Wednesday April 24, 2024

A digital Pakistan

By Atta-ur-Rahman
December 11, 2019

A quiet revolution to transition Pakistan to a digital country is under way. The first part of this revolution was initiated in 2000-2002, when a huge number of over 150 projects worth more than Rs15 billion were launched.

A major focus was on increasing connectivity, and as a result bandwidth prices were sharply decreased from a ridiculous $90,000 per month for a 2 MB line to a few hundred dollars per month and internet access was expanded from 29 cities to over 850 towns and cities and over 2000 villages.

To enhance mobile telephony, Ufone, a public-sector mobile company, was successfully launched with much lower call rates. There was great reluctance at that time among the population to own mobile phones as one had to pay for receiving calls. Most people did not want to pay for calls made by others. So I decided to change that and we introduced the “Calling Party Pays” (CPP) regime, so that only the person calling was charged for the call. This led to an explosive growth in mobile phone connectivity which expanded from 220,000 to over tens of millions within a few years.

Pakistan did not have any National IT Policy till that time. This was formulated within three months of my appointment as federal minister ( year 2000) and approved in September 2000. To promote the IT industry, a 15-year tax holiday was given that expired in 2016 but was then renewed till 2019, and then again till 2022. Software exporters were allowed to retain 35 percent of their earnings in foreign exchange accounts.

Pakistan had five slots allocated in space in the period 1980-2000 to place satellites, but had systematically lost them because of the inability of previous governments to occupy these slots. I decided to go ahead and quickly occupy the last slot in space at 38 degrees East, and we successfully placed our own Communication Satellite, PAKSAT 1, before the deadline of April 2003 when this last slot too would have been lost.

This would not have been possible without the herculean efforts of my adviser, Mr Salman Ansari, who worked selflessly day and night for it to happen. Fiber access was expanded in this 3 year period of 2000-2002 from 53 to 250 cities. Software technology parks with high-speed connection to international markets and modern facilities were set up at Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Islamabad.

Education is critical to transition to a digital economy. Seven new IT universities were therefore set up in the public sector to provide high quality IT education at highly subsidized rates. The Virtual University in Lahore was set up, with a capacity to accommodate 50,000 graduates in five years. That has expanded to over 200,000 students in subsequent years. Some 56 public-sector universities were interconnected with each other at the time and with educational institutions around the world through educational intranet project. IT and computer science departments were set up in 34 public-sector universities. Endowment Funds of over 1.3 billion setup for public-sector engineering universities. A digital library was established through the the Pakistan Educational research Network (PERN) that provided 65,000 textbooks and 25,000 international journals free to all public-sector universities.

Collaboration with Intel began in 2001 when I met the CEO of Intel (international) in Hong Kong and came to an understanding. As a result Intel helped in training 25,000 school teachers in 70 districts of Pakistan without any expenditure on the part of the government. With the assistance of Intel, kiosks were placed at major airports in 2001 for free access to the internet. Projects amounting to Rs208 million were launched in the four provinces and AJK for computerization of government departments as part of e-government initiatives..

The good work done was continued by Anusha Rahman and her colleagues under the previous government. A country-wise ‘Digiskills’ programme to train a million freelancers was launched by Ignite CEO Yusuf Hussain. A similar endeavour entitled ‘eRozgar’ was launched by the Punjab IT Board under the stewardship of Dr Umar Saif. Pakistan was then ranked as the third largest freelancing country in the world – no mean achievement.

The next phase in this journey began in 2018 when three PM Task forces on IT and Telcom, Science and Technology and Knowledge Economy were set up under my leadership by Prime Minister Imran Khan. We deliberated and crafted a strategy for transitioning Pakistan towards a knowledge economy.

One of the main elements of this strategy was to increase the digital capacity. A number of important projects worth over Rs160 billion to help Pakistan transition to a knowledge economy have been initiated that are in different phases of approval, in respective ministries and the Planning Commission. They cover key areas like Artificial Intelligence and Allied Technologies, modern materials, and biotechnology. Special attention is being paid to education with programmes such as teachers training with international certification, blended learning from K-12 in schools, Stem Education from 9-12 classes, training for e-lancers, for vocational and technical training, a Matric-Tech programme to induct students from class 8 in vocational and technical training.

Several proposed policy interventions for ease of doing business, establishment of a venture fund ‘Jiddat, startup & R&D grants, incubators on the model of Plan-9 in different regions close to key industries of Pakistan for promoting meaningful entrepreneurship and innovation, establishment of the Prime Minister University and centers of excellence in key areas of technology are being implemented.

Based on the ‘triple helix’ model, these programmes bring together government, academia and industry to work together in a closely concerted fashion. The projects include massive MS and PhD programmes, establishment of software technology zones, the Software Export Promotion Fund, several e-government projects, standardization, infrastructure development, policies intervention for massive fiberization for broadband connectivity to villages and remote areas, spectrum allocation for IoTs and 5G, no tax on smart phones initiatives etc.

These programmes are meant to create a digital Pakistan and to create a strong ‘Made in Pakistan’ brand. Key players in this historic national initiative include Prof Shoab Khan, Prof Waqar Mahmood, Prof Iqbal Choudhary and many others. The programmes, initiated with the support of President Alvi, in the field of Artificial Intelligence during the last 18 months should also have a huge impact in unleashing the creative talents of our youth.

An immediate success of this initiative has been the huge impact on tax collections which has already resulted in over Rs65 billion of additional revenue through mathematical algorithms developed by NADRA to identify low tax filers or non tax filers. The total declared assets moved sharply up to Rs3 trillion. More than 90,000 non-filers became filers and total tax returns for the year ending June 30, 2018 crossed two million. This was by far the highest number ever in the history of the FBR.

The writer is the formerchairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries (NASIC).