Bus. Std: Borrow a leaf from Rajiv Gandhis book

My technology column has started in the ICE World section of Business Standard. ICE World is published every other Wednesday as a technology supplement. The first in the series looks at the need for India Technology Missions.

India is in the news in the Western media finally, for the right reasons. Indias brainpower is attracting attention.

Could India be the services capital of the world, just as China is en route to becoming the worlds workshop?

The question is moot at this point India still has a long way to go. While a beginning has been made in the right direction, a lot still needs to be done.

Indias infrastructure is still pathetic, technology adoption by companies is still quite poor outside the export-oriented IT sector, education is still not universally available, rural areas remain frozen in time and governance still hinders rather than helps.

Can something be done about this?

The need of the hour is a focused national agenda in key areas that delivers results in a specified time period. There also needs to be co-ordination across different entities so that they are not working like scorpions in a pit.

The country must rise above individual and local self-interests. It is a kind of agenda that is ideally pushed by a centrally created team which decentralises execution and is able to get the best from different elements that have specific expertise. We need a few, focused missions.

My mind goes back to the mid-1980s when Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister, launched a mission under Sam Pitroda to create appropriate technologies for transforming Indias telecom sector.

The result was C-DoT (Centre for Development of Telematics), which created low-cost exchanges for rural India and began the first phase of Indiaa telecommunications revolution. Later, a few more missions were created. But after Gandhis death, the scenario changed.

A note on one of the websites of the Madhya Pradesh government offers an insight into the role and working of missions: The missions crafted a model that worked through participatory structures, which generated collective action as well as altered institutional arrangements within government to generate intersectoral action around identified mission goals. Missions gave time frames with milestones and fast-tracked procedures.

India needs a set of technology missions to build human capital and digital infrastructure in the country. The government (or a collective from the corporate and educational sectors) needs to initiate these missions, staff them with the best people it can find, give them the appropriate budgets, promise non-interference and let them run.

Indians are capable of doing things well not just when they are non-resident Indians. Look at some of the physical infrastructure projects that have been undertaken in recent times the Delhi Metro and the Golden Quadrilateral expressways project , for example. A lot more needs to be done. This is where the India Technology Missions (ITMs) come in.

A few ideas for the India Technology Missions:

  • Hardware – The Rs 5,000 computer: Imagine a PC-terminal a thin client which can connect to a central server for processing and storage. Given the high-speed networks within organisations, this can help dramatically reduce the total cost of computing. With keyboard, mouse and a refurbished monitor, the total cost of such a computer should not exceed Rs 5,000.

  • Software – Indian Language Desktop Applications: Local language support at the application level is critical for the growth of computing in India. What is required is to use an open-source software base and to translate the strings that make up the various applications, adding appropriate utilities (like a spell check for a word processor).

  • Business – Industry information and process maps: There is a need to create business process templates for applications used by small and medium enterprises (SMEs). This means mapping the information flows for various industry verticals and getting software developers to use these maps to develop their applications.

  • Connectivity – Fixed-price broadband bundles: For all the talk of the telecom revolution, bandwidth remains expensive in India. What does it take to offer always-on 500 Kbps connectivity for homes and 2 Mbps for enterprises at Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, respectively?

  • Content – Locally relevant information and services: The neighbourhood around our home and office is where we spend our lives. And yet there is no easy way for us to know what is happening in the vicinity and for the shops and service providers to notify us of whats new. Personalisable and localised information marketplaces are required.

    These are but a few ideas which can take computing to the next billion users in India to improve lives, increase incomes and spur domestic growth.

    In forthcoming columns, we will explore what disruptive innovations are needed to make these a reality and build Indias digital infrastructure not between two generations but between two elections.

  • Published by

    Rajesh Jain

    An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.