We aim to make India a tech export engine: Ashwini Vaishnaw | Mint

We aim to make India a tech export engine: Ashwini Vaishnaw

Ashwini Vaishnaw. Union minister for railways, electronics & information technology and communications. (PTI)
Ashwini Vaishnaw. Union minister for railways, electronics & information technology and communications. (PTI)

Summary

  • In an extensive interview covering railways, information technology, and telecom, Union minister Ashwini Vaishnaw spelt out the government’s vision on multiple fronts

NEW DELHI : In an extensive interview covering railways, information technology, and telecom, Union minister Ashwini Vaishnaw spelt out the government’s vision on multiple fronts—from making India an export engine of indigenous technologies, to strengthening and expanding the railway network with the right technologies to ensure safe and efficient operations, to ensuring that regulation keeps up with technology and therefore the Digital India Bill, to planning for India to take the lead in 6G where standards are yet to be set. New financial incentives for the components ecosystem may also be considered going forward. Edited excerpts:

What is the Railways’ plan of strengthening safety and security of operations after we saw three major rail accidents/derailments in the past few months?

In every aspect of Railway safety, in the past nine-and-a-half-years, we have invested huge amounts. Compared to the 2004-14 period, where the accidents on an average used to be more than 150 per year, the number has today come down to 47-50 per year. This is a big reduction. With regard to replacement of tracks, we did 7,000-odd km last year. We have introduced a practice called Rolling Block system where, like the developed world, we plan 12 weeks ahead for maintenance work. It has brought a fundamental change in our maintenance ability and quality. Regarding manpower, we have given close to 5 lakh employment in the past 9.5 years. We have done several technological infusions (such as) electronic interlocking of stations, which is one of the most important safety technologies. Interlocking on the entire network would be completed within three years. Then, with regard to our own train collision avoidance system Kavach, we have ramped up to a level where we can do about 2,000km a year now. In the last nine-and-a-half years, against the promise of investing 1 trillion on Railway safety, we have actually exceeded the target and invested 1.08 trillion. We have also taken Railway’s share in transportation to 29% and will take it up to 35% by 2030. Railways was investing (overall, including on safety) 30-35,000 crore annually before 2014. Now it is 2.4 trillion (in FY24 only). Under Prime minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, government focus has come back to Railways. That’s why we see the kind of investment, the kind of pace of work, the focus on safety and the focus on getting the right technologies.

What is happening on the implementation of the Kavach train collision avoidance system that would make Railways journeys safer?

The adoption of Kavach system on Railway network is going very well. The progress on the first about 1,500km where we started installing Kavach is very good and the results are amazing. The system started in 2016. Our target is that by 2025, we should be doing 4,000km a year of Kavach. Thereafter, it would be implemented in mission mode. All the required portions of the network will be covered with Kavach in a few years’ time. Our effort has also been to develop a standard for Kavach that will become an export product.

What’s the government’s vision for the telecom sector in 2024?

We’re working on three elements. First is to make India a telecom technology developer and exporter in a significantly advanced way. Our telecom manufacturing production is picking up, and we have started exporting some of the very complex equipment to Europe and the US. Our work on the 4G/5G stack has given us confidence. The second pillar is to take the lead in 6G development. We have taken the industry and academia along with us, created bodies that are focused on the specific subsystems on which we need to work. We already have about 200 odd patents in 6G technologies. The third big part is inclusive growth, for which close to 36,000 crore has been sanctioned for taking 4G and 5G services to the remotest parts of the country. Close to 130,000 crore has been sanctioned for taking broadband to every village. For example, in the case of 4G and 5G services in unconnected areas, out of 38,000 odd towers, close to 14,000 towers are already installed.

Can the global adoption of 4G/5G stack lead us to develop more stacks and products that can again be exported, so we become an export engine?

That’s the intent, to become an export engine of products, of technologies. That’s the prime minister’s very clear vision; even when he launched the private 6G alliance, his vision is that India must become a leader in telecom technology, because this is one industry which is global, and everybody follows the same standard. So, this is a great opportunity for us to lead. The 4G/5G stack, for example, (when) we roll it out on our government-BSNL network with 30,000-40,000 towers, that forms the base, and gives huge confidence to the world. That’s the way we are working in every technology. For example, once we have the 4G/ 5G technology stack, we’re taking it to railway Kavach. We have architect-ed Kavach in a way that the train’s production and communication layers are different. So, from 4G, the communication layer can become 5G and 6G. That’s the way we can take it to IoT, industrial automation and industry 4.0.

Satellite broadband services are hinging on spectrum allocation. Will it be auctioned along with 4G/5G airwaves next year?

We’re quite hopeful that Trai will give its recommendations very soon, following which we’ll be able to take a quick call on it. Our preference will be that whatever well-thought-through, well-consulted solution (is given by Trai), we should adopt it.

Is the government expecting subdued auctions compared with last year?

The demand and supply scenario is today reasonably balanced. Telcos have significant quantity of spectrum. So, obviously, the demand will not be as high as it was last time. But from a government point of view, we always try and put everything to auction, so that whatever maximum revenue is possible (should) come.

Vodafone’s 5G plans are yet to take off, despite government intervention. How does the government view this in light of sectoral health? Do you see a bifurcation happening with two 5G players, and Vodafone and BSNL lagging?

There are various factors. 5G requires a lot of capital, capex, and not being in the 5G space definitely creates some perception in customers’ minds. But I won’t comment on Vodafone further. On BSNL, about 1,000 towers have been installed that are radiating 4G and customer feedback has been very good. By January, we’ll scale it up aggressively, just the way 5G rollouts happened. So, by next Diwali, we will have a reasonably good 4G/ 5G network. The system is capable of doing 5G from day one, but we would like 4G to be stable and then launch 5G.

Deepfake regulation may be a separate law. Tomorrow, there may be other technologies threatening democracy, free speech. What is the government thinking on tackling unseen, unprecedented threats?

We all understand that technology will evolve very rapidly, new kinds of threats will emerge. Like most countries, we are working on the Digital India Bill with two parallel approaches. One approach is to have an umbrella kind of legislation. Second is to have very focused, modular kind of legislations, and both are equally effective. The bill is a horizontal law cutting across sectors within the digital economy. If there’s a specific need that arises, we should try and tackle it today with the available tools, and then keep on improving. We should be able to share the bill for public consultation in the coming months.

There are talks of safe harbour clause being removed totally in the Digital India Bill.

The way the world is looking at safe harbour clause is that the realities of the 1990s do not hold true in 2023. Safe harbour as an absolute construct is not something which is very relevant today. For example, even today, most social media platforms do a lot of content moderation. They already do a lot of takedowns on their own. So, in that sense, they’ve already accepted the responsibility for the content to an extent. That is the forward-looking dynamic which we see in other parts of the world as well.

Apple’s ecosystem is building, and now Tesla is keen on coming to India. Is it time for a PLI for components used in electronics manufacturing, since they will be the supply chains to multiple industries?

Component industry develops when the volume of the final product crosses a certain threshold. Today, India is at a level where that inflection point has already come. Our electronics manufacturing has already crossed $100 billion, mobile manufacturing is going to have a record bumper year and it is already attracting component manufacturers out here. Many of these components are multi-use, across sectors. The existing schemes like the SPECS (Scheme for Promotion of Manufacturing of Electronic Components and Semiconductors), MSIPS (Modified Special Incentive Package Scheme), etc., are working well, but as we go forward, we may consider new schemes.

It has been more than a year since the $10-billion incentive scheme for semiconductors was modified. Why have we not seen concrete proposals come in so far, even from local players?

Semiconductor manufacturing is a very complex venture. That’s why the first success, with Micron, was very important for us. It has changed the way the world looks at us, and now the success will be easier. We’re very happy with the progress of the Micron plant; the ecosystem partners have also started setting up their plants now. Two more good proposals are in the works and good progress is being made.

After the Odisha train accident, Railways was looking at complete overhaul of its signalling system. What is the Railways doing towards that?

We have already started the first pilot on solid-state electronic route relay devices and signals. This technology would further reduce chances of accidents triggered by human error and switching/signalling failures.

So, we have already started working on it. We are doing the first few pilots. The results are coming out very well. We hope to move to this as a standard in about 10 or 11 months.

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