Jan 16
Digitalization Out Of Track PDF Print E-mail

By Apu Ahmed

 

Digitalization is a process by which information can be transformed into digital form in computers and computer enabled devices to ensure its free flow for progress of society. The expansion of digital technologies was a major commitment of the ruling party that helped it to confirm an overwhelming victory in the general election in 2008, conducted by the military backed caretaker administration. However, the progress and expansion of digitization despite best efforts from the ruling party Awami League that won the lop-sided general election in 2014 is questionable. Much of the efforts seemed propaganda or just shadows of true sense of digitization.

 

Broadband

 

Penetration of internet is regarded as a major indicator of digitization. A World Bank report in 2016 said that 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration would increase gross domestic product growth by 1.21 per cent in developed economies and 1.38 per cent in developing ones. According to Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission the cell phone based internet users is much higher than broadband-computer based internet penetration in our country although the latter is preferable than the earlier. The broadband users rose to 5.3 million in October 2017 from 1,208 in February 2012, but the internet users with mobile phones has reached 74 million from 29,609 during the same period. The same WB report titled the ‘World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends’ said studies on internet connections in different countries found a positive economic impact from fixed broadband. Broadband based internet requires computers which would eventually help to flourish computer literacy.

 

BTRC Data Questionable

 

The BTRC data on internet penetration is somehow questionable when the International Telecommunication Union in 2016 said Bangladesh had the lowest internet penetration in South Asia, with just 14.40 per cent of the population having connectivity to the internet. The country stands 144th in ITU's ICT Development Index, up from its 148 spot in 2010. Even Myanmar that introduced mobile phone services only a few years ago came ahead of Bangladesh in the rankings, at 142. Its internet penetration stands at 21.80 percent.  As of December 2015, Bangladesh has 3.8 million fixed broadband subscriptions, which is 2.41 percent of the total population. However, the government had denied the report. Zunaid Ahmed Palak, state minister for ICT, said the government is satisfied with the BTRC published numbers, which show the country's internet penetration is about 40 percent. Abu Saeed Khan, senior policy fellow at LIRNEasia, a Colombo-based think tank, said ITU never run any independent report for any country. The ITU has nearly reproduced the data without any amendment. Therefore, it reflects the country's digital health, which is miserable, said Khan, also a former general secretary of the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh. The Maldives, the smallest country in South Asia, has the highest internet penetration in the region, of 54.46 percent. Neighboring India's internet penetration was 26 percent; it came in at 131, Nepal came in at 136 and Pakistan 143.

 

State-owned Banks

 

In India, the campaign of digitization was started only in 2015 with the aim of railway computerisation, land record computerization, providing digital literacy, availability of high speed internet, mobile phone and bank account enabling in digital space and providing services in online platform. Though the present government has stared the campaign much earlier the state-owned banks are lagging behind from the private banks even in urban area to offer services digitally. The state-owned banks which are lynchpin of the rural economy are still maintaining manual banking system in those areas. In April, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina cancelled the proposed Modernisation of State-owned Financial Institutions Project with loan from World Bank. The Financial Institutions Division took the initiative to modernise the state-owned banks with automation was a major component. The PM had directed that the project would be financed from own resource, but there is no progress of the proposed project. The government has also held back introduction of digital devises in collection of tax by the suspension of the newly designed Value Added Tax because of pressure from businessmen which exposed weakness of the ruling party to curb tax evasion.

 

Digitazation or Mockery

 

Demand for train tickets is rising day by day in the county as more travelers wanted to comfortable journey instead of hectic road based journey. But electronic tickets are available only for few. Other government services are yet to be digitized properly or the government could not exploit the digital devises to solve the problems like traffic management and waste management. In 2012, the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority introduced radio-frequency identification-tagged number plates aiming at curbing traffic rule violation and monitor vehicular movement through hand-held devices stationed at strategic points around the country. But tracking the vehicles digitally yet to take off as the tracking system is still not in place. The vehicle owners who paid money for the radio-frequency identification-tagged plates would be felt cheated. Over 500,000 vehicles have been assigned with RFID number plates. But people – as well as the law enforcement agencies – have not been able to reap the benefits of having the digital number plates because there is no functional tracking system. A vested quarter is reaping the benefit by supplying those useless and so called digital number plates.

 

Land Records Digitization

 

As of 2014, around 2.5 crore land-related cases remained pending with the country's courts, and it will take about 2.7 crore years to settle those if the case proceedings continue at the current pace,  according to economist Abul Barakat. The government is running a project to digitize the land records in the country, but Barakat noted during a discussion organised jointly by Manusher Jonno Foundation, Uttaran and CARE at Daily Star on April 30, 2014 that the land issue was a highly political one and the problems would not go away even if the land digitalisation project was implemented. The government made an electoral pledge in 2008 to form a land commission but it is yet to fulfill the promise. Most real estate companies have implemented housing projects, grabbing khas land. Low-level land officials are involved in corruption and helped land grabbers and rich people make fake documents and grab lands. Indigenous people, Hindus, women, and owners of small plots of land are the worst sufferers and deprived of services at land offices. In most countries, people get all land-related services, including that for land records and registrations, from a single office. But in Bangladesh, three offices provide the services, causing hassles to people.

 

Software Export

 

Job creation through the optimum uses of digital devises is another area where the present government failed. For the last one decade an over enthusiastic group of people are advocating for higher fiscal incentive to make the software import a billion dollar industry. By the urge from the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services, the government withdrew the value-added tax from locally developed software to help boost the sector. Moreover, Finance Minister AMA Muhith proposed to increase the supplementary duty imported software. Local software developers congratulated the government for its decision, terming it a milestone decision that will ultimately help achieve digitisation. This will be an important decision in boosting the industry, said Mustafa Jabbar, president of BASIS. But according to the Export Promotion Bureau, the exports of software was $160 million 2016-17 fiscal which ended on June 30, recording 19.34 per cent growth, still many miles away from the billion dollar export. There is no data as how much the country spends annually for importing software. But from Bangladesh Bank to commercial banks and recently popular UBER in transport network uses imported software, preferably from India and the US.

 

Free Flow Information

 

Finally, none can forget the intervention by the government to keep the social network like the Facebook, and the Viber shut down on a number occasion in the past. No government agency explained why they blocked the social network run on internet based digital devises. Nevertheless, the decisions contradict the free flow of information, a major ingredient of the digital world.