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India, IBM Set Out To Build Billion-Person Web Portal

India central government has enlisted IBM to help it build a Web portal that citizens can use to access thousands of services, ranging from business permits to housing subsidies and tax advice.
In a country with more than 1 billion people, public infrastructure projects tend to come in two sizes: large and frighteningly large. India's e-government initiatives are no exception. With help from IBM, the country's central government last week unveiled ambitious plans to build a Web portal for citizens to access thousands of services, ranging from business permits to housing subsidies and tax advice.

The massive effort aims to spread some benefits of India's multibillion-dollar tech boom beyond the outsourcing pros in hot spots like Bangalore and Mumbai. "This is a change in the way we're providing services to all our citizens, not just those in the city centers," says N. Vijayaditya, director general of India's National Informatics Center, the government arm in charge of providing IT services to the public sector.

The site will be accessible through PCs and mobile devices and also at Web kiosks the government is introducing in India's more rural areas, trying to give the millions of agricultural workers with limited access to technology some access to e-services.

Vijayaditya also sees the National Portal project as important in ensuring that India remains competitive against China and other countries whose stock as choice destinations for offshore corporate IT operations is rising. "It will be much easier for foreign companies to find out what they need to know about doing business here," he says. "This will add a level of transparency and efficiency." Among other business benefits, the portal will act as a central repository for tech services contracts posted for tender by the central government.

Vijayaditya's looking to spread the wealth

Vijayaditya's looking to spread the wealth
Local Investment Pays Off

As the man who is effectively the CIO of the world's largest democratic nation, Vijayaditya isn't blasé about the challenge of connecting a billion citizens to thousands of government Web sites and services through a single point of entry. The scale is one reason the $5 million contract went to IBM. It was the only vendor with the mix of products, skills, and in-country presence to handle the job, Vijayaditya says. IBM expects to employ more than 50,000 workers in India by next year.

Most work on the portal will be implemented by IT staff at the National Informatics Center, though IBM provided the system design and architecture, drawing heavily on a development center it recently opened in Bangalore to create business systems around service-oriented architectures. "This is the ultimate reference project for us," says R. Dhamodaran, who heads the Indian operations of IBM's $16 billion-a-year software group.

The National Portal will rely on a range of IBM's WebSphere middleware to link the system to Web sites already operated by Indian central and state governments. "This couldn't work without such open standards," Vijayaditya says. Security also will be a major challenge, acknowledges Dhamodaran, because of having to provide access rights for that many people.

The project is just one of the ways in which IBM hopes to recoup the $6 billion that CEO Sam Palmisano earlier this year said the company would invest in India. Sales of offshore IT services and of hardware and software to India's burgeoning commercial sector are the company's biggest opportunities in the country. But the high-profile portal could create some lucrative spin-off activity.

"This is going to create a market for e-government technologies on a wider scale in India," Dhamodaran says, adding that businesses may also spend on infrastructure that will enable them to connect to the government electronically. "All the investments we've made here will help us bid on and win projects locally." Call it reverse outsourcing.