It is now time that we also think about AI: Minister Sharma
The Sixth National Information Technology Day is being marked today around the slogan of ‘Secure Information Technology, Good Governance and Prosperity’. The Day is observed by both the government and the private sectors amid various programmes.
A meeting of the Council of Ministers on June 2, 2017 had decided to celebrate the National ICT Day on May 2 every year. The Day assumes greater significance in the context of securing the goals of good governance, sustainable development and poverty alleviation.
Communication and information technology has not only reduced the world into a single village but also importantly helped make people’s life easier and advanced. In this scenario, there is a need to provide services to the citizens in a smooth, accessible and reliable manner by making the use of ICT in a more reliable, secure and accessible way.
The present government has stressed on the need of implementing various policies and programmes for systematizing the ICT along with its growing use. Government spokesperson and Minister for Communication and Information Technology Rekha Sharma has insisted on improving the investment climate in the information and technology sector, building a knowledge-based society and digital literacy.
RSS Feature News Section Chief Krishna Adhikari and Reporter Ashok Ghimire talked to Minister Sharma in the context of the ICT Day. Here is the excerpt of the interview:
What priorities has the government determined for the development of the ICT sector?
Today we are celebrating the Sixth ICT Day. I want to congratulate everyone on this occasion. We have taken ahead topics of development of ICT and prosperity side by side by attaching high priority to this sector. Information and technology has become a basic need in recent years. At some time in the past ICT was considered a luxury, but it is a basic need at present. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, information and technology’s multi-faceted use has increased. Therefore, the whole nation should see it as an important facet of life. Some provisions would be made on this subject in the government’s upcoming policy and programme document and the budget.
In the past, the ICT sector was considered in a different way. The rate of tax for tobacco and alcohol and that of goods related to IT is the same. This shows that the State could not see IT from the perspective of basic need. This has to be adjusted. We have been discussing on the topic that these issues also need to be prioritized in the upcoming policy and programme, and budget as well.
There are no adequate laws related to ICT and these Acts and laws should be made in tune with the changing situation. We are working on this. So, the Ministry is preparing the Information Technology Act. Bills related to telecommunications are being prepared.
What challenges are there in the information technology sector?
There are high prospects in the information technology sector. It should be used in every sector. We have not been able to use IT in all sectors like that. We have also not been able to expand access to ICT. We have not been able to take its reach to the general public.
This is the first challenge before us. Another thing is that we have not been able to put in place the policy provision of developing human resources related to ICT and retaining that workforce within the country. We are in a situation in which we have to bring this workforce through outsourcing. We have not been able to produce skilled human resources in the ICT sector within the country. On the other hand, we have felt that we have not been able to retain the available ICT human resources and utilise their capacity fully.
There is duplication in many structures related to ICT. There are various structures made, but they have the similar nature of work. Therefore, this has to be integrated structurally as well.
There is also this challenge of producing technical human resources and mobilizing them for the development of the information technology sector and for achieving prosperity for the nation.
Increased investment in the ICT sector means huge possibilities of increased revenue for the country. ICT is the key for the country’s development and prosperity. Despite ICT being important, even now we are faced with the situation of sending billions abroad in the ICT sector due to issues to do with policy, laws and budget constraints. Questions have also been raised regarding our data safety while getting ICT related works done by hiring foreign companies. There is also the challenge of carrying out work in this sector while at the same time maintaining data security. Since the cyber crime control, cyber security and security of the government data centre are highly sensitive issues, special attention should be given to these topics.
Works are being carried out under the Digital Nepal Framework, what is its present status?
The present age is the age of information and technology. So, there is a need to take the nation ahead on the journey of prosperity by connecting all sectors with ICT in tune with the time. We have considered the Digital Nepal Framework as one of the eight pillars of prosperity. Agriculture, health, education, energy, telecommunication sector reforms have been mentioned in the Framework. There is provision for a budget to carry out works in these sectors, but so far works have not moved ahead in a systematic manner.
Only one Ministry working for this is not enough. Many Ministries are linked with this task. The structure of the Framework has been prepared for this purpose. Its regular meetings are not taking place. Various structures have been created under the Prime Minister’s leadership, the Chief Secretary’s leadership and the Communication and Information Technology Ministry Secretary’s leadership. We are making an effort to call the meeting of all these structures. We are also thinking of making a break-down of the programmes, allocating budget and effectively implementing after holding discussions with various development partners, including the World Bank, to move ahead the programmes under the Framework.
This programme is utterly necessary and also outstanding. Telemedicine, smart school, and smart agriculture can be included in it. Therefore, we are trying to conduct inter-ministry consultation. Discussions are also being held with the Prime Minister for pursuing this matter in a systematic way. The government has speeded up the task of moving ahead the programme of Digital Nepal Framework.
What plans does the government have for increasing the accessibility of information technology among the maximum population?
The topic of information technology has been included in the government’s policy and programme since the past. The government has the policy of reducing the ‘digital divide. It is an important topic. The State should facilitate this and itself expand ICT accessibility. It is also a matter of social responsibility although it might not be a commercially profitable business to expand the information technology services in the far-flung areas of the country.
We are thinking of taking this forward expeditiously so as to expand its reach in all the rural municipalities in the near future. Issues of legal hurdles and technical issues have been cropping up sometimes. UTL had taken the work related to installing optical fibre in Gandaki and Lumbini provinces. Work to that connection has not moved ahead at present and there is a court case related to it. Cases are not decided promptly.
These are also some of the issues that have created hurdles in the government’s policy of reducing the digital divide. We have the policy of decreasing the digital divide coordinating with the judiciary and even by making the service provider institutions focussed to reach their services in the far-flung areas of the country. We will address this topic in the upcoming policy and programme and budget.
How have you set the immediate priority in the information technology sector?
The laws related to information and communication technology have to be developed as soon as possible. We cannot carry out work unless we have the required laws. All the developed technologies such as cyber security, online media and social sites are being used here. At the same time, the use and misuse of information technology is happening as we have failed to carry out works for its regulation and bringing it in the tax ambit on time. We need to make the required laws on these topics.
We lack skilled human resources related to the information technology sector. The topic of attracting whatever skilled workforce we have in this sector in the government and other sectors should be kept in priority. There is no provision of timely training the employees working in the information technology sector. Those IT human resources who have joined the government service should be imparted training continuously by establishing a training institute.
The technology sector is advancing day by day. A person who has entered the government service now has to be updated next year because of the new developments in technology. There needs to be relentless capacity building programmes and programmes for producing skilled human resources. We lack strong structure for this. The scattered structures have to be merged and strengthened.
It is said that there is a high prospect for the development of information technology in Nepal. How far is the possibility of developing Nepal as the ‘ICT hub’?
There is a high possibility of IT development in Nepal. This sector can significantly contribute to enhancing the country’s GDP if we can utilise and promote this sector. We can stop the money that we are sending abroad for security printing purposes. We will be saving billions of rupees when we are in a position to print currency notes with our own security press. We should ramp up investment at one time in order to make Nepal the information technology hub.
Internet accessibility has still not reached the general masses. What is the government’s plan for making the internet tariff inexpensive?
A. Internet should be cheap and of high quality. It is expensive as the bandwidth has to be purchased from abroad. If Nepal can install its own optical fibre up to the sea, then the internet fees will be far cheaper. It would be profitable to the service providers as well to provide much service charging less than vice versa. Discussions are on to make the internet affordable and accessible. We are holding discussions at the policy, legal and practical level to make the internet affordable and less costly.
The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is found increasing in recent times; what’s the government’s take on this?
It is now time that we also think about AI. However, a lot of work remains to be carried out in the context of our country before employing AI. We have the challenge before us of producing the skilled human resources. There is the need to get to AI technology as well by producing the skilled human resources in this sector and building their capacity. It is not that discussions have not at all been held on this line, but we are not thinking of going to the implementation stage right now.