Taking IT to India’s hinterland

Tags: Op-ed
The exercise to create policy docume­nts for the Tw­elfth plan is on in various domains, bo­th at th­e ministerial and the Planni­ng Commission level. The draft policy on education indicates that the government would like to strengthen aspects like enhancing access, expanding inclusiveness and pursuing excellence. Today, computers, co­m­munication and connectivity are critical components for gro­wth in almost all domains that touch human life. Hence, it becomes imperative that the 12th plan policy on use of technology in the government’s various interactions wi­th society be more people fri­endly. The policy document on technology, particularly on ICT, touches on providing all public services on mobile devices. The information technology factor has two components. One is expanding the revenue base for ICT industry. India, for the past 20 years, has taken a lead in the global arena in software and ICT enabled service software ex­ports. It has also been a str­ong base for offshore business processing for advanced countries. The majority of ICT related industries have grown in an­d around metros; Chennai, Be­n­glaru, Pune-Mumbai and Hyderabad-Secunderabad corridors and Gurgaon. The government plans to increase reven­ues from software exports to $300 billion by 2020 from $89 billion in the present financial year. Revenue contribution fr­o­m the use of ICT in the dome­stic market is estimated at $59 billion and the government desires that it should reach $200 billion. The government, therefore, wants the IT industry to flourish in tier II and tier III towns. These are welcome str­ategies but there are certain pre-requisites that the government needs to fulfill.

The economics of IT industry is closely linked with electric power and connectivity. The government has ambitious pl­ans to enhance the production of electric power. But we are still stuck with issues like convincing the society on the advantages of going for nuclear power plants. Political parties also mess up on this aspect depending on whether they are in power or not. The earthquake and subsequent nuclear plant disaster in Japan have suddenly raised issues regarding the safety of nuclear power plants. Those in power try to defend the safety of nuclear plants that are being designed by Indian nuclear scientists and those not in power try to create a political issue with an eye on elections. In developed societies, such critical issues are jointly discussed by all parties, keeping the larger good of the society and the nation as a prime objective. We need to create such a converging approach by all major political parties. In this respect we have miles to cover. Hence, uniform and assured supply of electric power would continue to be a major hurdle in the government’s plans to go for IT industries expansion in tier II and II towns.

Equally challenging is the availability of connectivity acr­oss the entire country. BSNL, in recent years, has really penetrated rural areas. This is mainly in respect of personal usage of PCs that require lower bro­adband capacities. If IT industries are to reach smaller tow­ns, we have to see that their requirement of dedicated and assured larger broadband connectivity is met. We necessarily need to rope private internet service providers more effectively in this task. They, even though expected to go to semi-urban and rural areas, are operating in big cities. The reasons are obvious; they have larger business in such cities. It is sheer mathematics of returns on investment. So there are two alternatives; one, the government itself invests in stre­ngthening broadband connectivity in small towns and two, the government starts pushing private internet providers thr­ough legal force. The scenario is somewhat similar to the one faced when asking private airlines to provide air services to remote places, which is almost mandatory for them but does not happen with requisite seriousness. Therefore, the government, apart from enhancing its own investments in expanding connectivity with regard to band width and quality, should encourage private internet pr­oviders by creating attractive incentive packages for expanding their connectivity network outsides metros.

The third factor is the availability of skilled persons. If one is talking about IT industry in abinitio software development, it requires highly talented and experienced software experts having cutting edge knowledge of intricacies involved in software development. India does have several such competent persons and such an industry would essentially flourish in metros, as is true today. In recent years, India, which was only identified as a service pr­oviders hub, has made great str­ides and all major IT industries like Infosys, TCS, Wipro and many others are putting large investments in hiring talented manpower and having state-of-the art hardware infrastructure.

The other industries are th­ose in development of application software and providing of services in various applications through BPO, KPO and EPO structures. These could truly go to smaller places and that would bring a major cha­nge both at the societal and ec­onomic level. We would have to revisit our higher education expansion plans in smaller towns with a clear mapping of the shortcomings in the existing hi­gher education infrastructu­re at these places and devise a strategy to strengthen it for producing IT-skilled manpower. This means the MHRD and ICT ministries must do a joint exercise while developing the approach paper right from the co­nceptual level; the question is: is it happening?

(The writer is a former chairman of UGC and former VC of University of Pune)

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