Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

India needs technology and not ‘durbars’

States should adopt a rosary of customized, fast and easy digital solutions

If the December quarter earnings of erstwhile information technology (IT) bellwether Infosys Ltd are any indicator, the country’s software services business is back on track following some recovery in its principal markets, the US and Europe. But as the industry marches bravely towards its next major milestone—$200 billion in sales—the paradox of tigers abroad, lambs at home continues to puzzle.

The logic of India’s economy as being driven by domestic demand is stood on its head by the low usage of IT within the country. Industry body Nasscom estimates the size of India’s IT outsourcing sector at about $85 billion in 2013 while the domestic software business is barely a quarter of that.

The success of India’s software services firms, based on the Heckscher–Ohlin–Samuelson comparative advantage theory, is about the gains from trade between economies with different capital-labour ratios. That success now needs to translate into utilization of the capacity built at home.

For that we need completely fresh paradigms in terms of utilizing our technology might to solve social and economic problems, to go with the new experiments in politics that we have witnessed in the form of a one-year old party forming a government in Delhi. Globally India’s IT giants handle disruptive technologies—cloud, mobility, social media and big data/analytics—as part of the work they do for overseas clients. At home though, our usage of IT in solving our vast problems is ludicrously low. Even an IIT-trained engineer like Arvind Kejriwal, now Delhi’s new chief minister, turns to medieval mechanisms like chaotic janta durbars to address civic problems instead of looking at mobilizing best available systems from across the globe.

For all his struggles with water meters, what the Aam Aadmi Party’s populist leader should be looking at is deploying a smart water system that would replace the current mess in water distribution with a technology suite that incorporates sensing and monitoring, information exchange and data analytics. Such a system with its focus on better monitoring of data, would promote conservation and water efficiency.

According to the Water Innovations Alliance (WIA), an industry association focused on raising awareness for cutting-edge water technologies, with General Electric, Intel, American Water and IBM among its members, an average community of 55,000 residents can reduce operating costs by 15%, cut water loss by more than 25% (saving almost 80,000 gallons of water), and realize energy savings of almost 20% by using such a smart system.

What India needs today is the equivalent of the UK’s “The Big Society", a big policy idea of the UK Conservative Party as part of its 2010 general election manifesto, which aimed to empower local people and communities, while taking power away from politicians. While the programme itself has limped along, its subtext of building links between technology, transparency and community-based democracy, is apt for India.

WhiIe India’s brightest minds choose to venture into social media apps or entertainment or shopping in the hope of securing funding, the task of harnessing technology to manage our burgeoning traffic issue or unclog the sewer lines is left to sporadic do-gooders. Last year, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Karl Mehta partnered with organizations such as The Indus Entrepreneurs and The Morpheus Fund to set up Code For India, a kind of volunteer-driven crowd-sourced initiative that could build tools for everyday problems and “empower citizens to actively participate in partnership with local government to give communities the power to help themselves." Among its initiatives is a simple Web and phone-based application, Spotter.in which allows citizens to report a pothole or a broken footpath in their neighbourhood by clicking a picture of it and uploading it. In turn, civic action groups can collect this data and mobilize action through municipal agencies. Similarly, last year a group of engineers from Singapore, with the aim of using technology to create change, set up Socialcops.org, a citizen platform that sources reports regarding civic issues. There are several, isolated initiatives like these dotting the country. But lacking in support and funding, they run out of steam soon enough.

Kejriwal and others who threaten to follow suit, would do well to emulate former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, whose cyber initiative for e-services and e-governance was in a sense the forerunner to many e-governance schemes including the ambitious Aadhaar programme. Naidu’s pioneering work had Bill Gates and Bill Clinton lauding the IT initiative that foresaw a revenue generating mechanism in the domestic market. Instead of counting political beads, a rosary of customized, fast and easy digital solutions is what state governments should adopt to empower an impatient nation.

Can technological fixes solve India’s social problems? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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