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Regional Strategies > Book Reviews > IT Experience in India: Bridging the Digital Divide >

IT Experience in India: Bridging the Digital Divide

By Kenneth Keniston and Deepak Kumar (eds)

2004 Sage Publications, New Delhi

194 pages

Review by Madanmohan Rao madan@techsparks.com

This compilation of 10 essays provides a useful “dipstick” of some key issues on the ICT4D front in India, ranging from rural connectivity and local language content to telecom regulations and technology hubs.

Kenneth Keniston is a professor of human development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Deepak Kumar is an IT publication editor based in Bangalore. The contributors are mostly IT professionals and academics based in India, and a sampling of their analyses should make for informative reading.

“The Information Age is already a reality to millions in countries all over the world,” begins Keniston, noting that it took the Web only four years to reach the 50 million mark, whereas previously it took the printing press about a century to reach this target, 38 years for radio, and 13 years for TV.

But at the same time, four kinds of digital divides exist: between the educated rich and the poor, between the English language speakers (and Anglo-Saxon cultures) and non-English speakers, between rich and poor nations, and between IT professionals and non-IT professionals.

The challenge for countries like India is to deal with each of these divides and ensure that the fruits of the IT revolution and the prosperity of the IT sector spread to urban poor and rural villagers. In contexts where tough choices have to be made between ICTs and other development projects or tools, Keniston recommends that the ICTs should be resorted to only if they are the most effective way of extending quality services to larger target audiences.

He also recommends that the notion of ICTs be extended beyond PCs and the Net to include satellite and handheld devices (eg. tools for measuring milk content used by dairy producers in Gujarat, the Honeybee database of rural innovations, shared cellphone usage in Gurajat’s villages). ICT projects must build on assessments of local needs, as defined by local people, in local languages.

ICT4D projects must plan for sustainability beyond the pilot stage, and must benefit the target audiences and not just the professionals involved in project design and implementation. A central clearinghouse of successes and failures of such projects is needed.

Challenges can arise in cultures and organisations where computers are treated largely as prestige symbols, or where typing on a keyboard is considered to be of low status.

ICTs in India have already had successful impacts in transformation of the railway reservation system and the public banking system.

The award-winning Information Village experiment in Pondicherry, south India, was launched to investigate how ICTs could help local rural communities improve their income, get more jobs and increase food security. The project involved wireless connectivity, local content in Tamil, applications geared towards local farmers and fisherfolk, and gender-sensitive training components. Tasks which required training (and are therefore expensive) include operating the PC network, creating local language content, and facilitating information flows.

As for the regulatory environment, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has finally got many things right with its recent unified licensing policy, according to Ashok Jhunjhunwalla, professor at IIT-Madras. But they should have better managed the controversy between different types of wireless services operators (CDMA v/s GSM); they also need to do more to promote rural telecom access and ensure that the solutions which are provided can support reasonable capacity for Internet transmission (bit rates of at least 28.8 Kbps).

“Wireless technology is a key component for providing connectivity to rural areas. Frequency charges should be made zero for a rural service provider (RSP) for the first ten years in order to rapidly enhance telecom and Internet services in rural areas,” he advises.

While Western companies dominate telecom technology sectors like optical networks, switches and last-mile solutions, Indian and Chinese companies have a chance to dominate in software and services, according to Jhunjhunwalla.

Disputes have arisen as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has on occasion accused cellular operators of using the revised interconnect usage charges (IUC) as an excuse to raise their tariffs.

Per-minute charges for mobile calls have dropped from Rs.16 in 1996 to Rs 2 in 2004. “These are fantastic gains for Indian customers within so short a period as six years,” according to T.H. Chowdary, IT advisor to the government of Andhra Pradesh.

“What is more significant is that while the UK and EU took 14 years from 1984 to 1998 for across-the-board competition in every sector of telecommunications network and services, India is experiencing it within half the time,” observes Chowdary. But the continuous legal battles between regulators and operators are getting tiresome for industry players, investors and consumers.

Chowdary calls for better education of lawmakers and more self-governance and lobbying among consumer associations in the telecom sector. He also advocates a stronger role for utilities like the railways, electricity transmission companies and gas authority as Internet bandwidth and backbone providers.

Local language representation challenges should be addressed by better coding scripts, software localisation, translation tools, non-text modes, and speech input and output, recommends Pat Hall from the computing department at the Open University in the UK.

Pro-poor e-governance applications should provide timely and affordable access to information on official agencies, rights of the rural poor, monitoring of government programs and officials, and market information, according to P.D. Kaushik, fellow at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.

“IT may bring more problems than advances, because of the tendency for the exponential growth of complexity generated by every problem that complicated systems attempt to solve,” cautions Deepak Kumar.

Indian software companies now constitute a form of organisation called a “micro-multinational” (global enterprises from day one), but their challenge and responsibility is to find opportunities locally and not just abroad. And Indian policymakers too need to overcome “perception paralysis” and see ICTs as a human development tool.

“By every yardstick one can think of, the developing countries lag far behind the advanced countries in the enterprise of knowledge production,” according to development expert S. Arunachalam.

Harsh Kumar, IT head at the Western Railways in Mumbai, describes in great detail the challenges in creating computer keyboards and representations for Indian language characters, and the “chicken-and-egg” problem in jumpstarting Indian language computer markets or coming up with uniformly accepted standards. Kumar has come up with freely downloadable font solutions at www.BharathBhasha.org.

Indian scientists need to speed up collaborative research efforts in optical character recognition and speech recognition; agriculturalists need to publish relevant content online for the farming community.

Professor Annalee Saxenian of the University of California, Berkeley, highlights the successful role played by Indian IT professionals who emigrated to Silicon Valley, where they were responsible for running more than 775 technology companies (in 1998), accounting for 16,600 jobs and $3.6 billion in sales.

This brain drain can be converted into “brain circulation” by having immigrants return to India and take part in transfer of capital, technology, know-how and skills. Bridges can be built between local and global IT markets, but domestic markets and benefits should also be addressed.

“The emergence of software production in India has captured the world’s attention. A country that remained very poor and isolated from the international economy until the early 1990s has suddenly become a global centre for leading-edge IT companies. Bangalore, where a large proportion of the software activity is located, has even been dubbed the Silicon Valley of Asia,” observes Saxenian.

But wages are rising in Bangalore as well, and in response some services companies are migrating into product markets or developing target domain expertise. Saxenian recommends that India learn from the Taiwan experience in semiconductors and adopt pro-active rather than stifling government policies, develop the local venture capital industry, court the Indian diaspora, improve local infrastructure, move beyond wage-gap strategies, and promote more broad-based interactions between India and the Silicon Valleys of the world.

In sum, this book provides an informative analysis of some of the key challenges facing India in the 21st century on the IT front, with useful references for further research and recommendations for concerned policymakers and activists.


Madanmohan Rao is research director at the Asian Media Information and Communication centre (AMIC) and editor of two book series, "The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook" and "The KM Chronicles" (www.tatamcgrawhill.com/digital_solutions/madan)

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