music is published and distributed. There is hardly a better market than music where the Long Tail effect can be more true. For the uninitiated, the Long Tail principle is where the businesses do not need to spend a lot of time and energy in choosing what would be a blockbuster. The cost of storing and delivering is low/almost nil. So, they can virtually sell list anything for selling even if it interests a handful of buyers. The idea was popularized by Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine in his 2006 classic book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. 

In some cases, people may actually end up choosing a blockbuster. Today, large music publishers do not touch new and upcoming artistes, unless someone somewhere is convinced about their ability to become big hits. So, many good artistes wait for ever for the “opportunity”. In some cases, their work is released by small/local labels, which do not have the muscle and wherewithal to market. Strong digital aggregators give both the enterprising artistes and the niche/small labels to publish their music. The only judge would  be the ultimate judge: the public. The role of filters is getting minimized in many areas and music is just fit for that.

In fact, there are some instances of such efforts already happening. Noted singer, Shubha Mudgal and her husband, popular Tablist Aneesh Pradhan, have established a label called Underscore Records and have released works of many upcoming artistes, a lot of which are sold in digital format in their website. It is an effort that is much admired within a small community, but how many of us know about some of the excellent music they have released? Similarly, in Odisha, noted administrator, educationist and popular lyricist Devdas Chhotray has started a new experimentation of setting some of the best poetry to music, with a young but talented composer and singer duo. The market for such work is worldwide where discerning Odias are, and not necessarily in a locality in Bhubaneswar, where you can find it. Digital music—more specifically, an independent digital music aggregator—can take it to Odias in Ohio or Oslo or Ooty, wherever they are. That is nothing short of a revolution.

A strong digital music aggregator like Flyte should be able to help a lot in making this possible. It has already impressed in the way it is designed, presented and the way it has priced. Though some of the problems—such as putting a picture of a Bengali movie poster in an Odia light songs album—that are imported from the original music label remain, those are small problems you can live with for some time.

In fact, one expects that in due time, it would add small films and documentaries too, some of which are never seen by anyone other than the jury of film festivals. The digital aggregator is the perfect medium to make them reach the public. But that is another task, maybe for another day.

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