India’s IT industry is growing at an astonishing rate. The sale of PCs in India has been rising annually by 65 pc — truly unrivalled in the world. But UPS sale too has risen, by 47 pc. This should make us ashamed. In the last year of the 20th century, we cannot even ensure a reliable flow of electricity

It has become fashionable to say that we are now living in an era of an ‘‘information revolution’’. But this revolution, unlike the French Revolution, is one with lots of liberty, some fraternity and no egality. It is a revolution in which — to take just one statistic — there are more Internet connections in the little island of Manhattan than in the whole of Africa.

The fact is — as I wrote in these pages a couple of years ago — dollar signs and GNP tables are no longer the only elements dividing the haves and the have-nots. We in India must be conscious that the most striking global divide of today is that of information inequality. The new poverty line is drawn on this side of the computer keyboard. You can tell the rich from the poor by their Internet connections. Access to information is increasingly vital for development and prosperity.

In dealing with India’s information technology (IT) industry, we have to understand that fundamental challenge. Fortunately, so far, we have been doing all the right things; as well as doing things right. Our educational system continues to churn out trained computer specialists who rival the best the world has to offer. And they are all proficient in English, the universal language of the IT revolution.

The figures point to the progress we are making. India’s information industry is growing at an astonishing rate. Over the last year, there has been a 17.8 per cent growth in IT, but the numbers are even more interesting when you break them down: 14 per cent growth in packaged software, 16.3 per cent in hardware, 21.1 per cent in services and a whopping 23.3 per cent in consumer goods and training. This is a rate of growth unrivalled anywhere in the world, except perhaps in America’s Silicon Valley — at the height of the IT boom there.

If one breaks down the figures for computer hardware sales, there are a number of remarkable statistics. The sale of personal computers in India has been increasing annually by 65 per cent — and that is truly unrivalled anywhere in the world, even in the US. The sale of modems has gone by 88 per cent in the last year — a clear sign of acceleration in the degree to which Indians are getting connected to the Internet. (We had just 170,000 Internet subscribers in 1998. This is now up to 650,000 and is expected to reach two million next year, probably doubling every year thereafter.) All that is good news. But the sale of ‘uninterruptible power supplies’ (UPS) — those boxes that ensure your computer doesn’t suffer in a power cut — has also gone up — by 47 per cent. That is something that should make us ashamed: in the last year of the 20th
century, we cannot even assure a smooth flow of reliable electricity, something most of the rest of the world takes for granted.

Our domestic software market has grown from US $ 116 million in 1992-93 to $ 2 billion today — nearly 20 times as much. All expert projections are for continued rapid growth, reaching $ 5 billion by 2002. Our software exports present an even rosier picture, having increased from US $ 225 million in 1992-93 to nearly $ 3 billion today. Again, the projections are for continued rapid growth, reaching $ 8.5 billion by 2002.

If all this is is positive and exciting, there are still grounds for concern. The figures for the telephone system are not encouraging. The Government’s target is to add three million new lines annually; the most recent policy statement (in October 1999) proposes raising the number of telephones per 100 Indians (which is known as ‘teledensity’) from just above two today to seven by 2005 and 15 by 2010 (just for comparison, the US already has over 90 phones per 10 people). In rural areas, teledensity is at a pathetic 0.4; the Government hopes to get it up to four by 2010.

These plans require the installation of fixed telephone lines, with all the vagaries of frequent malfunctioning that it implies. Clearly, the future for Indian telephony lies in rapidly moving to the latest technology and encouraging the rapid growth of mobile telephone networks. This is one area where regulatory reforms is essential. Our national communications needs are guaranteed to outstrip the Government’s ability to install fixed land lines for an increasingly antiquated telephone system. Let us use our IT expertise to leap straight into the 21st century.

And let us be realistic about our national situation. The gap between high-tech India and low-tech India is bad enough, but we must not lose sight of no-tech India. Two out of three Indian villages have never made or received a telephone call. Computers remain an unthinkable fantasy for them. Everywhere in our country, the knowledge gap — embracing information, education and access to technology — is widening.

Our country faces one more daunting challenge to add to the usual list of developmental challenges — and that is to promote greater, freer and fairer access to information for poor Indians. This means improving the country’s technological infrastructure and ensuring that advances in IT reach them. This will mean opening up access to the outside world for our poorest villages, pushing forward with electrification, installing computers in every village hall and offering basic training on their use, setting up Internet connections to compare with the ubiquitous STD booths that now dot the countryside and continuing to liberalise the rules governing the mass media and information flows. The Government should be working with international organisations to develop pilot projects in such fields as interactive long-distance learning, telemedicine, telebanking and micro-credit schemes, environmental protection and management.

The challenge for India now is to bring access to information, and the empowerment it offers, to all our people. Only then will egality be brought into our Information Revolution.

Source: Indian Express