Friday, February 27, 2015

Digital India ... India in the next 5-10 years

A couple of weeks back I attended the Digital India Summit organized by Times Now along with MAIT and Nasscom Foundation.

The highpoint of the conference, in my view, was the first panel that discussed the Digital focus and direction for India in the coming decade.

IT and Telecom Minister Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad eagerly participated amongst the IT and Telecom Industry leaders.

The minister's vision of a digitally enabled India was simple yet far reaching and very profound indeed.  He said that for him a digitally enabled India would have arrived when a "Dalit woman in a remote village is able to earn a livelihood providing services from a digital device - possibly a mobile."

If you reflect on the statement and its true intent one will see the magnitude of change that we as a country need to work on to get even close.  There are many aspects to get to that state and all of it not just digital change.  Access (bandwidth/spectrum) and reach (mobile handset) is probably the smallest albeit necessary element of making such a vision happen.

Before I share my perspective on what I believe are critical aspects to bring such a vision to fruition - let me also share some key observations by the panelists (always debatable points but nevertheless points to consider):

1. Software automation is making BPO jobs redundant and in the next 3-5 years the BPO jobs will drop instead software development jobs, coding for mobile apps and similar kind of jobs will increase.
2. There are now ways to train novices rapidly on being coding for mobile apps - these should be picked up by training organizations
3. Make in India while boosting economy overall is not about creating jobs as most manufacturing will have NC machines and increasing automation.  Instead the jobs are with e-Commerce companies. A flipkart today already has 10,000 jobs created for the supply and delivery chain.
4. Spectrum is not becoming available fast enough or cheap enough and hence it is imperative to look at developing solutions that can deliver even with low bandwidths - like compression technologies etc.
5. Fibre laying and reaching the interiors of the country is going to take time and lots of monies - it might be better to focus on Satellite internet connectivity that can reach locations at rapid pace and much lower costs.

The observations may be valid though most likely not fit in the time frame in which they are being predicted.  However, one can see that these observations are hardly helping or aligned towards making the Dalit woman having a livelihood with digital devices.

In my view three critical areas need to be worked upon:

1. What are the services that the lady in the village can be offering?  What is it that she brings to the table for the local people as a service?  What would be the services needed in rural India at the household level?
2. Linked with the services above, the training delivery that is combined with an intuitive device and easy learning of a person who is most likely illiterate.  Intuitive here means very different from the current set of interfaces that work only for the young generation and rarely for the oldies.  If one says that we address literacy first then the order of magnitude of the challenge only goes up manifold.
3. I think the Minister chose a Dalit woman as part of his vision because he believes that the cast barriers need to go.  This I feel is a critical element of change that can only be brought about by collective will of the populace and the political leaders of the country.  You might want to consider a news item as follows to see the gravity of the situation here.