A news-article covering the run up to the UP polls caught my eye. The saga of the polls had already been played out on the media relentlessly. But this article caught my attention for a slightly different reason. The article featured the Cong manifesto which promised high speed broadband connection across the state.I was mildly surprised -I had not seen too many poll manifestos with the promise of broadband reaching every home . UP the heartland of feudal India- not exactly known to be the tech-savviest state and here the contender actually hoped to sway the vote count on the strength of the mouse. Well Congress did not win but that is probably beside the point. The point is the politicians in the country saddled with the burden of being sadly out of touch with times have gone beyond the promise of ‘Roti, Kapda aur Makaan’. They have tacitly recognised the internet as a basic necessity (offcourse they are also intent on controlling it but that is a separate point). They could not have done this sooner.
When Kapil Sibal launched Akash last year, a 35$ tablet we were looking at a significant reverse innovation. A low cost product adapted to the needs of the subcontinent. Ofcourse Akash had its problems, however for me the launch was symbolic of even a far greater potential than the tablet represented on ground. Imagine a country where every kirana store, every middle-man, every ration-dealer is equipped with an Akash. Linked by a 3G network that hooks him up to central computers which love to crunch data. Huge improvement in not only India’s retail network but also a transformation in our public distribution system beyond measure. Imagine villages where farmers equipped with Akash can readily hook up to databases to get information on weather, soil conditions, guidance on which crops to plant depending on the market conditions. A few steps up, they can possibly sell their goods to wholesellers online cutting down the supply chain and ensuring fairer returns. And finally imagine Akash in the hand of the little girl who dreams of being an IAS officer and solving the water problem of her village. Akash for her is a gateway to a magical world where she attends e-classes, watches inspirational videos, listens to recorded lectures and accesses information from around the universe. All on the backbone of a robust connectivity. Sounds impossible? Possibly not.
As a country which was a late starter on the hi-tech highway, we are used to leapfrogging. So we achieved 100% teledensity in mobiles even before fixed line connectivity had reached every nook and corner. An internet network supplanted partially by broadband partly by GPRS, 3G,wi-fi(last-mile connectivity) does not need to be incumbent upon other, maybe more fundamental infrastructure such as roads being in place. Infact the pace at which mobile internet has outpaced broadand connectivity represents technological leap-frogging in itself. Surprisingly mobile internet has found a substantial base in rural India, an indicator of a quiet revolution that may be taking place in distant villages. By 2015 rural users are expected to constitute 24% of 3G users. Coupled with low cost computing devices, the possibilities are endless. Take Apollo’s telemedicine programme for example. Launched in association with Indian Space Research Organisation, the e-doctor module seeks to make specialist medical advice available for people in remote areas. How useful is such information? Well rural medical centres are mostly staffed by junior doctors or paramedics who can use the information to augment the counsel they provide to the patients. The computer then becomes a supplement to semi-skilled resources, helping bridge knowledge divides. Similarly e-learning modules supplement rural teachers and help to address to an extent the wide disparity in quality of education resources available to urban and rural India. The internet infact can go a long way in making Right to Education a reality, making physical and social divides matter less.
The spread of internet connectivity can also create thousands of rural jobs – a scoring point for any political party which manages to live up to its political manifesto. Rural BPO’s for example have a strong potential serving regional markets. Paraskilling can move certain slices of the value chain to the rural job space where the cost of human resource will be significantly lower than in big cities.
And so the internet becomes a nifty tool of national development, a means which can play a substantial role in bridging the divide in India. As every internet connection contribute more than 0.6% to the country’s GDP it unlocks new sources of prosperity and liberation for the masses on the other side of the social divide. Access to the internet may soon become a staple necessity along with the food, housing and clothes triad. No wonder politicians are keen to upstage each other in their promise for a networked India. Let the cyber world not remain another virtual dream.