The Punjab Information Technology (IT) policy draft is not just about IT. Rather, it aspires to be about governance in the age of IT. The Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) has held a public consultation on the draft and is now revising it in accordance with the feedback. The revised draft will be sent to the cabinet for approval. In the meantime, TR Pakistan has reviewed the policy draft and highlighted all you need to know about the first-of-its-kind IT policy for the province.
Fundamental right to access internet
It recognizes provision of internet as a fundamental right and categorizes internet as a basic utility. As with most rights, this recognition will ensure that those who seek access cannot be denied. Internet’s status as a basic utility will enable service providers claim a right of way for development of their infrastructure. This means lesser probability of delays caused by bureaucratic red tape.
Greater access via increased connectivity and localized content
The draft seeks establishment of common resource and service centers with dedicated space for women visitors and public Wi-Fi hotspots in major cities as well as in remote areas. These initiatives will be undertaken in partnership with the private sector.
It also seeks provision of online content in regional languages to promote access. Based on feedback received during public consultations, additional measures are being identified in the revised draft to provide information about all government services in regional languages.
Conditional tax exemptions
It proposes tax exemptions and breaks for promoting use of internet as well as incentivizing a culture of research and development. To lower the cost of internet use through cell phones, the draft urges the government to consider exempting cellular broad services from sales tax. It also asks the government to consider tax breaks and reimbursements for IT firms proportionate to their investments in research and development and generation of new jobs.
Startups and freelancers
For startups, it proposes a blanket exemption from all provincial taxes for a three-year term and self-assessment of income and sales for tax calculation for five years after the end of the exemption.
- Investment, financial support
The draft seeks establishment of a government-backed venture capital fund to cater to the financial needs of freelancers and startups with business ideas but no investment to materialize those ideas. It also recognizes the need to offer incentives to attract private venture capitalists and foreign investors to the local market of IT goods and services.
It says the government shall extend financial support to cover operational expenses of startups owned by women, members of minority communities and relatives of soldiers and police officials who lose their lives in the line of duty.
- Incentivizing innovation
The draft seeks establishment of an Innovation Fund to promote social entrepreneurship. Startups with ideas that can solve important social and economic problems will be provided financial assistance through this fund. Similarly, a Punjab Startup Award will be launched to provide seed funding to startups based on innovative ideas.
- Training and capacity building measures
It doesn’t just provide for financial support for startups but also seeks introduction of training and capacity building programs. An Applied Entrepreneurship Training Program has been identified to cater to the needs of managers of incubators and accelerators. Partnerships will be sought with foreign incubators and accelerators and with universities for the purposes of training, capacity building and research promotion.
The draft provides recognition to freelancers as members of the IT sector and seeks steps for extension to freelancers of all facilities available to the industry, including engagement with the State Bank of Pakistan to simplify the process of recording freelance income as IT export earning rather than home remittance.
Data collection on IT industry
Recognizing the importance of evidence-backed policy making, the draft seeks a country-wide census of the IT industry and establishment of a database with information about incubators and accelerators in the province.
Digitization of government services
It advocates for data management and analysis to be the basis of policy formation in all government departments. A Digital First Policy has been identified to ensure that new government services are offered digitally.
It also proposes establishment of a centralized Punjab Data Center to host data related to all government services and of e-service centers across the province to facilitate access to public information and services. It seeks online connectivity of all government departments in the province for enhanced consultation and coordination in delivery of various services and provision of ICT training to relevant public officials as well as development of a dedicated IT Cadre in all provincial departments for better implementation of ICT-based initiatives.
It proposes measures to improve learning outcomes at public schools and training institutes through use of IT facilities. These include introduction of courses on innovative thinking at school- and college- levels. These courses will be designed with assistance from the academia and the industry through a liaison committee.
Recognizing the pedagogical value of education in regional languages, the draft seeks digitization of education content in regional language and provision of trainings on use of IT facilities to teachers at school- and college- levels and of equipment needed for accessing this digital content on lease or easy installments. Additionally, it proposes establishment of digital public libraries to make available written, audio or video content in regional languages.
Some IT education specific measures are provision of 200 scholarships and grants per year to fund masters and doctorate degree education in IT, ITES and Electronic Hardware Management fields from foreign universities, and, of 300 scholarships for deserving students admitted to top-ranked IT universities in the country.
The draft seeks provision of a framework for telemedicine, including innovative approaches like setting up clinics in far-off areas equipped with IT facilities allowing registered medical practitioners based anywhere in the country to examine visitors and prescribe medicines remotely.
Research, development and innovation
Apart from tax exemptions and university-industry partnerships, the draft several other measures to promote research, development and innovation. It proposes R&D scholarships in emerging academic disciplines, provision of low-interest and interest-free loans for R&D firms and startups and establishment of research centers for work on Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4Development).
Digitalization of finance
The policy includes various provisions to discourage cash-based transactions and promote digital payments. For the public sector, it seeks to digitize payment of salaries and financial services like Benazir Income Support Program. It recognizes the need for legislation to facilitate e-commerce industry in the province.
Legal framework governing digital rights
The draft identifies the need for setting up a Digital Advocacy Task Force comprising members from the civil society, industry and government to recommend ways to address issues concerning digital rights of internet users. The taskforce will be mandated top frame an Information and Data Security policy covering issues like cyber-bullying and harassment, censorship and net neutrality.
Promoting intergovernmental cooperation
Finally, the draft recognizes the need to work with other tiers of government – in the center as well as other provinces. It proposes the setting up of a joint-provincial committee for consistency and complementarity in IT policies. Lobbying will be done with governments concerned for establishment of such a committee.