Opinion 05/07/01

Is India falling through the Net?

By Leon D'souza

We live in what the Japanese call a "johoka shakai" or Information Society. Today's world is witnessing a computer revolution, powered by the silicon chip, in which information processing and retrieval are being reliably done at incredible speeds. There is an abundance both in quantity and quality of information, with all necessary facilities for its distribution. Information technology has become a vital economic engine that has propelled many Western economies to unprecedented levels of growth and competitiveness.

Back in Utah, as I traded e-mail addresses and URLs with all and sundry, I was almost seduced by the fancy Western notion that Information Technology would usher humanity toward some form of digital nirvana. Utopians, such as former Vice President Al Gore, speak of an electronic agora and online democracy -- a borderless world where opinions can be voiced freely, where information will be universally available at affordable costs, a world where social class will not matter.

Needless to say, reality isn't quite as rosy.

There is a strong nexus joining information to power and wealth. More than two-thirds of the world's 6 billion people have never made a phone call. According to the 1996 edition of the World Fact Book, while the United States can boast of PC penetration in excess of 190 computers per thousand people, India and China, the world's most populous countries, have just one computer per thousand people. Only an estimated 2 percent of the world's population is online. Information economies have remained a Western phenomenon. The developing world faces innumerable obstacles that are threatening to throw developing economies out of synch with the rapidly evolving mainstream digital economy. This unevenness of development has created a new class of social outcasts; those who live in what can be called "information poverty."

Bridging the divide: India and China- a comparative perspective

It has taken me around three months in China to realize that Indian technocrats and policy makers are way behind in their efforts to bridge India's widening digital divide. The information revolution in my home country has been confined to the English-speaking, Westernized digerati -- the Brahmins of the digital age. The other 95 percent of the population has, for long, remained isolated from the digital revolution as popular operating systems before Windows 2000 were not available in any of the official Indian languages. This is particularly distressing as successive Indian governments have touted India as a "software superpower" without even being cognizant of the need for operating systems, applications and Internet tools in local languages. How can we claim superpower status when more than 900 million Indians are yet to become familiar with the convenience of Personal Computing?

While a farmer in China used the Internet to access an agricultural database and saved his apple orchard from pestilence in 1997, hundreds of cotton farmers in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra committed suicide as they were unable to salvage their crops and repay their debts. Such tragic loss of life could easily have been averted if the relevant information was disseminated in a timely manner via network information services such as the Internet.

An aggressive Chinese government virtually arm-twisted mighty Microsoft into developing a Chinese version of the Windows 95 operating system. Consequently, market research group IDC estimates that China will become the third-largest market for PCs by 2003, behind only the United States and Japan. Like India, China has many talented software engineers. However, unlike India's laggard digerati , the Chinese infotech intelligentsia has been hard at work creating Chinese fonts, the most basic infrastructure required for a computing revolution.

In February this year, the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People's Republic of China announced a joint venture with the United Nations Development Program aimed at reducing poverty through the establishment of community telecenters in poverty-stricken rural areas. The 3-year project, initiated with $ 2.5 million, will provide farmers with wider access to the Internet and other information technologies in the hope that they may be able to use the updated knowledge to improve their living conditions.

While the Chinese government focuses on taking technology to the common man, bridging the digital divide, and building an economic powerhouse, the Indian government of the day is embroiled in controversy involving bribery in the defense department thus beginning yet another round of musical chairs in the lower house of Parliament. Undoubtedly, India's wayward politicos have much to learn from their Chinese counterparts.

In the final analysis...

The social chasm that separates urbanized, westernized, English-speaking India from the rest of the country is widening. There is an important gap between the information poor and the information rich. This gap threatens negative consequences for Indian society. In an era in which information is a major resource, information poverty signifies powerlessness, isolation, deprivation, and misfortune. India must follow the Chinese example and focus on the development of basic information infrastructure.

If the nation's digital Brahmins do not work expeditiously to bridge the digital divide, the world's second most populous country will fall further behind in a highly networked global economy.


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