There was one ray of hope that I saw as I travelled across the state. Since my last visit more than 18 months ago, the biggest change was in the availability of telecom. Mobile phone coverage and usage has skyrocketed. The state-owned BSNL has set up towers all over the state and that has resulted in an explosion in the number of mobile phones. Our car driver too had a phone that was the only way people could be in touch with him. My Orange (Hutch) mobile worked in and around most towns with a population of 15,000 or more. What surprised me was not just the availability of voice and SMS, but also GPRS. (The speeds were significantly better than what I get in Mumbai perhaps I was the only user out there!)
Mobiles have been a phenomenal success story in India. Growing at the rate of 2-3 million a month on a current base exceeding 60 million users, India is now amongst the fastest growing global markets. By end of 2006, we will have about 100 million mobile users. This ability to communicate is so fundamental that it is hard to fathom the damage we did to our own growth prospects over all these years by bottling up telecom in a web of state control and regulation.
Unfortunately, we have still not learnt from the past. That same stifling is now being seen in broadband. We delight in calling 256 Kbps as broadband when countries like Japan and South Korea talk of speeds 10-20 times higher. This is where we lack imagination. We think of broadband as just a high-speed data line when it is really a fundamental building block for tomorrows world. Whether it is education or healthcare, we have to reinvent processes and workflows if we have to make up for all those lost decades and a state-of-the-art digital infrastructure is one way to catch up and leapfrog.
I was heartened to see the adoption of mobile phones in Rajasthan. I have great confidence in the human spirit. If only we can put the right platform in place, we will see a thriving India not just in the cities, but also in small towns and villages. After this visit to Rajasthan, I have a little hope, but I am still mostly disappointed. We have to get out of the time warp that large parts of India are still enveloped in. It is not going to be easy, but that should be the top priority of the government and thinking people in India.
We need a Grand Vision for a Great India an India that includes the hundreds of millions for whom life has barely changed over a generation. Our leaders have failed us consistently (but then it is we who elect them). We can wait for the Messiah to come and lead us to the Promised Future or we can try and use the emerging technologies to create a New India, bottom-up. For example, a mobile phone will be available with every tenth Indian. How can that be used as an agent for change and development?
As I made my way back to Mumbai, I thought once again of Rajasthans temples. They withstood invaders and nature. Today, their past is what attracts the modern travellers. Do we want India to be known for its past or for its future? That is a choice we have to make.
TECH TALK Rajasthan Ruminations+T