Pioneering Tech Innovator Pramod Varma Speaks on the Power of Digital Public Infrastructure
Among the most ubiquitous features of modern India is the QR code. From trendy boba shops and bustling vegetable bazaars in megacities to roadside tea stands and ramshackle corner stores in barely-there hamlets, one is hard-pressed to find a storefront without QR codes for payment apps like GooglePay, PhonePe, and Paytm. These apps allow buyers and sellers to make instant and secure digital transactions between bank accounts using the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), a central bank-backed platform. Digital public infrastructure is transforming India, accelerating economic development and including the formerly excluded.
In a lecture on “Unlocking Digital Public Infrastructure for Global Growth & Inclusion” at the MacMillan Center on October 12, Dr. Pramod Varma, a pioneer of digital public infrastructure in India, described how India’s transformative model of digital inclusion could be extended to low-income countries globally.
Varma, who is former Chief Architect of Aadhaar & IndiaStack, explained that UPI is only one part of the digital public infrastructure (DPI) comprising IndiaStack, a collection of interfaces that is transforming India’s economy and society. It includes Aadhaar, a 12-digit biometric identity number; eKYC, or electronic Know Your Customer; and DigiLocker, which converts paper documents to digitally verifiable certificates.
Varma outlined the ways in which the DPI revolution has transformed the lives of Indians. In a country where less than 20% of the population was banked in 2008, banking penetration had surpassed 80% by 2017. Aadhaar, eKYC, and DigiLocker have made registering bank accounts and getting loans faster, simpler, and cheaper. Today there are 1.38 billion people in India with digital IDs and more than 860 million bank accounts.
Indians can get vaccinated, sign contracts, and pay for services, all on IndiaStack. Varma, who pioneered the development of IndiaStack, now serves as CTO of EkStep Foundation, an education nonprofit; co-founder of the Foundation for Interoperability in Digital Economy (FIDE), a digital infrastructure nonprofit; and Co-Chair of the Center for Digital Public Infrastructure. He believes that everything that has been done with DPI so far is just the tip of the iceberg.
Varma argued that DPI can be used to create open source networks that “unlock” the relationships between buyers and sellers, allowing both Amazon and your local bookseller to exist on the same playing field. One example Varma provided of how this works is in transportation. When transportation actors of all kinds—taxis, buses, ferries, payment service providers—use the same network protocol, riders can access all of them without having to switch between a dozen different transportation services, making mobility seamless for users and business easier for providers large and small.
Varma has worked toward the expansion of open network ecosystems using the Beckn Protocol, “an open and interoperable protocol for decentralized digital commerce” that brings together all players into the same digital market. Though it was developed in India, Beckn is now being tested for everything from agri-commerce in The Gambia to electric vehicle (EV) charging in the Netherlands and reskilling in Brazil.
Much of Beckn’s utilization in India has focused on enabling scalable, distributed solutions to e-commerce and mobility challenges. Because the same protocol can be used for many purposes, services using open protocols are interoperable, meaning someone could access a transportation solution while they order food—from two different parties. “This creates an enormous opportunity for entrepreneurs,” Varma added.
But Varma has a new challenge in mind: using open source protocols like Beckn to address the problem of climate change. In his talk, Varma outlined six facets of resolving the climate crisis and accelerating the green transition for which DPI and open protocols might hold the solution.
First, Varma argued, open protocols could create open sustainable energy networks, uniting EV charging networks, charge point operators, battery aggregators, community microgrids, and energy storage providers into cohesive systems that minimize waste, reduce complexity, and solve energy needs.
For each of the other challenges—creating efficient carbon markets, building an efficient circular economy, improving urban governance, climate relief efforts, and reskilling for the green transition—he outlined the ways in which building networks of actors can reduce marginal costs, expand inclusion, and scale up climate solutions by making trust, identification, and data sharing easy, interoperable, and secure.
On the challenge of reskilling workers to meet the needs of the green transition, Varma was clear: “We are not setting up a website. We are not setting up one more platform. We are saying, ‘If you have a learning platform, if you have money, you can connect to the grid.’ You don’t go to LinkedIn to find a job. This is a job internet.”
Varma concluded by emphasizing that just as governments build highways but not cars, DPI is a “digital highway” that provides the means for all sorts of parties—entrepreneurs, consumers, nonprofit organizations—to connect on a level playing field that provides inclusive, accessible goods and services. He held that “for a country like India, DPI is not a choice,” but a necessity. However, it still comes with risks and challenges, and a strong civil society and careful attention is needed to ensure that it does not exacerbate existing problems.
Varma’s presentation was followed by a panel discussing DPI and its potential with panelists Charity Troyer Moore, scientific director of Inclusion Economics at Yale University, a joint initiative of the Economic Growth Center and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale; Alix Peterson Zwane, senior fellow at the Yale Jackson School and CEO of Global Innovation Fund; Duvvuri Subbarao, senior fellow at the Yale Jackson School and former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India; and Rohini Pande, Henry J. Heinz II Professor of Economics and director of the Economic Growth Center.
The panel discussed the implications of India’s digital transformation experience for other low- and middle-income countries, the significance of increasing data availability in the developing world, and the need to change power structures concurrently with expanding financial and digital inclusion.
This event was cohosted by the Yale Economic Growth Center, Inclusion Economics at Yale University, the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs, and the South Asian Studies Council at Yale MacMillan Center.