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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 34, August 8, 2009

Whither Information Technology in India?

Sunday 16 August 2009, by Sudeep Ray

Sudeep Ray 58, a Marxist activist who happened to be the West Bengal State Committee member of the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) headed by former CPM MP Saifuddin Chowdhury, passed away in Kolkata on July 3 night after being involved in a road accident.

Sudeep was a leader of the bank employees movement in West Bengal and was in the CPI for several years having been active in the students’ movement when one came in touch with him and forged a bond of fraternal intimacy. He like hundreds of Communists left the CPI when the party leadership decided to forsake the objective of the National Democratic Revolution and ideologically surrender to the CPM’s sectarianism, opportunism and dogmatism. Detailed discussions with him at the Mumbai World Social Forum in 2004 and the Indian Social Forum in New Delhi thereafter revealed his innate commitment to Marxism-Leninism while being imbued with Mikhail Gorbachev’s New Thinking that the PDS is pledged to uphold without giving any quarter to the CPM’s ideological bankruptcy. Speaker after speaker highlighted his propagation of ‘new ideas’ (breaking free of the doctrinaire approach that has guided Marxists in this country for long) at a memorial meeting held in Kolkata on July 18. In that sense he broke new ground in the Left movement, and this was reflected in his writings as well. He was a member of the editorial board of Natun Path, Ei Samay (New Path in These Times), the PDS’ mouthpiece.

A friend of the Mainstream family he occasionally used to write for this journal. One of his pieces sent for publication several years ago is now being carried here as a token of our tribute to his memory. We also send our heartfelt condolences to all members of the bereaved family. S.C.

The information and communication revolution has been rapidly bringing forth sea changes in the world’s economy, politics and culture in the last two or three decades. The world is virtually turning into a “global village”. Any important event taking place in any corner of the planet is known to the whole world almost immediately. More and more economic decisions and operations have global ramifications. The increasingly greater integration and centra-lisation of information and communication are influencing the functioning of the economy and society so rapidly and on such a vast scale that globalisation with the emergence of information societies is becoming a reality. However, all the nations or groups or individuals do not have the uniformity or equitability in sharing the benefits of the globalisation and information technologies. Hence fierce debates all over the world have been continuing about the hopes of a utopian nature and despair over the widening digital divide; also the promise of a prosperous peaceful world and fear of civilisational and cultural clashes. The reality, no doubt, is likely to be somewhere in between.

No doubt information technology is a powerful force but actually much will depend upon the way we put to use the information technologies to address our issues and concerns. Knowledge is power. It has always been so, whether it is the case of how to make fire and stone tools in primitive ages or nuclear and space science and related technologies in modern times. But the empowerment of knowledge was always confined to a relatively small section of people that blocked the opportunity for wider sections of people to enjoy the power derived from the knowledge. Man alone has the capacity to generate knowledge—from conceptual abstract thinking to prepare the tools and technologies. Through communication and information exchange, knowledge can be shared with others. Hence, power to control information and communication is one of the keys to power as such. This revolution in communication and information technology creates an atmosphere, at least, for democratising the knowledge that provides access to greater sections of people.

Throughout history human beings have been utilising this capacity to generate knowledge and share to their best advantage—to ward off enemies, search for food, acquire wealth, organise human relations, etc. Also, it is in the history of struggle for controlling knowledge and even the communication and technologies to be shared; the knowledge by some had generally been used for their own limited purpose and for their own advantages as against others. So there is “We” versus “They”. People always resist restrictions on knowledge. The recent developments in communication and information technologies make it more difficult to control, if not impossible. The emergence of the Internet, Information super-highways and coverage of information/communi-cation technologies constitute a revolutionary development. It makes control over knowledge not only difficult but sharing easy promising almost near universal empowerment of the people provided we make innovative use of these ‘new’ technologies.

As a result, winds of change, which are now sweeping across much of the world, are paving the way for an open world. Today the advances that man has made in the area of communication technologies are so fundamentally transforming the organised human life that many of the social scientists have started to speak of the dawn of a new era—the information age.

Nowadays, the media has assumed a great significance, which it had never had before. Starting as an institutionalised approach to generate awareness and inform the masses, the media has become an instrumentality to govern our lives. Rather than a form of cultural expression, now it has a culture of its own. It was supposed to report on the way of life of the people. It has now become a way of life itself. Moreover, it is one of the most important industries of our time.

Many of the societies are already changing from being industrial societies to ‘information societies’ in which computer technologies, their networks, and other enhanced form of interpersonal and institutional communication are a major force. Some of the Western countries have already entered into an information age. In the United States, the information activities engage more than 46 per cent of the workforce, earning more than 55 per cent of the labour income.

Multinational IT companies are in the process of building a vast web of electronic networks, ‘information superhighways’, of fibre optics and computer. This network will deliver an abundance of goods and services at our offices and homes—video images, phone calls, enormous amount of data on various fields required by a user or customer. They promise to change the way people work, live and leisure.

The vision of communication abundance has been possible because of the sharp decline in costs. According to one estimate, the cost of microprocessors is falling at the rate of 22 per cent per annum, whereas the cost of computer memories is coming down by 40 per cent and that of communication equipment by 11 per cent per annum. By 2010, or even earlier, the cost of a computerised home system should be about the same as that of an automobile today, thus coming within the reach of the common man in any developed country. The protagonists of the new communication technologies have been promising a revolution of abundance and diversity of information for all.

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Now let us briefly examine the characteristics of the new communication technologies that have been fast changing the scenario of information environment in the new millennium. As a matter of fact, most of the so-called new communication technologies have been with us for the last couple of decades. What is new in the situation is the convergence and integration of these technologies. Another feature of the present-day situation in communication is the scale of operation, which microprocessors and the ‘chips’ have not only made possible but economical too. The results of these two processes, convergence and scale, are the creation of revolution-making information technologies, which are user friendly and affordable for the common people.

The convergence of the emerging telecom-munication technologies and computers is transforming business operations, broadcasting, telephone systems and human interactions in general. We are on the threshold of having a high-resolution two-way video and personal computer system tied to networks, so that sitting at home or office, one can receive and send information from and to anywhere in the world, and engage in a two-way video conversation across the world.

As the world has shifted to a service-oriented economy, vast amounts of money, goods and services are being circulated as well. In the last few years breakthrough in satellites and high-speed computing have given leading users an overwhelming economic advantage over those who have not kept pace. Thus, the stakes in new communication technologies are high and of global dimension. Although in the foreseeable future the responsibility, if not power, to plan and decide about communication will continue to rest with the nation-states, yet already many of the operations are beyond them. The result is the enormous expansion and significance of the multinational corporations.

Through multinationals and other trade channels the advanced Western countries are pushing hard the new communication technologies in the markets of the Third World countries to maintain their economic and political interest. The ‘push’ is sustained by the ‘pull’ force for the ‘latest’ and the ‘best’ on the part of the ruling elites in the Third World countries.

Thus, in brief, the revolutionary changes in communication and information technologies have created before us both challenge and opportunity. The new fervour for modernisation and progress through adoption of the latest technologies naturally enhances the capabilities of communication at various levels, both within and outside the organisation. Technologies increase the efficiency in terms of speed and spread and also in terms of looking up to the world and appearance before the world. With the latest communication technology we can multiply our messages fast enough and can also reach the intended audiences quickly or even instantly. We may also produce attractive information/communication packages for our convenience.

Amazing times are ahead. We can get things, goods, services and even new imaginations from anywhere at any time. Time and space have acquired new meanings. What used to be distance is no more that far away. What used to be local has become global. Excitement abounds the information technologies. Telephone, television and computers are getting intertwined with each other holding out promises of a world where innovation and human dynamism would be the driving force. In the seamless world of tomorrow, mind would matter. Some say, it will be a knowledge society. Innovations would lead the intelligent technologies and bits and bites would dictate communication. In the world of convergence, one telephone would not be an end to itself, but a means of greater linkage with the personal computer, and through it, to the Internet. Similarly, a television set is not just the entertainment medium but also a link to the worldwide Internet through cable TV. The emergence of the wireless web further facilitates connectivity.

The quality of images and the speed of download will improve significantly with the introduction of next or third generation techniques and technologies. The mobile phone will have computation and storage capabilities that will match the fixed devices. The multi-media mobile message will be the next rival of e-mail. But enhancement of capabilities is not necessarily an assurance of effective communication.

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The gap between industrially developed countries and the developing world is really striking. About 80 per cent of the world’s population is residing in the developing countries. Their share of income and consumption in the world resources is only 20 per cent. In case of the digital divide, it is even more striking. The developing countries’ share in Internet access is merely 10 per cent. In the United States 56 per cent of adults are on-line, whereas in most developing countries merely two-to-three per cent or even less has access to the Internet. The entire African continent has just 14 million telephone lines, which is lower than what New York or Tokyo has. A third of the world’s population has never made even a phone call in their lifetime. One-fifth of the world’s population lives on just a dollar a day.

Table 1

Ownership of Information and Communication Technologies (per 1000 people)

- India World USA
Radio 121 418 2090
Television 69 247 864
Telephone 34 146 666
Mobile 1 55 500
Internet 4.5 70.6 540

In this circumstance, some may strongly argue in favour of basic needs such as adequate food, shelter, drinking water, health facilities and education first, and then telephone, television and computers. But as rightly described by Vinod Thomas, the Vice-President of the World Bank, it is not a question of choice between Penicillin and Pentiums. There can be a good debate on this issue. But we should remind ourselves that the power of the information revolution precisely could help in delivering the basic services in a more efficient and also an innovative way, which may help even the poorer sections of the people. Rather not putting these technologies into work in a much more innovative way for the poorest people, the latter would have to bear a huge and growing cost factor. It ultimately means missed economic opportunities and growing inequalities within the less developing countries themselves as rural areas will become more isolated and fall further behind.

Table 2

Spending on IT and PC Penetration

Country IT Spending as % of GDP per Capita IT spend ($) PC Penetration per 1000 people per CapitaGDP ($)
China 1.1 7.9 13.2 793
India 0.8 3.6 6.2 461
Indonesia 1.0 6.8 11.2 681
Malaysia 1.3 42.7 69.4 3286
Philippines 0.6 5.9 19.1 981
Thailand 0.5 10.0 22.0 2008
USA 4.3 1372.3 500.0 31915

As stated earlier, with ‘push’ from developed countries and ‘pull’ from within the developing countries the information technologies are spreading fast, whether we wish or not. While Internet users gradually increase in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and other parts of the world, most data flows out of the US rather than flowing in. In 2000, some 60 per cent of the world’s Internet hosts were based in the US and of the 100 most visited websites a majority were in the US. The US hegemony in this field is near complete.

The Personal Computer (PC) penetration and spending on IT in the developing countries is low and is likely to be so in the coming years compared to the developed countries especially the USA. The above table clearly shows this factor.

However, notwithstanding, the present limitations of the IT penetration and PC penetration pattern in developing countries like India, access to and benefits of IT are possible to a much wider population through innovative use of limited facilities. India has developed a niche for itself in the area of computer software development and providing services. In the free-trading globalised world, the gains would accrue to those who can use IT, besides improving efficiency, to generate new ideas, products and services. While IT induced improvement cuts labour demand in traditional skills mainly in the organised sector, it opens various new possibilities as well. Indian computer programmers are in great demand the world over. Customer support services and medical transcription services have opened up some new opportunities before English educated young men and women in India. Thus, a Secretary in Chennai or Delhi works for a doctor in the USA or Canada. It is also true for customer support services. A customer in the US or Canada or the UK or for that matter anywhere in the world dials a toll-free call in 1-800 number in Bangalore. But the gains of IT revolution should not remain confined to the Western developed countries or the urban educated elites of the developing countries. These should reach the poor as well. Some innovative strategy to IT Access and Use is to be thought of and put in place that is urgently needed. The hope of benefits trickling down to the poor in villages will take decades and it may never happen in this bureaucratic functioning of the state. Like other technologies, it may remain the monopoly of a few urban elites until it is actively developed with a proper planning to serve the needs of the wider population. We should bear in mind that radio, telephone and television are now in the essential list of household goods even in the lower middle class people of India. However, things have changed rapidly with the availability of transistor sets, public call offices (PCO) and cable television in respective cases. Taking a cue from CNN showing the Gulf War live on television in five-star hotels in Delhi, entrepreneurs jumped at the technological possibility of satellite cable television in India. They wired their neighbourhood and started showing video films and some satellite TV channels through dish antennae to 200-300 households setting in motion the entry of foreign and Indian television production in the country. It provided a spurt to private television production and a host of other related media activities. Today, about 30 thousand cable operators, maybe even more, each with 200 to 500 household clientele, reach nearly 30 million people, though mostly in big cities and small towns.

Similarly, the access to telephone has increased substantially with the introduction of the facilities of Public Call Offices (PCO). With a view to provide greater accessibility to telephone service, ordinary telephones have been provided with small meters. Many small entrepreneurs, including a good number of educated unemployed youth, avail the opportunity and have set up PCOs at marketplaces and even at their own homes. It was estimated that by 2000 about 650,000 PCOs (by 2002, it may cross the number of 1000,000 PCOs) to be functioning across the country making the telephone services available to a much wider public. It should be noted that they are earning a minimum decent livelihood for their families. Now many of them are upgrading their services by adding one PC and connecting to Internet as well.

Currently the rural telephony is also making a big stride in India. More than half of the 600,000 villages in India have been provided with telephone connections. Not only that, India’s ‘handset toting’ culture is reaching rural India as well. In some small towns in Kerala, Maharastra and Haryana in India, mobile phone users are thicker on ground than the bustling metropolises like Delhi or Mumbai, Rural folk are also becoming netizens.

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Now let us examine how the things slowly percolated down to rural India. Many experiments are being tried successfully in different parts of the country to facilitate IT access in rural and remote areas.

1. AMCS: The milk cooperative, Anand in Gujarat, which ushered in the ‘White Revolution’ in India, is in the process of increasing the efficiency by adopting IT to streamline all its procedures and operations. At the village level, the milk cooperative society has adopted the Automatic Milk Collection System (AMCS) with its own resources. The computerised system allows the reading of milk quantity and quality for fat content, maintains daily records of milk societies and payments are made in no time. This has brought about not only efficiency but transparency as well. The women behind this unique dairy movement in Gujarat, who bring milk daily to the collection centres in the villages and who are generally not educated, become part of this IT revolution. As an AMUL (Anand Milk Union Limited) advertisement claims, about 21 million rural women daily bring milk to the collection centre. Soon, all of them will be deriving the benefits of computer technologies with the adoption of the AMCS by their village dairy cooperatives.

2. Gyandoot: In another interesting project of Gyandoot (ambassador of knowledge) in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh State, 26 major information centres are connected through the Internet. Each such centre has a computer connected by telephone line and serves as cybercafe and services about 25-30 villages. A high-schoolboy or girl after initial computer literacy training manages on his own to man the centre. The villagers can come to the centre on nominal payment, get information on the price of their product in different markets so that they can negotiate a better deal. He/she (the manager of the information centre) is not given any salary; rather they pay 10 per cent commission of his/her earnings to the Panchayats. Still, he/she is able to make his/her living by illustrating the soundness of the concept of making IT access possible without owning it as such. The benefits of Gyandoot reach over half-a-million people in more than 600 villages.

3. VKS: The Village Knowledge Centre (VKS), set-up by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, is another example of information empowerment of rural and tribal women who are barely literate. The VKS enables the farming families not only to produce more without ecological harm, but also helps everyone in the village to create a hunger-free area. The Action Plan for Elimination of Hunger and Malnutrition consists of seven step-by-step actions by village women themselves using the latest information technology computer. It helps women in creating relevant database and sharing with others leading to awareness and behavioural change and action to improve their economic well-being and life itself. This approach could also be extended and cover the health issues as well for holistic and sustainable development.

4. SEWA: The Self-Employed Women’s Association in Gujarat is using satellite communication to train women both in urban and rural areas, in health, child development, marketing, Panchayat Raj functioning, water management, house management. A host of the topics of their concern can be handled using modern communication technologies to empower women. This will help women to be economically sound and lead a more healthy and happy life.

5. Kerala Fishermen’s Experience: The BPL mobile reported that out of its every 100 customers in the Kerala State, five are illiterate fishermen, most of whom have never used a hand phone before. While returning from their fishing expedition based upon the information received on their mobile, they can decide where to land their catch to get the best price. Moreover, they can get information over mobile and through satellite news as to when and where rough weather may result in rain so that they can take precaution.

6. Land Records: There are plans afoot in many States of India, to computerise the land records. Once that is done the villagers can have access to the details of their land holdings from IT kiosks bypassing the age-old institution of patwari-revenue clerks—the cause of harassment, delays and corruption. There is already substantial progress in this direction in States like Karanataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Pilot projects have also been tested successfully. A report from Karanataka says that the ‘Bhoomi Project’ of this State has become both successful and viable. Under this project, the Karnataka Government has collected and digitised land records of over seven million farmers. Everything ranging from ownership of land to its fertility is now digitised. This has helped in accessing information, and reducing ownership disputes. The government had spent over Rs 18 crores on this project and had already recovered Rs 9.5 crores through user charges and alliance with private parties at a low cost from the users.

7. GSS Scheme: Rural India is going to be cellular—the humble postman will now deliver a door-to-door mobile service in 7500 villages across the country from December 25, 2002. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) have joined hands to kick-off the pilot project. The mobile postman project called the Gramin Sancharsewak Scheme (GSS) will be implemented through the Postal Department’s Gramin Dak Sewak Delivery Agents (GDSDA). The agents will work as BSNL franchisees in rural areas. About 2000 GSS in the chosen villages carry an integrated fixed wireless terminal with a display unit that BSNL will supply. It has been modelled on BSNL’s existing PCO franchisee scheme. For each call of 100-200 km, the GSS will get Re 1 as service charge and Re 2 on all calls beyond 200 km. The GSS can also earn Rs 5 for passing on the message to the villager concerned. The postman will carry a ready reckoner to calculate the charge. The Postal Department will earn 20 per cent of the revenue from all outgoing calls based on the bills BSNL raises. For calls made from GSS equipment, it will receive five per cent of the total revenue thus earned. But GSS will have to deposit Rs 20 every month with the Postal Department as insurance premium for BSNL supplied equipment.

8. Information Bill: The Parliament of India has passed the long cherished ‘Freedom of Information Bill’ to bring about transparency and accountability in governance. The highlights of the Bill are: a) barring 12 items relating to defence and national security it allows citizens access to almost all information on a statutory basis and removes the bottlenecks in the legal framework. b) It bars any information about agreements between India and other sovereign countries. c) Apart from defence national security and accord details with foreign countries, citizens can get photocopies of any document on payment of nominal charges. Arbitrary exercise of power will now be arrested and aggrieved parties can now challenge the government’s decision in court of law on the strength of easily accessible documents. This Bill will be of immense help to cross the bureaucratic hurdles.

Numerous other such experiments are being tried to meet different information and communication needs in different parts of the country. Imagine all the villages in India having telephone connection. The village post office and/or one or more enterprising educated youth from the village converting what is technically feasible into a reality by setting up information centres. He or she can provide access to the telephones, computers, Internet and even e-mail and voice-mail delivery to the villagers at their homes on a price, meeting the communication information needs to the village population. It opens enormous possibilities of connectivity ushering in revolution in information and communication. A villager can get access to records of his land holdings, information about the market price of his produce, latest methods and techniques to increase productivity, talk to his/her son/daughter in another village, or town, or country on voice-mail and so on. People take IT as granted when they will be convinced that it will serve some purpose of their lives. The biggest bottleneck in the spread of Internet in rural areas is not so much the technology as such but the availability of the relevant information services for the needs of the rural people. It is a challenge to the programmers and software producers to identify their needs and come up with appropriate solutions. Once that happens government help will not be so much necessary. Just as PCOs have mushroomed in urban India to meet their need for telephony information centres (telephone, computer, Internet) will become a reality through individual entrepreneurs both in rural and urban India.

Although the direction of the IT revolution is clear, there is still a long way to go. The bureaucratic hurdles, old mindsets, turf wars are some of the known hurdles to be negotiated notwithstanding a lot of talk about e-governance.

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Developments in information and communication technologies open a vast opportunity before us to empower those who were bypassed by the industrial revolution. While facing challenges of globalisation in the free marketplace through liberalisation and privatisation the developing countries should not lose sight of their poor in urban and rural areas. It is possible now to reach the unreached and empower them with information and skills through innovative use of information technologies. To make this possible, ownership is not the required precondition. Access to IT is the key. The cable operators and the PCOs and now information centres can do it as demonstrated. The innovative use of the IT would also help in meeting their basic needs of health, education, food and shelter, facilitating their economic and social well-being and in the process will enhance their productivity as such contributing to the goal of national development and progress. This will also expand markets for all kinds of goods and services in the rural areas thereby giving a boost to globalisation, free market and the emergence of an information society. This approach may ultimately lead to a win-win situation.

References

1. Arvind Singhal and M Roger Everett, India’s Communication Revolution: from bullock carts to cyber marts, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2001.

2. Vinod Thomas, “Why Digital Divide must be reduced”, The Hindu, June 25, 2001.

3. J.S. Jadav, “Communication and Development: Indian Experience” In Think India, 2001.

4. “Computer Connected Villages: Is IT Real”, Down to Earth, February 2001.

5. Kirti S. Perekh, “IT Globalisation and the Poor”, Business Standard, December 6, 2000.

6. Sunil Bajaj, “Rural India abuzz with the sounds of mobile phone”, The Economic Times, June 17, 2001.

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