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Dear Sundar Pichai: There’s a lot you take on when you take on the task of digitising India. Here are a few pointers

Bhaskar Chakravorti writes: We may all be surprised at how quickly you might exhaust the $10 billion. It’s fine as long as you don’t run out of patience.

Written by Bhaskar Chakravorti |
Updated: August 8, 2020 8:43:20 am
google, Digital India, Digital India initiative, india internet users Digitising India inevitably means tackling egregious access gaps. Only 21 per cent of women are mobile internet users, while the percentage for men is twice that number. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Congratulations on surviving the marathon grilling by US lawmakers. While a major complaint was about Google cosying up to China, I found it interesting that no one seemed bothered by the fact that you had just dropped $10 billion on a different foreign country — India. That is a hefty sum. It is equal to Facebook’s entire annual R&D budget. It is over 10 times the money set aside for 100 smart cities and almost 20 times that for Digital India in the last Indian government Budget.

You have spoken of the purpose of this munificence — digitising India — in the broadest of terms. The only specifics are that some of the money will find its way to India’s richest man and his brainchild, Jio. But for the rest of the country, here are eight specific digital realities you should note.

First, never forget Joan Robinson’s quip about India that I shall update for these digital times: Whatever fact you uncover about India by Googling “India”, the opposite will also pop up in a subsequent Google search. India recognises the internet as a human right, and yet, has led the world in internet shutdowns. Its internet speeds can be slow and variable, but its uptake of smartphones is the world’s fastest. India was the worst performer on the “social distance readiness index” that my team created to gauge digital preparedness to operate during a pandemic and yet it is second only to China in internet users, app downloads and social media users. Turning that Google search on India into a single coherent narrative isn’t for the faint of heart — even for the masters of Google search.

Second, digitising India inevitably means tackling egregious access gaps. Only 21 per cent of women are mobile internet users, while the percentage for men is twice that number. Add to that the many societal factors that make it difficult for women and girls to enjoy full digital freedoms. In rural India, where two-thirds of the country lives, just about a quarter of the population has internet access. The post-COVID lockdowns will lock in these inequities across generations. Differences in digital access mean differences in the quality of education. Yes, you must work to close the access gaps — but remember the gaps are both digital and societal.

Third, India’s workforce is mostly informal. The abrupt COVID lockdown put the plight of the migrant and informal workers on everyone’s radar. The mobile phone has been a source of empowerment for these mobile workers. When a migrant is on the move, though, the phone can be an inconsistent companion; besides losing connectivity, power sources are hard to find and electronic cash transfers are hard to make; a migrant worker must have access to a nearby bank. Only 22 per cent of recipients of migrant remittances have access to banks within one km, according to a report by the Centre for Digital Financial Inclusion. In the meantime, cash still rules. It appears that Google Pay is gaining ground, with WhatsApp Pay itching to catch up. A push from Google and its competitors could bring about a push, finally, for a real demonetisation in India and make payments and financial access more inclusive.

Fourth, you mention new products for India’s unique needs, of which there are many. Consider the needs in the agricultural sector alone. Digitising age-old agricultural practices can be transformational. My Digital Planet research team has studied the impact of introducing predictive data analytics and basic artificial intelligence into Indian agriculture using readily available technologies. Precision farming to improve the timing and quantity of seeding, irrigation and fertiliser usage, helping farmers get credit at lower costs and helping predict commodity prices can create $33 billion in new value annually in Indian agriculture. This alone can help justify the money you are pouring into India.

Editorial | Google’s proposed $10 billion investment underlines global appeal of India’s digital story, unfolding shift in tech world

Fifth, as Nandan Nilekani has said, India will be data rich before it is “economically rich”. With 650 million internet users, there is a lot of data richness already, but it exists without a forward-looking and inclusive data governance policy in place. The experience with the contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu, provided a perfect case study on the discomfort within India because of the absence of such governance. Initially, the app was mandatory for office workers and when concerns mounted, it was made “advisable”, only to be mandated through the back door. Perhaps, Google can learn from its many entanglements with data governance rules elsewhere and offer data governance guidance to Indian lawmakers and avoid new entanglements down the road.

Sixth, it is essential to get a handle on the “infodemic” problem in India. While various forms of misinformation were already in wide circulation, the situation was made far worse by the pandemic, where many of the prejudices, fears and political skullduggery have converged. Google-owned YouTube is, of course, a critical medium for spreading information, fact and fiction. To its credit, YouTube removed over 8,20,000 videos in India in the first quarter of 2020 and has a plan to manage its recommendations algorithm that could spread misinformation and has launched Fact Check information panels to flag misinformation. This is a great start, but the bad guys will only find ways around it and Google must make deeper investments in both human and machine intelligence to stay ahead.

Seventh, your big bet on India must be viewed in the larger geopolitical context. India is edging closer to the US corner in the tech Cold War between the US and China. After the recent surge of Chinese investments in India’s tech sector, the relationship has cooled this year as a fallout from the political tensions between New Delhi and Beijing. India even pre-empted the US in banning the Chinese ByteDance-owned video streaming app TikTok, along with 59 mobile apps from China. Your role as bargaining chip against China and the partnership with Jio should help by giving Google some domestic leverage with Indian regulators who are notoriously capricious with foreign companies.

Finally, digital technologies can create jobs. In our recently released study — “Digital Light at the End of the COVID Tunnel for India?” — we make several recommendations to policymakers. Maybe you can help pass these along; they advance your objectives as well. Our recommendations include many ideas from streamlining the thicket of regulations to enhancing the country’s digital and physical foundations and developing more progressive data accessibility laws. For these changes to translate into productive work, the government must invest in skill-building and education at all levels.

Clearly, there is a lot you take on when you take on the task of digitising India. It should keep your team occupied for a while. We may all be surprised at how quickly you might exhaust the $10 billion. It’s fine as long as you don’t run out of patience.

Thank you for reading this and thank you for committing $10 billion. Not for me, of course. For India and 1.38 billion inhabitants of the digital planet.

Sincerely,

Bhaskar

This article first appeared in the print edition on August 8, 2020 under the title ‘Dear Sundar Pichai’. The writer is Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context and a non-resident senior fellow of Brookings India.

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