Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Digital divide

This post started off as comment here, but I guess it deserves more. The root piece is here.

Once upon a time in India (and that time is not too long ago) we were a licence raj- you needed a licence to live and to die or you died waiting for one. We had two (or three) car manufacturers, two (or three) bike manufacturers, two (or three) refrigerator manufacturers, two (or three) TV manufacturers. The government did everything for us, or atleast pretended to do and we in turn, as a populace pretended to be happy. We voted, once every five years or when governments fell, as a democracy should. Scarcity ruled the nation, if not anything else. Life for many of us, was an insufferable wait. Taking my own example, my dad waited 3 years to get a gas connection, 10 years for a telephone and in between a few months for procuring a licence to install an iron grill on our balcony (yes, there was one in existence), a licence to own a TV ora radio. To cut a long story short, since this is a long story everyone knows about there were few jobs.

Many good people began and ended their career as good typists did - at the typing machine. The scenario can be compared to a billion strong Truman show, as minions of the socialist machine, as grist to the mill. Fortunately air travel was not banned - they did their best to discourage flying, though through bad airplanes, bad airports, really complex visa and passport rules and finally bad autorickshaw drivers en route to the flight and bad roads. Yet some people found a way. Want a manufacturing job? Fly to the gulf as cheap labour and get screwed in the process, but if you kept your mouth shut long enough, you earned decent money. That this became a career option is itself indicative the mess we were in. Did anybody talk of a digital divide then? I dont remember hearing. There was no digital, only divide, and again, it was not a divide. It was just a multiplication, of have nots. Nobody had anything, so everybody was happy. A few did (and this had something to do with the colour of their money), but they wrote in the important papers that nobody had anything, so everybody lived in this delusion. One man broke the shackles and how!

Some 15 years later, in 2007, while the government slept, some private individuals created an industry out of nothing, they created about a million jobs (not counting the multiplier effect of about 4) - where there were none before and what is the most talked about topic at the speech of the body representing the industry? Sample these:

  • What's bothersome is the slow geographical spread of IT. (Ecophilo: IT started in the late 90s. The government, if I am not mistaken, started in about 1947. What is bothersome to me is the fast spread of governmental corruption, faster than any technology.)
  • The IITs of Kanpur and Kharagpur are almost non-existent on the IT map of India, proving that the IITs have had great global impact but their local impacts have not been commensurate with the hype that has come to surround them. (Ecophilo: why blame IT for it? IITs were around far longer than IT ever was, so why did it not lead to a manufacturing ecosystem around it? Clue: think government policy.)
  • The need now is to think of the under-served regions and areas. (Ecophilo: great idea, where were you for sixty odd years?)
  • Seventy-five per cent of our software industry is exports (Ecophilo: Give me one reason why that is wrong?)
Read the excerpts here...


niti bhan said...

Interesting thought piece here, just today I had someone tell me about how due to the lack of appropriately trained engineers, IT giants like infosys and TCS were working with second tier educational institutions to help develop their curriculum and their students so that the resulting graduates would be better suited for the market. And that this kind of investment of time, money and energy was also happening in other 'sunrise sectors' like retail - who need thousands trained in customer service and other areas, and were working to create custom programs with colleges as well.

What struck me was that while we debated if this could actually be called CSR [corp social responsibility] it was certainly a clear case of market forces pushing corporates to invest in education/infrastructure that would benefit more than just the people they ended up hiring. I'm sure they can't hire the whole batch. And that traditionally education/curriculum development etc has been considered the domain of the state, so to speak, but here companies were doing it, and not for charitable purposes either.

So your points about IT and IIT are even more poignant taken in the context of how these firms have just gone ahead and decided to upgrade curricula and training and education themselves. And this in turn benefits the larger society.

Srinivas said...

@Nitibhan: Infosys is merely giving finishing touches as per their needs to an education imparted by the Colleges to graduates. While this may be a good thing when viewed in terms of increasing employabillity, this should not be held as proof that College system is a failure.

@Neelakantan: IT did not grow by itself either here or in Silicon Valley. Certain conditions like aglomeration of electronics related companies,high technology research centers and Universities, encouraged the entry of Texas Instruments to set shop here in Bangalore many years ago. Silicon Valley's sucess too owes a lot to Stanford's alumni. Government may not have set up IT companies to drive the growth, but it has given tax holidays to encourage the growth of IT Industries.

While I am not for Government's role in IT sector, ensuring more people have opportunities to benefit to the extent possible from such high technology led growth (through greater education and access to comunication technologies)is certainly a concern for the Government. More so because this accentuates inequality.

It is true that Goverments are often corrupt and inefficient, but that does not mean Private Business should be given a free hand i everything.

Anonymous said...

Amartya Sen at NASSCOM