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IT needs demand, India demands IT

We have done exceedingly well in software. Incentives given by the government have helped. The 39 Software Technology Parks that it created,...

We have done exceedingly well in software. Incentives given by the government have helped. The 39 Software Technology Parks that it created, and in which information technology firms could get world-class facilities under one roof, have been decisive: 80 per cent of IT exports originate from units operating out of these 39 parks. The task is to now replicate this kind of success in the hardware sector.

For that we have to go many miles farther than we would have had to a decade ago — when some of the companies came to set up their production facilities here, and we turned our noses up. For by now they have already established their factories in China, Malaysia etc. Why should they not expand those operations, why should they not set up their next factory in those countries rather than pick up their bags and come to India? They will do so only if what we have to offer them is decidedly better than what they actually have in their present locations.

That is a lesson we still have not learnt. The other day the lead story running across the front page of Business Line was ‘‘Trade unions setting their sights on IT sector’’. The familiar litany: ‘‘anarchy’’; ‘‘the conditions are worse than the exploitation seen in villages’’; labour laws are being violated; ‘‘feelings of insecurity, humiliation’’ …

Should the unionists succeed, all that will happen is that firms in Europe and the US that are outsourcing to India, firms that are setting up R&D centres here, will conclude that locations in India cannot be relied upon for uninterrupted work.

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Take the simplest example. Women are not to work at night, many activists insist. But a call centre for the US must function when that country is awake — that is, during the Indian night. A union demanding that such operations be outlawed will only be, to use the phrase much-favoured by Lenin, ‘‘objectively’’ serving the interests of those in the US, UK etc. who are out to block outsourcing to India.

Nor is it just a question of enforcing one demand. Even more important is the general atmosphere of the sector, the penumbra around an investment destination. And a reputation once acquired lasts long after the reality has changed. West Bengal today is a fairly peaceful place in which to operate a factory. But the reputation that it acquired because of militant trade unionism in the 1960s and 1970s keeps investors away till this day.

Ironically, the way out has been shown by none other than the government of West Bengal. While CPI(M) representatives in Delhi have been shouting about the right to strike being a fundamental right, of it being the bulwark of democracy itself, the CPI(M) government in West Bengal has notified information technology to be a ‘‘public utility’’ — thus putting it beyond the mischief of strikes and bandhs.

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The general reputation is thus all-important. But it is not enough. The individuals who are going to make the crucial decisions have to be convinced — ‘‘one by one, little by little, again and again’’. So we have to orchestrate board-room presentations to this handful.

And this is best done by entrepreneurs and not by ministers and civil servants. The latter cannot carry the conviction that the entrepreneur who is actually operating a successful manufacturing facility in India can. This is exactly the sort of team we are organising in the Ministry of Information Technology.

Creating domestic demand for IT

Eighty-five per cent of India’s IT industry, as we saw, is for exports. Observers often contrast this with China: there the position is the exact opposite — 85 per cent of its turnover is for the domestic market. This is doubly undesirable, they say — on the one hand, we are not availing of advantages that would accrue were we to introduce IT in our lives and operations in a big way; and, on the other, our IT industry remains at the mercy of fluctuations in economies abroad.

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I am with them up to this point, but not with the inference they draw from these figures, namely that, ‘‘The main demand has to come from government. Government should take the lead and redouble its plans to introduce e-governance.’’

There already is an instruction to ministries that they must earmark three per cent of their budget for modernising their operations by inducting information technology. I am not much for such earmarking — comparable figures can be cited for other sectors: ‘‘In developed countries x per cent is spent on R&D, in India it is only x minus y per cent … In developed countries x per cent is spent on health … on education, in India it is only x minus y per cent …’’

But one should avoid putting a sector on artificial respirators. One should especially avoid habituating a sector that has shown such inventiveness and resilience as our IT industry to respirators. The way to develop a large domestic IT market is for the industry to come up with solutions and products that meet real needs.

Many of the problems that some of our manufacturing firms have faced have arisen because they proceeded the easy way: a product has made good in some developed country; get the firm abroad to sign a collaboration agreement to produce that item with the technology that the firm has used abroad.

The danger is particularly acute in spheres such as IT in which technologies change in a blink, in which what technology will make possible tomorrow is far beyond what we can imagine today.

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In such spheres there is often the temptation of plenty. Everything seems worth doing. Someone in government or in a firm hears of something that has been done somewhere — sometimes he even thinks up some bright application! As he is in high office or has resources, work on that idea commences. Substantial sums are spent developing and then installing that application.

But when after a few years it is seen that such pursuits did not yield any concrete benefit to people, the applications discredit the new technologies, they compound cynicism.

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Therefore, ‘‘Fewer but better’’ — another phrase much favoured by Lenin! That is the strategy the government has adopted for the coming year after a presentation to the prime minister.

For the same reason, outside government also, we should address specific, and urgent needs of our people.

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One can think up many fancy applications for e-governance, for instance. A few hundred applications have been developed and adopted in different parts of the country. Some of them are scarcely used after being developed and installed. Others have already made a perceptible difference.

The Bhoomi project in Karnataka, under which all land records have been digitised is an example — the farmer can secure the title documents etc. he needs for selling or buying property, for raising a loan without having to wait upon the patwari.

We cannot hope to provide in the foreseeable future continuous Internet connectivity to persons in remote settlements. Our ministry has therefore provided a grant to IIT Delhi to develop technology for an innovative solution: a kiosk in that remote village can be set up to provide a series of services — birth and death certificates, title documents etc.; e-mail messages too can be keyed in from the kiosk; an antenna is affixed to a bus and a processing unit is installed in it; when the bus passes near that area, it electronically delivers the documents that have been sought, the e-mails that have arrived and it collects the e-mails and requests that have been fed in at the kiosk.

Similarly, by installing tele-medicine infrastructure and software, the Apollo Hospital chain has enabled patients in distant, isolated communities — in Nagaland — to receive the best medical diagnosis and advice from any of its 27 hospitals. At those hospitals, the best specialists take turns to be available for providing advice.

Eighteen languages are recognised as official languages under the Constitution. To enable people to access these new technologies, software has been developed by C-DAC that transforms text — and will soon convert speech — automatically from one language to another. This software is now being developed for mobile phones — so that you can send your e-mail in English; your friend, who would rather receive it in Hindi, will receive it in that language.

The script of Indian languages is phonetic. That of English is not. Therefore, software — Shakti — has been developed by an IIT Chennai based group by which, while I type on a standard English keyboard, the computer transcribes and prints the text in the script of the Indian language.

Incidentally, Shakti illustrates the potential in other ways too. Its office suite does all the things that the office suite of the dominant company does. It does more — by a mere click you can have the toolbars etc. turn from English to Indian languages. The suite of that foreign major costs Rs 25,000 a piece. Shakti provides the equivalent for Rs 1,800!

Many of us cannot read print — either because we are visually impaired or because we are illiterate. WEBEL in Kolkata has developed software that scans a page, transforms it into electronic text, and prints it out in Braille.

C-DAC in Pune has gone one step further. It has developed software that transforms text into speech. This has already been done for anything available in electronic form — for instance, a person who is blind can by just a click or two get to his favourite newspaper on the Internet, or someone can reach that for him, and the computer reads out the paper to him.

Similarly, one of the doyens of the IT industry in India, F.C. Kohli, has developed methods for making people literate using IT. The methods are bound to spell a revolution. Even the illiterate adult knows language; he has picked it up as he has grown. What many of them do not know is how to recognise in print the word they know.

The conventional method of instruction has been to teach such a person to read by first getting him to learn the alphabet. But the method that has been used extensively for handicapped children is different: it exposes her or him to the word as a whole, almost as an icon; simultaneously, the person hears the sound and sees a depiction of what the word connotes.

Instead of learning ‘‘umbrella’’ by learning ‘‘u’’, then ‘‘m’’ etc. the person is shown the entire word. Simultaneously, the computer pronounces the word. And shows him a picture of what an umbrella does.

Through this ‘‘total immersion’’, and capitalising on the fact that a vocabulary of just 500 to 700 words is sufficient for reading the average, daily newspaper, almost 40,000 persons who were totally but totally illiterate have, in Kohli’s experiment, been brought to a level that they can now read newspapers on their own. This has been done through instruction of just an hour to an hour and a half a day for just 10 weeks.

The advantages of the approach are obvious. The shortage of teachers has been overcome. The person is able to choose the time at which she can come to the place for learning. ‘‘Literacy’’ in this experiment means not our conventional definition — someone who can sign his name; but one who can read a newspaper unaided.

Kohli estimates that 300 to 400 people can be made literate with one computer in a year. If only we are allowed to import a million second-hand computers, he says, we can wipe out illiteracy from the country in little time. And he is the sort of person who can actually get the IBMs and others to donate those million computers free!

Such examples can be multiplied. The point is that even as, and specially because, the new technologies make so many things seem attractive, we should sharpen our focus, and concentrate efforts on those projects that will spell immediate benefits to vast numbers, and which will lift them into a more enabled world. Demand for IT will follow as a matter of course.

And there are avenues upon avenues in which applications of IT will pay rich dividends for the country:

Embedded software, specially in defence;

Major outlays on weapons are inevitable;

These weapons will be increasingly sophisticated — guidance systems, sensors, timers, robots, imaging from space: the list is endless, and each item in it requires IT inputs;

No one is going to give us the relevant technologies — hence this huge market is a virtual preserve for Indian researchers and industry.

National security: several countries, in particular China, are working on ways by which progressively integrated economies and systems can be disabled using IT. To forestall such attacks we have to develop firewalls, sophisticated encryption methods, the ability to track down attacks .

Product design — for example, two-thirds of the components used by Daimler-Chrysler are being designed in India. This is a field in which the combination of expertise, cost and infrastructure that India can deploy gives it a unique advantage.

IT in combination with other disciplines — biotechnology, drug discovery, robotics, optics.

IT used to deliver other services — in addition to software and call centres, we should use it to deliver research and advice in law, accountancy, medical diagnosis and prescription, architecture, risk analysis for banks, analysing claims for insurance companies .

One final point. In many of our research organisations research is going on — and on. We should take up a few projects in what the president calls ‘‘mission mode’’ and bring them to a swift conclusion. The four that occur to me are:

Use ICT to abolish illiteracy;

Develop the Universal Networking Language — so that a person can put his data or message onto the Net in any of our 18 languages, the machine should translate it into the Universal Networking Language, and his friend in another state should be able to receive it in his own language;

Bring text-to-voice and voice-to-text software to perfection so that worlds from which they are today shut out are opened to the print disabled;

Today one of the severest impediments to enabling people to avail the benefits of the new technologies is the expense of laying the infrastructure to their doorstep; we should complete research that would enable wireless signals to go to a multiple of the 50/60 km they traverse at present.

Each of these is a do-able task.

Each of these will spell untold benefit to millions.

Together, they are worthy of India, they will make India a beacon for the world — in this field, of course, but also in compassion for the handicapped and the distant.

Concluded

First published on: 06-01-2004 at 00:00 IST
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