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TECHNOLOGY-INDIA: Cyber Coolies Bridge Digital Divide

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

NEW DELHI, Aug 23 2006 (IPS) - When Deepak Jagdish, a young Indian student of computer science, explained to Bill Gates last month the complex navigation and processing system of new software, which mimics the echo location system used by bats, to assist visually challenged individuals move about safely, the founder of Microsoft remarked: ”I have never seen something like this”.

Jagdish and his fellow students from the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, Gandhinagar (in western India), have developed computer software that could help blind people, ‘see’ the environment and the objects around them, spatially. The software controls ultrasonic impulses received by proximity sensors that have a minimum range of five metres. The signals are translated into audible frequencies and conveyed to visually impaired users through headphones.

The team of students working on the ‘Sonique’ or ‘Dhwani’ software were participating in an annual event organised by Microsoft that was held this year in Agra in July. Gates, who attended, remarked that the “most inspiring” part was interacting with young people like Jagdish who could help India bridge the digital divide and enable the country to “realise its potential to become a creator of intellectual capital”.

At the other end of the subcontinent in southern India, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have made their city, Bangalore, a name to reckon with in information technology (IT). No longer are they derogatorily described as “cyber coolies” doing low-end work for a pittance but are being called “knowledge workers” who ensure that computer software exports continue to grow at 30 percent a year – such exports are expected to comprise more than a third of the country’s total exports in two years.

India is often characterised as a country of contradictions exemplified by the fact that the country entered the new millennium with nearly one-third of the world’s computer software engineers and a quarter of the world’s undernourished. While there are 12 phones and 10 TV sets for every 100 Indians, the total number of people with personal computers in the country is less than two percent in a population of over a billion.

According to one estimate, the IT sector could rise from one percent of India’s gross domestic product to 10 percent by 2008. At the same time, the benefits of IT have reached only a minuscule portion of the country’s population resulting in a yawning digital divide. Although the number of internet users is growing by 40-50 percent a year, the total number of Indians who have accessed the worldwide-web at any one point of time is probably less than five percent of the total population.

The number of mobile telephones in India has doubled over the last two years and crossed the 100 million mark in July. The government has projected that this figure could exceed 250 million over the next two years. Whereas mobiles, long-distance and international phone calls in India were among the most expensive in the world until as recently as 1994, phone call rates are currently the lowest in the world.

But here too the digital divide is evident. Against more than four phones for every ten citizens in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, there are entire provinces in eastern and central India – Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Assam – where there are less than two phones for every 100 residents. Also, the distribution of phones is heavily skewed in favour of urban areas.

“The most important change taking place is that the computer software industry in India has begun looking inwards,” says Kapil Dev Singh, country manager, IDC (India), which is the local affiliate of the international market research organization International Data Group (earlier known as International Data Corporation). He told IPS in an interview that as more and more Indian companies compete globally, “the domestic markets for IT and IT-enabled services are coming of age”.

Singh emphasises the fact that India is slowly but surely becoming a manufacturing base for not just computer software but hardware as well. Among various multinational corporations, Intel and Nokia have recently announced major investments in India to manufacture silicon chips and mobile communication devices.

“What is noteworthy is that international companies are making products that are specifically suited to Indian conditions – thus, there are mobile phones designed to be used by a truck driver with grease on his hands, computers that run on car batteries and rugged laptops that can function well in a dusty and hot environment,” says Singh.

“The interesting paradox is that while Indian IT companies are still focused on the world market, international companies are looking at the Indian market,” adds Pradeep Gupta, chairman and managing director, Cyber Media (India), India’s largest and one of Asia’s biggest publishers of periodicals on IT. “New technologies have ensured that instead of people, work has migrated from high-cost economies to low-cost economies.”

IT enabled services or business processing outsourcing has employed many young Indians not only in Bangalore, but in cities like Gurgaon (on the outskirts of the capital city of New Delhi), Hyderabad (in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh), Chennai (also in the south) and Kolkata (in the east). “The IT industry is rapidly spreading spatially and is now moving to smaller towns,” says Singh.

The spread of IT across urban India is creating its own set of concerns. Indians adopt American names and learn to add a twang to their speech while working at call centres. At least one novel has been written about how lifestyles of young Indians who work in such organizations have changed dramatically, while a film has been released with the apt title of ‘American Daylight’ – a reference to the fact that the roughly twelve-hour time difference between India and the U.S. makes it necessary for call centre employees to stay up through the night.

Since youth quickly imbibe new technology and roughly two-thirds of the Indian population is below the age of 30, most IT companies perceive this fact as a major source of competitive advantage. “The real challenge is to blend the impatience and the enthusiasm of the youth with experience and wisdom of the greying,” says Gupta.

Sanjay Behl who heads branding and marketing at Reliance Infocomm (a major provider of mobile phone services) says: “I see technology influencing the lives of millions of Indians living in rural areas. This is the era of digital marketing, an era that will witness dramatic changes in the way computers change the lives of people in this country and all over the world.”

India remains a nation of amazing contrasts and inequalities. One small section lives in air-conditioned comfort and shop in glitzy malls where products from all over the world are available. Major Indian companies such as the Tatas and Birlas now pay their top employees salaries that average a million US dollars per annum.

However, at least one out of four Indians live below the internationally defined poverty line spending less than one dollar a day (now worth around Rs 47) and one out of three cannot read or write their own names. Bridging the digital divide in such a polarised society is going to be a daunting task.

“I do sincerely believe IT can impact the lives of ordinary Indians,” says Singh. He provides examples of technology helping governance by improving land records, making quality medical advice available to poor patients living far away from a hospital and farmers getting the latest prices for their produce apart from weather forecasts and information about agricultural practices.

 
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