Let''s not build a nation of robbers

By Rajesh Jain* | 29 Jun 2004


There are a billion dreams at stake. With the right catalytic push, we can create the momentum for growth

India stands on the cusp of a revolution. There is optimism all-round and in certain quarters, even fear of the growing prowess of India. This is a good start, but only the first step in what is a long journey. This is an opportunity for change and growth that we in India can simply not afford to lose. There are a billion dreams at stake.

1. Develop a 5-year vision for India's IT and telecom infrastructure
India's digital infrastructure is not going to be built with incremental policy changes. Over the past two years, the government did well to streamline the telecom policies. As a result, we are now seeing the world's second largest growth with two million new users every month. A similar strategy needs to be taken to promote the use of access infrastructure technologies (wireless and broadband), access terminals, software and information.

We need to set goals for building out India's domestic market in infotech and telecom. This is not just for the benefit of these sectors. The real beneficiaries will be Indians as technology spreads to schools, colleges, homes, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and rural areas — markets that hitherto have had only limited adoption. While the market is expected to take care of providing the solutions, the right policies from the government can act as catalysts — and the wrong ones can act as inhibitors.

2. Promote use of server-based computing and open-source software platforms
India is a country with little legacy when it comes to computing. Yes, we have an installed base of about 10 million computers, but that's a fraction of what it should be. If India needs to rapidly adopt computing across the country, the government should give a boost to two platforms which can significantly reduce total cost of ownership — server-based computing (using thin clients) and open-source software. Together, they can help bring down costs by more than 70 per cent.

As a by-product of the adoption of this new and affordable computing platform, India can also then become a showcase for other emerging markets on how to build out their digital infrastructure. This will also create opportunities for domestic product companies to grow globally.

Will there be opposition? Absolutely! There are plenty of organisations, which would not like to see a change in the status quo. But this is where we need to put our interests first. If India can bring down the cost of computing, we will make technology affordable to entire verticals and markets who otherwise will have to wait for many more years till either the cost comes within their reach or their incomes rise to meet the dollar-denominated prices. India does not have the time to wait — we need to lead the way.

3. Remove anti-dumping duty on import of old PCs
There is a $200 anti-dumping duty on the import of old computers into India. Why? To protect a non-existent domestic manufacturing industry? India needs cheaper computers. If Intel and Microsoft, who between them control the processor and operating system for the computers, will not bring down their price points for the Indian market, we can at least ensure competition for them. Non-consumption and piracy are not solutions. While open-source software provides a possible alternative to Microsoft's Windows and Office, the cost of hardware still remains an issue.

My suggestion: get rid of the $200 anti-dumping duty on the import of used computers. While a recent notification does exempt some categories, it needs to be extended to all imports of old computers. Or if the government does not want to lose revenue, levy the same duty on them as exists on other computer imports. Of course, the ideal scenario would be to eliminate duties altogether on computers, but that's a bigger decision.

What will this do for India? The world (primarily US, Europe and Japan) are disposing off tens of millions of computers every year. These PCs are hard to dispose off and have become an environment hazard for many countries. For the cost of just shipping (which will come to about $60-70 that is about Rs3,200 per computer if done in bulk), we can get these computers in India. Add Rs800 as customs charges (rather than Rs9,000 as it is now), and we have a computer for Rs4,000. Even if only four in five work, the cost still does not exceed Rs5,000. This is the 5K PC.

The key is to use this not as a standalone desktop but as a network device — a thin client. This can be the foundation for deploying millions of computers for today's non-consumers — those users who cannot afford one because the current price of Rs15-20,000 for a PC is way too expensive for them. Intel and others should back this move because it will spur sales of servers (thin clients needs thick servers). More importantly, it spurs a domestic industry where none exists by opening up new markets for technology.

4. Standardise Indian language computing efforts
There are too many overlapping and parallel projects going on across the country to get Indian language support in the computer operating systems. It would be nice if there can be a standardisation of these efforts. There are many elements, which need to come together here: fonts, Unicode support in the character set, translations, keyboard design and application support. If the various efforts can be coordinated together, it will help spur the use of local language computing and content development in these languages. India has plenty of languages to go around for all!

5. Provide a level-playing field for alternative hardware and software solutions
Most Indian states have Microsoft Office hardcoded as part of the education curriculum. This needs to change. Instead of mandating that students need to be taught and tested on MS-Word, MS-Excel and MS-Powerpoint, generic application categories should be used (word processor, spreadsheet and presentation application). A few years ago, it was probably difficult to consider alternatives to MS-Office because none existed. Now, there are. Many open-source applications including the OpenOffice suite are more than good enough.

It does not matter if the academic versions of MS-Office are available at very low price-points. By eliminating the use of alternatives at source, we are creating a difficult situation down the line — either we pay a lot of money for MS-Office later on, or encourage piracy since the need is there and the money isn't. We do not want to build a nation of robbers. We want intellectual property to be respected — and we want every Indian citizen and business to understand that.

Many government tenders specifically mention Intel-based computers and Microsoft Windows as the base software. This too needs to be eliminated. What users need is computing — whether it is served from a thick Intel desktop or an AMD/Via-based desktop or a refurbished computers should not be specified in tenders. Similarly, whether it is Windows or Linux on the desktop should not matter — go for the solution which gives the best value.

6. Open up the wireless spectrum
In India, we still have this habit of taking half-measures, which are ill thought-out. Take the WiFi policy, which allows its use only for campus and office environments. Why? WiFi should be complete delicenced with the use of 2.4 Ghz and 5.7 Ghz made freely accessible to one and all. This will lead to an explosion in the use of WiFi hotspots across India and potentially WiFi as a medium for last-mile connectivity.

India needs to leapfrog in terms of bandwidth and connectivity. We need to leverage the latest advances in both wireless and broadband, and in fact lead the way in the adoption of new technologies like WiMax which go past the distance limitations of WiFi.

Wherever wired technologies are possible, let us go for those. But wherever there are challenges in laying the wire (copper or fibre) for whatever reason, the customers should be able to opt for wireless technologies. Competition needs to abound. Note what competition did for mobile telephony. Something similar needs to happen with bandwidth and broadband availability across India — quickly.

7. Change the way we fund research in India
There is plenty of government funding which goes to various institutions across India. While there is some element of commercialisation it is not good enough. Can we look at alternate models that would encourage innovations to make their way out from the labs into the market?

There are plenty of problems waiting to be solved — from the low-cost energy to connectivity in rural areas, from creating business process maps for SME sectors to creating rural hubs. We need funding which has a get-it-to-market focus. We need funding which concentrates on creating public goods which private investors and entrepreneurs would not be able to do. We need to focus on disruptive innovations that can help us leapfrog. We need to make R&D stand for research and deployment.

8. Start a Weblog
My last suggestion may sound odd, that is the IT minister to have a weblog. So let me explain. India needs the collective intelligence of many to move ahead fast. There are many people who have sound, practical ideas. They need to be encouraged to communicate. The IT minister's blog will send out the message that he is listening. By sharing his ideas (even though they may not be fully formed), he will garner the best wisdom and learnings that exist in people. The minister's blog (and it has to be written by him) will become a magnet for people to start coming together to build the New India.

In Conclusion
I believe that IT and telecom can continue to be transformative tools in India's future development — what's needed is the right vision to see it through. Unfortunately, we are still hobbled my some shortsighted policies which stifle growth in the domestic segment. I feel that unless we pay adequate attention to building out India's digital infrastructure, we will not do much to impact the millions of domestic businesses and hundreds of millions of Indians outside the major metros and big towns. For the first time in our post-Independence history, there is a positive momentum. If we can give it the right catalytic push, India can unleash its entrepreneurial energies across the board and ensure that growth and development happen in a balanced manner.

*(The author is managing director, Netcore Solutions)

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