Excerpts from an hour long programme on Lok Sabha TV on bridging the digital divide in India, where yours truly was invited.
Head Start Lok Sabha TV
Nov 10, 2009
“Bridging the Digital Divide”
Panel discussion Participants- Shivanand Kanavi and Dinesh Sharma
Host: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
Paranjoy- India entered the new millennium with 1/3rd of the world’s computer software engineers and 1/4th of the world’s poor. Can we bridge this digital divide? Can IT benefit the poor and underprivileged in this country? Let me welcome the guests.
I have here with me Shivanand Kanavi, a theoretical physicist from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and then studied in Boston; moved from a teaching and academic career into economic consultancy and then to journalism and then to back to corporate sector and currently Vice President, Special Projects at Tata Consultancy Services a leading company of its kind in the country and author of a recently published book Sand to Silicon. We also have Dinesh Sharma, Science Editor of Mail Today has spent 25 years in the profession and author of the book, The Long Revolution-the birth and growth of India’s Information Technology Industry.
Let us start the discussion on to what extent IT has affected the life of the aam admi of this country?
Shivanand- To look at that lets first look at the basic features that information technology has, the first thing is that information technology has in certain areas increased human reach, human powers, we can go into that in which way and so on later. Second thing is it has helped in cooperative behaviours, collaborating / sharing things with others and communication so on so forth, which all goes into co-operative, networked behaviours. The third thing is as it creates a direct channel in a sense of communication between various individuals there is a sort of delayering and disintermediation.
Paranjoy: Explain what you mean by that…
Shivanand: It is very similar to what a Bhakti movement did when it said that let there be direct communication with God, why do we need go-betweens who can act as gatekeepers.
In every transaction in our society, with government or with other individuals there are so many middle men. These middle men can not only add to the cost and time for a transaction to take place but also make life very asymmetrical and miserable for a citizen. You have a culture in India, since several thousand years, at least going back as far as Chanakya, where the state is supposed to do so many things. It is part of its Rajadharma to do so many things for its citizens. Now if there are so many middlemen in those services then a state becomes a highly oppressive instrument, it doesn’t matter what the stated policy is. So if technology can help in removing those middlemen and making things easier and faster for citizens, then straight away everybody from poor to the middle class and rich will benefit, a lot of transactions and services can be smoothened out.
Paranjoy - Shivanand has given a somewhat philosophical answer to the question. May be you can give some examples
Dinesh: You referred to the number of software engineers India produces and no of poor people we have that is the digital divide. On one hand we have a generation which is major user of all the digital devices and on the other hand we have millions of people who have no access to them. Even before this whole concept of digital divide and digital technology came, India did some experiments which proved to be hugely successful; one of them was computerised railway reservation that remains to my knowledge the largest application of information technology, anywhere in the world till today. It’s not the question of somebody using a computer or a mobile phone; it’s a question of how technology is touching someone’s life. That is the technology diffusion that has taken place. Today 17 million people travel by Indian Railways every day, so it is touching the life of 17 million lives everyday. All three of us belong to a generation of long queues, one train, and one window. You could not book onward journey or return journey, you had to send telegrams. The amount of time someone spent buying a railway ticket was almost equivalent to amount of time you travel by the train, so the change from then to now is amazing. This process has started in 1984 and it continued till 1999, 2005 it was connected to Internet. So it remains to be the largest technology diffusion project of its kind till date. Imagine 6 billion people travelling by train every year in India, so it is touching the life of that many people.
As Shivanand said it has cut down the cost, it has cut down the transaction time; it has cut down the intermediaries. The other example is of course banking, it used to take 6 days or even more than that for a local cheque to clear, 6 weeks for an outstation cheque to clear, so all that has changed. The technology has changed the way services are offered.
Paranjoy - What really changed in the mindset of employees who opposed the use computers in Banks?
Shivanand - There are several things involved in it, first of all you need the motivation in the top leadership to actually implement a programme like this and communicate with the employees and to all the stakeholders the benefits of this to the banks and their customers. The employees have the stakes in the growth of the banks, its survival, profitability etc and as well as their own personal growth. Of course they have to assure them of job security which is the first thing you would have to ensure. In India no project has been done successfully without the implementer assuring the employee the jobs are safe. But then there is something more than that, you are learning new skills. You are moving into a different level of skills and technology and ability to do many more things than you used to do before.
Paranjoy - Dinesh do you agree with Shivanand?
Dinesh - In any new technology project or introduction of new concept we do need a champion at the top be it political leadership, be it a champion within an organisation, so certainly agree with him. Again go back to the railways why there was opposition in banking and why there was no opposition in Railways , the reason behind this is the decision to computerise banking operations was taken at a certain level and it was implemented in that way. The process of Railways computerisation started with the involvement of the employees, because the process itself was so complex. For example, there were 200 categories of tickets and umpteen numbers of coaches and one had to understand that. The company given the project was CMC. They had to sit and spend time to understand from Railways clerks for hours and days together, and make them a partner in the whole process.
Paranjoy - Shivanand, let us talk about the experiences of say computerisation of land records in some of the southern states like Karnataka, where I understand it has been done very well.
Shivanand - I am not that familiar with this project though I know some of the features of it, probably Dinesh can talk about it in detail. But I can tell you little bit about another project that is currently sweeping India and has created a safety net by the government for rural poor; that is NREGS. The whole question on rural development programmes and poverty alleviation programmes has been like what is the leakage through corruption? Does it reach the right people and have any productive assets been created?
Paranjoy - How has computerisation helped in National Rural Employment Guaranty Programme?
Shivanand - One example is NREGS in Andhra Pradesh. One more general point I want to make is: in these kinds of software projects, there is no a software package which is available, a readymade solution in answer to XYZ requirements. Human beings, procedures, and legacy issues all these need to be dealt with. It’s not even just automating what exists. What exists can be highly anachronistic, because we have as legacy essentially colonial state machinery; its procedures, rules and so on designed in the 19th century! So it may not be desirable to automate it. So you need to do what is called re-engineering. It would mean the deep involvement of the administration at all levels, at the Panchayat level or the Mandal Panchayat level; who is going to enter the data; how he is going to evaluate a project; how he would evaluate the progress in the project and how will he differentiate between say digging in soft soil and a rocky area, when the two are very different. All these nitty-gritties have to be configured into your system. So it has to be a co-developed system. It’s not something which a software company has readymade. For example, Dinesh discussed how the railways were involved in the computerisation. There were so many complexities. At the end of the day, once you do a successful project in India you can do anything anywhere in the world!
Paranjoy: Let me raise another issue. Even if there are some success stories why are we not able to replicate that success elsewhere?
Dinesh - A few years back a survey was done on all kinds of ICT or eGovernanace projects that are going on in the country. At that time the count was 300 or so and they were in different pockets, like Bhoomi in the whole of Karnataka, Friends in Kerala, others in AP, Tamil Nadu and North. It was found in that survey only 15% of them have been successful in their objective, 35% partially failed. So that was the kind of assessment of these projects. The problem is for any eGovernanace or citizen interface government project to succeed, we need three things: First willingness to reform, because you are bringing a new system, there is no point in computerising existing forms and putting them on the web, that is not e-governance, that is not going to solve the problem and it might even complicate it. So there should be willingness to reform the existing system without that e-governance cannot succeed. Second is availability of technology, you might need to develop software, you need to have a hardware particularly designed for that project and so on for example, in Bhoomi they tried Bio-metric technology for first time on such a large scale since many cannot enter a password. The data, Land records should be available only to certain people and their bio metric data was needed. This technology was specially developed for Bhoomi project. So the availability of hardware, software and technology is needed to execute these projects.
Paranjoy - What is preventing us from scaling up such successful projects? Why are others not repeating it? Is it lack of political will or resources?
Shivanand - As far as resources are concerned I don’t think that is a constraint now, especially with the kind of 8%-9% growth we have been seeing, the Government should have enough resources to implement large projects. But as you said even though it is a cliché that ‘political will is required’ it definitely plays a major role in government projects and especially when the project deals with systems where there is scope for corruption. For example, in Andhra Pradesh there was government tendering and procurement, when that was IT enabled; put on the web with no complicated tendering process; e-auction, reverse auction etc then there was a serious campaign in certain sections of the media against it and against the political leadership. So things can get politicised immediately because there are vested interest involved
Paranjoy - So media was acting on behalf of those vested interests?
Shivanand - Some sections yes. As you know in many areas media houses are controlled by Politians. So there were serious allegations and slander and all kinds of things going on. But in the face of all this resistance, when the government went ahead, there was advancement. Another important thing is the transparency that Information Technology has brought in, which has prevented excuses like, “we cannot locate the file” etc.
Dinesh - One point I wanted to add on why it succeeds in one place and not in another. It depends a lot on the capacity of the administrative machinery to manage and absorb the change. The states which have very good administration, I would put most of the southern states in the category, are also leaders in the good deployment of e-governance
Paranjoy - Vested interests has also become a cliché. Who are these vested interests? How can they be eliminated?
Dinesh - Vested interests can vary from project to project. Suppose a municipal body like BMC or MCD wants to put up a list of illegal constructions in Delhi or in any other city location wise, which is a simple transparency measure that any municipal body can take. But no municipal authority has been able to do that because of vested interests of councillors, MLAs or politicians or even big industries. So there are wasted interests depending on project to project
Shivanand - I will give you another example: the very simple case of garbage collection in Mumbai. The population in Mumbai produces thousands of tons of garbage everyday now there are close to 2000 garbage trucks which are involved in it and a lot of them belong to private contractors. Despite all these systems you find garbage lying in all kinds of places and citizen complaints. So when it was investigated it was found that there are many contractors who never did those trips but collected money from Municipal Corporation. So how are you going to track these trucks. There was a solution which was implemented using GPS system- Geographical Positioning System. That can really track the truck, which route it has taken, how much time it has taken, how many times it has gone around etc.
Dinesh - The same technology was also proposed to FCI – Food Corporation of India trucks which supply food grains to the pubic distribution system. When trucks go out of FCI godowns, you can simply track them with GPS, however it was never allowed to work!
Paranjoy –It is easier to pay bills, book tickets on the Internet etc., however technology is still impacting a very small number of people. Is that correct?
Shivanand - Yes, but at the same time the numbers of beneficiaries is increasing and it is increasing at a very healthy rate, I would say. Even though India has had computers and software engineers for more than 50 years, it is only in the last 10 to 15 years that widespread adoption of this technology is happening in our society, particularly with respect to government, markets, financial services sector, in banking sector etc. So today we have what Gunnar Myrdal once called ‘the revolution of rising expectations’. We can’t even imagine today the earlier situation! For example, before computerised stock trading came into the picture back in 1994, how were the stock exchanges operating? There were cases of fraud, there was no transparency but today we want higher and higher transparency, and all kinds of mechanisms to prevent frauds, bring in as many new people as investors and brokers, make it easier, make it more accessible to even small towns and so on so forth through VSAT and satellite technology, otherwise a few brokers used to control entire stock trading and all this has happened in less than 15 years
Paranjoy – We have 3 computers per hundred population and US has one out of two. There is such a low level of Internet penetration. Don’t you think Dinesh the use of technology has not benefited common man as it should have? There is a clear digital divide.
Dinesh - When we talk of digital technology let’s not get fixated with computers; the concept of personal computers cannot be applied to India. Here computer is not personal that is why the whole concept of kiosks came in, where you don’t need to own a computer but still you can get benefitted by a service that is being offered through internet or a use of computer. I don’t think we need to replicate the western model of one computer per child. Let’s move away from that. Because we have 450 million mobile phones today and the power of at least 100 million of them is as good or much better than your computer. So what we need are applications that run on these mobile phones. It’s not just for voice or texting but we need more and more applications on mobile rather than getting fixated with computers.
Paranjoy - Can we expedite the process of IT usage?
Dinesh - We have moved very slowly, there are many projects which are moving very slowly. Everything is not what we would like it to be but compare that to what has happened in NREGS where they are issuing smart cards, money is getting transferred to their account etc. The difference is that many projects have to deal with legacy systems and procedures which we have been working from past 100 years. It’s very difficult to change the legacy system. It involves both the mindset and processes involved. For example you need a signature, an emblem etc. all that can be solved. Technology has a solution for everything and you can get as good a birth certificate as you would normally get as a handwritten certificate. But it’s a question of how do you change a mindset and how do you change those legacy processes in the system, that is the biggest challenge
Paranjoy – Where have been successful in coping with the past, the legacy Shivanand?
Shivanand - Any large system, affecting a lot of people, employees as well as citizens is a real life exercise in change management, for example take the State Bank of India. I mentioned that because SBI is probably the largest bank in the world, in terms of number of branches--with its associate banks it has close to 14000 branches where as the largest banking group in the world is Citi Bank and Citi Bank has all over the world less than 3000 branches! So when you need to connect branches for anytime banking and anywhere banking and not just going to a particular branch and opening those ledgers, then you need to create a single central database and connect all the branches to it, all the ATMs to it and so on so forth. One could be in Ladakh, or backwaters of Kerala on a boat etc but one should be able to access one’s account. Dinesh already mentioned the Railway Passenger reservation system, see now what is happening in India Post.
Paranjoy - Would you like to talk about telemedicine, Dinesh?
Dinesh - when we talk about the application of digital technology that’s where we can bridge the digital divide like you have a combination of internet put it with satellite technology and some add on hardware on both the side specifically developed for that project and then you can have a very nice telemedicine project. Kerala has been successful; again they all are in pilot scale. There by you are able to solve a problem of connecting a specialist as well as doctors in rural areas. Not only in consulting but even follow-up. For example, somebody comes to AIIMs for surgery he needs to follow it up after 15 days to 2 weeks or 3 weeks he has to make 3-4 visits to AIIMS only for that, so surgery can be done at AIIMS but the follow up can be done where the person is through telemedicine. Telemedicine has undergone a whole lot of change now you have video conferencing facilities, you can connect anybody to anybody. We need slight changes in systems and we can work on that. This has been demonstrated already. For example, in Rajasthan in Indira Gandhi Canal area, where malaria is on the rise, where there are very few testing labs. So samples have to travel from once place to another and it takes 2-3 days. Now there is a technology where you can do the diagnosis there itself and convey the results or an x-ray can be taken and sent through a mobile phone the images can be transferred to radiologists in the city. So these all are simple applications but we need to work on that. Again hospitals are legacy systems, how do you change them? That is the biggest challenge. You cannot have telemedicine centre working on its own it has to be integrated with existing healthcare system
Paranjoy – Shivanand do you want to add to that?
Shivanand: Yes. I want to add another aspect of healthcare i.e. healthcare management and not just telemedicine based consultation. How do you network the hospitals, how do you create a database of patients? A positive example in this regards is the Arogya Shree scheme in AP. Literally millions of people below poverty line are covered by it. A person who has a serious medical problem goes to a nearby project centre and shows his card and through the IT system they can find out which hospital is the best to deal with this and where beds are available etc. They are just using a keyboard and mouse to do this. Instead of running from pillar to post, paying the bill and trying to recover it through reimbursement, all this is just a cashless transaction. So that’s a success. So I think using IT to make efficient public health is also important.
Paranjoy - How can information technology help the poor from our society?
Shivanand - With all this technology we are still trying to provide services and include in the economic growth about 200 to 300 million of our population. IT is helping in including these by breaking the silos and letting services flow from government to citizens as well as creating some cooperative networks amongst these 200 to 300 million people. This is a huge challenge, because 300 million is entire population of United States!
Technology will not address on its own how the rest, 700 or 800 million people can be added to this inclusive growth. That’s why you see a chunky growth, certain sectors would advance fast despite the fact that the roads are bad etc. Telecom is a classic example, nobody envisaged 10-15 years back that 500 million mobile phones would be there in India and today we have them and all kinds of people are using them. If the 450 to 500 million figure is correct, then nearly half the population has mobile phones and that is obviously an advance in technology application despite bad roads, and education and the whole social sector being poor. Including 700-800 million people is a much deeper question, which has to do with the structure of our economy, I don’t think information technology can address that. IT can help in managing certain things for eg- I remember a well-known politician asking in 2001, “Yeh IT, YT kya hai?” He said if there is drought how IT is going to bring rain. The answer is, IT can help you in drought management and relief management, it cannot bring rains, it cannot fundamentally improve agriculture in that sense. After all, IT is information technology so it can give you information.
Dinesh - I feel the growth we have achieved here is lop-sided. We have been talking about 450 million mobile phones but that could be in just 2-3 metros and other developed areas. So I would still say this growth is lop sided, there are several hundred villages in India without a village telephone at all. So there is a certain obligation. We have the Universal Service Obligation fund, which has been created which not been spent, so government is still to do its part since money is coming from private operators so the growth is lop-sided whether its mobile telephony, whether its services reaching out to the people for eg- Bhoomi is useless for landless labour, what record it’s going to find? Of course IT has touched lives of several millions of people but still there are lot of people which are not included in this. So we need to look at innovative approaches, innovative applications of different forms technology which are available. One example I gave was of healthcare sector if there is phone with village level worker she can collate all the data and data can travel faster to nearest healthcare centre and health care can reach the village. There are several applications like that. For example, you don’t need to send your soil for testing in agriculture centre in district, there are sensors which you can put in the soil which don’t cost much and data can be transported through the mobile phone. Then you can know how much fertilizer you should apply, there are applications like that which are not very costly
Paranjoy - Would internet on mobile or 3G impact lives of people?
Shivanand - I think yes. Broadband is going to provide rich content to reach people and in no way landlines or cables are going to provide that. The broadband has to come wirelessly. So any new development, whether it is 3G whether it is WiMax or 4G, all these new technologies are coming. Whichever proves affordable and replicable on large scale is going to make a big difference.
Another example which I wanted to give you is a technology application that can include many more people who are not yet in this 300 million. It is a technology for literacy, which was developed with a lot of inputs from linguists, psychologists and computer scientists. It is called a Computer Based Functional Literacy module. It uses discarded computers. It does not need high powered computers and within 40 hours it can teach an adult illiterate enough to help their children in homework, people who could not read and write have been able to read news papers and help their children in home work. The thing is to replicate it and the estimate is that within next 5 years we could make entire India functionally literate
Dinesh - People say that when we don’t have electricity in villages how people are going to use computers so there are paddle powered computers. Innovations exist!
Paranjoy – Shivanand in your book Sand to Silicon you have written about Amar Bose, Sam Pitroda, Arun Netravali and literally dozens of eminent Indian technologists who have contributed so much towards the growth of digital technology all over the world. Do we see brain gain happening instead of brain drain with the diaspora?
Shivanand - I think it’s bound to happen and it has already happened in the last 15-20 years and there has been a great amount of interaction between Indians who are abroad and Indians working in India especially regarding digital technology or information technology. Fundamentally, these are not the days of Thomas Alva Edison or Graham Bell, where one guy would sit in a lab and who could develop a technology. Now any new technology goes through networks of thousands of people all over the world so you can’t even call it Indian technology or American technology or Chinese technology. People have to collaborate and that is the reason that you have so many companies where their front end is in Silicon Valley with their R&D being done in India and similarly there are Indian companies which are making use of the research being done elsewhere whether it is pharma industry or digital technology industry, information technology industry. These changes in the world have led a kind of circulation of ideas and what Tom Friedman called the Flat world, at least in this field.
Paranjoy – We live in a highly unequal world so are we seeing the world really becoming flat? Or was Mr Thomas Friedman engaging in hyperbole, to put it mildly.
Dinesh - Mr. Friedman was looking at the way the technology has flattened the delivery of services like you buy a MacDonald’s burger in Los Angles and the back office processing taking place in Egypt or somewhere else. In that sense he gave the idiom of the world is getting flat.
Paranjoy: But are we becoming a nation of cyber coolies with body shopping or knowledge workers? Of course I am using exaggerated expressions.
Dinesh: There is no doubt that we have good base of knowledge workers and all the large corporations including big companies like TCS who themselves are a MNC, are seeking knowledge workers wherever they are. Companies and people would go wherever there is a comparative advantage in terms of talent which has become a very important resource and in that sense the world has become flat. We have an advantage of numbers and we have to see how we can add that to our economic growth
Shivanand - In the world of knowledge, in the world of technology, I think the world has become flat and not in other aspects. If you are comparing farmers in Tanjavoor and farmers in California or in Canada then it is not flat. However the point I am making is Satyen Bose had to write a letter to Einstein and wait for months together for a reply when he had worked out a new statistics for photons and that is not necessary in today’s world.
Paranjoy: Now it can be done in a fraction of a second through email. I get your point. We have run of time. Thanks Shivanand and Dinesh for coming to our studios and sharing your views. The consensus is IT has changed in some ways the lives of ordinary Indians but surely it can do very much more. Thank you very much.