Recently, I discovered an interesting factoid: While the penetration of cellular telephony to 600 million people has helped India’s gross domestic product (GDP) rise by barely 1.5%, the Internet, with just 60 million users, has a corresponding contribution of 1.2%.

It indicates how important the Internet is to a developing country, and why we should equip ourselves to have enough capacity to manage the Internet, the governance around it, and the issues that will emerge.

Also Read Osama Manzar’s earlier columns

An exercise initiated by the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) is relevant here.

NIXI has just finished selecting candidates for the first year of its NIXI Fellowship Programme, facilitated by the Digital Empowerment Foundation as a knowledge partner.

The programme’s objective is to inspire young professionals from academia, industry, civil society, public sector and the media to provide a platform to groom them as leaders in the fields of Internet technology, policy and business.

With increasing spending on information and communication technology, the larger issues in usage, relevance and sustainability have become more relevant.

For instance, with more e-governance, the related challenges include security of data, privacy, service delivery, infrastructure, social capital and content—all grey areas.

National dialogue continues on the possible scope and plan for service delivery, for infrastructure deployment, for cyber-security. (The recent move towards a national broadband plan is the latest example.) Therefore, the fellowship programme will encourage new thoughts among young professionals to contribute to the Internet and to development.

The participation in the nomination process, open for two months, was heartening: 715 applicants wrote in. The programme selected 35 winners who reflect new ideas in issues tied to the Internet and development.

Some key thoughts emerged from this process. There is clear scope to link business, social responsibility, and the Internet. Issues such as cyber crime, security, law and regulation have become increasingly relevant as our society moves to the next level of technology dependency.

The global trend towards knowledge economies has also raised issues such as digital property protection; countries must take note of that with serious policy frameworks.

The challenge for any emerging society is how to integrate need for qualitative social capital with decentralized technology innovation and deployment.

The role and deployment of the Internet has to find a middle path in this. A popular subject among the fellowship winners proved to be e-governance: Fellows wished to see faster G2C (government-to-citizen) services and efficient processes to reduce governance costs.

There is an interest in using the Internet for public safety, building systems to protect user privacy, creating e-resource guides, implementing a digital archiving policy, and creating links with other countries for effective data exchange. There is great sense of urgency in making India a hotbed of adoption of the latest tools and technologies. Mobile-based learning and concepts such as open textbooks are seen as some of the more attractive options to improve education and enhance accessibility of knowledge in remote areas. Creating content in regional languages is a critical step towards empowering the masses.

NIXI’s long-term goal of creating leaders will be achieved by mentoring and collaborating with individuals to compile best practices, initiate breakthrough projects, and make policy recommendations.

The medium and long-term plan is to connect its fellows to South Asia, and to global development and governance platforms. The immediate plan, though, is to bring together the winning fellows into a closed-door consultation during the Manthan awards in December in New Delhi.

The time is ripe for more such promotion of institutional programmes to cull out new thought on the Internet and development.

Young professionals will be the change agents: They will have much to deliver and achieve for individual and collective gains.

Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan awards. Mint is a partner of the Manthan awards.