ICTpost mGovernance Bureau
India has been ranked 69th among 142 nations in inherent capacity to leverage information and communication technologies (ICT) for progress, in the latest of a series of Networked Readiness Index reports brought out annually by the World Economic Forum and the business school, INSEAD. The report rates India’s performance as “very mixed, with encouraging results in a few areas and a lot of room for improvement elsewhere, notably in the political and regulatory environment and the business and innovation environment.”
“Extensive red tape stands in the way of businesses, and corporate tax is among the highest of all analysed countries. For instance, it typically takes four years and 46 procedures to enforce a contract,” the report said, referring to the longer time and more paperwork required to start a business in India than in most other countries.
However, India fared better in the availability of new technologies and venture capital, the intensity of local competition and the quality of management schools. Already ICT was “having a small transformational impact” on the economy, the report stated.
The low penetration of ICT was one of India’s weakest aspects, with the country ranked 117th in individual usage. Mobile penetration had to be improved further, as also the percentage of the population that used the Internet.
Fierce competition and innovations had made India the leader in ICT affordability. Although penetration is still limited among the population at large, businesses are early and assiduous adopters of new technologies. And the government is placing a great deal of emphasis on ICT as a way of addressing some of the most pressing issues. Whether this vision will translate into a transformation of the economy and society remains to be seen.”
Much Debated Issues
Information and communication technologies in India have been much debated and discussed in the past few years. To understand the Indian ICT scenario, a background of the evolution of the ICT movement in India needs to be understood. What was the process of the transition from small pilots by innovative individuals, CBOs and NGOs to a government development agenda and a national focus?
The commencement of ICT in the government agenda stated in the 1990s when many state governments realised the potential of ICT in governance and made concentrated efforts to establish good governance as part of their development goal. Since there were already many small initiatives across the country which had shown promising outcomes such as the ITC e-chaupal, narrow casting of community issues by community radio groups and some initiative by multinational agencies using handheld devices etc. The promise of a transparent government mechanism was well accepted by the people and voting patterns inclined towards development oriented political parties. This brought about a sea change in political agendas. Thus the change in the government attitude to service delivery mechanisms through e-government became the norm for all state governments. There has since then been a constant endeavour to provide better government to citizen services through ICTs. The large investment by government in infrastructure for ICTs and the opening up of the Indian economy induced business to invest to tap into the potential rural market of India.
The central government also commenced various schemes and through the department of information technology was able to develop a vision to connect villages in India on a broadband network with delivery points called the Common Services Centres (CSC). The reference to the CSC here is not to argue its merits and demerits but to look at the investment for the CSC infrastructure as a catalyst for development.
The Past and Future
ICTs have brought in a new set of technologies which were unheard of twenty years ago. Just as the railways were introduced in India by the British, which set a paradigm shift in the ways people behaved with this new way of being connected across the length and breadth of the country. It brought about new rules and society oragnised itself along the railways lines with new norms and structures. ICTs will and are doing to India the very same thing the railways did. Consider the mobile rickshaws which go around the world famous Puskhar fairs providing mobile connectivity at the last mile. This is ICT at its rural best.
We would be idealistic enough to assert that regardless of the challenges of the government infrastructure, the old and new will continue to co-exist in this transitory time just as bad transport systems co-exist with mobile cell technologies. To consider the picture of a women in interior India communicating on a mobile phone while commuting on the roof of a bus is still accepted norm is a telling point of the two Indias that co-exist.
Rather than examine the end delivery mechanisms, such as the CSC, (which would require an article in itself) the one great success which will really matter in the long run is the establishment of the backbone network which will enable multiple service delivery points in the future. It would really not matter if the CSC delivery points fail as there will be other initiatives which will tap into the wide area network backbone and go forward.
The backbone network set up for the CSC may very well serve the burgeoning creative content market which is emerging. This will, we believe fill a much needed gap in the ICT sector. It will spur further investment in making ICTs an enabler with content at the core rather than infrastructure.
The mindset that underdeveloped states cannot achieve or contribute and take advantage of ICTs to leapfrog into better governance needs to be examined against the light that the best e-governance award for 2008 went to the State Government of Chattisgarh, a state considered backward and low on development indicators. Their very innovative, “Unified Ration Card Project” through the Department of Food and Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs of Chhattisgarh Government has computerised the entire food grain supply chain in Chhattisgarh, starting from paddy procurement from farmers, its storage, milling and distribution of rice and other commodities to 3.4 million ration card holders through fair price shops.
In the last years the best e-governance projects came from the state of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa. It is revealing to note that ICTs have not only helped accelerate the change in government but enabled “backward” governments to make a quantum leap into good governance through ICTs.
The current focus by the government will spur growth in the education and health sectors. Both are poised for a growth through multiple delivery points such as community service centres, telemedicine centres and the proliferation of cellphones. Business will need to be innovative to take advantage of this e-dynamic landscape.
There is the oldest ICT of them all, the radio. Community Radio seems to be emerging as a surprising player in the ICT scenario in India, with civil society adopting Community Radio as a means to disseminate knowledge and share information. The freeing of the Community Radio policy has seen a jump in the number of applicants. A proactive endeavour by the government has induced many community-based organisations to use Community Radio as an effective tool to inform and empower local people on local government issues. The Right to Information Act and its impact is seen through the number of CR stations which broadcast the RTI details to citizens. Mobiles phones have enabled a larger phone-in audience The co-existence and advantages of both ICT technologies will probably be a enduring feature of ICTs in India.
There is no doubt that the sector that will see the largest investment in hardware in the coming years are telecommunications. The cellphone market has beaten all assumptions of numbers. The number of players in the market has ensured a competitive market giving the end user multiple choices and spurring the number of subscribers.
The future of ICT in India will probably have mobile technology leading the way with the Internet and Community Radio not far behind. The reach of mobile has far exceeding any forecast and no one was able to predict the immense jump in use of cellphone in India.