The Digital Empowerment Foundation and the Centre for Development Policy and Practice held a conference in Hyderabad last week. This event, graced by Jayesh Ranjan, Principal Secretary, IT, Government of Telangana celebrated 20 years of digital inclusion during which the DEF managed to reach out to 20 million people across 40000 of the most remote villages in the country. Prof Syeda Sameen Fatima, former Principal of the Osmania University’s College of Engineering gave the keynote address highlighting the impact IT has made on humanity.
It is common knowledge in the development sector that the lack of proper access to adequate technology is one of the major reasons for stagnation in growth and economic and social development of areas. An example may help to illustrate the point. India and China were both relatively poor and backward colonised countries, with relatively similar populations, in the 1950s, yet, fast forward 70 years, and China is the world’s richest country whereas India is still lagging behind, being the 8th richest country in the world. So what made China grow so tremendously, leaving not only India but far richer countries such as U.K and Germany behind? Although the exact causal relationship is much more complicated, with a variety of factors at play, a plausible answer is that China focused on developing its infrastructure and technology with a tenacity almost unparalleled in history.
The range of the above analysis is not limited to cross-country examinations and can easily be extended to examining the development in smaller areas. Take the example of India itself. We can see that some states have developed much more rapidly and robustly than others despite starting out on the same footing, or in many cases, on a much more backward footing than their less successful counterparts. Take, for instance, the city of Hyderabad. The sleepy city where almost nothing was going on 50 years ago is one of the most technologically sophisticated cities in the country. Not only that, but it is also the city that attracts the largest share of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in India, was one of the first and only city in which Microsoft established an overseas office and has been consistently ranked as the “Best city to live in India.” Why has it developed from a relatively sleepy city to one of the most vibrant technology capitals in the country? Again, the answer is similar to that of China, the direction of developmental forces towards the improvement of technology and infrastructure. The story of how Microsoft set up its centre in Hyderabad is a great illustrative point.
Bill Gates came to India in 1997, which was his first visit to India. Prior to Gates’ visit, a couple of Indian Microsoft employees were discussing opening a centre in India. They pointed out that India had a lot of Computer Science students, who also had decent English abilities and would make good employees. But despite the discussions, there was general hesitancy, even among the Indian employees. However, Gates’s visit put down all the hesitancies. He was particularly impressed by the quality of people he found in India and was very enthusiastic about starting the centre. Six months later, the plan got approved from the Microsoft board, and the company was to set up its first overseas centre in Hyderabad. What happened during Bill Gates’ visit that made him get over the initial hesitancy? Well, the factor that played the biggest role was a presentation given to Gates by the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu. Naidu gave a PowerPoint presentation to Bill Gates on a laptop. Gates was surprised as he had never been to any government meeting in which he was given a presentation on a laptop. The incident put all of Gates’ apprehensions to rest.
However, the goals of the city’s governance did not stop at simply getting Multi-National Corporates (MNCs) to open service centres in Hyderabad but went above and beyond this. Years before the Central Government’s ‘Digital India’ plan, the State Government of Telangana already had a ‘Digital Telangana’ plan, which was arguably much more comprehensive than the Central Government’s. When the Central Government launched its Digital India plan, Digital Telangana already had construed similar goals, and in some cases, already achieved them as well.
Digital Telangana aimed at the complete transformation of Telangana into a broad cyber-metropolitan state, utilising new technology to the fullest. It based itself on two economic pillars: the supply and demand sides. The supply-side concerns itself with developing the proper infrastructure to accommodate mass use of internet and similar technology, that is, to ensure that there are no insufficient supply issues to be faced by consumers and firms alike. It aims at securing an optic fibre internet connection to all houses in the entire state. Simultaneously, it aims at establishing around 3000 WiFi hotspots in public places throughout the state. The end goal is to guarantee that absolutely no one is left out to connect to the internet.
Unlike traditional macroeconomics, it is rather unfortunate to note that Say’s law does not work here, and hence supply does not create its own demand. Boosting internet supply does not ensure that people would use it. To combat this tendency, the State Government is working on the Demand side issues as well. The State Government has plans to expand its Digital Training Centres, which are located in various places all over the state. These Centres actively engage with people and offer them Digital Literacy. They help them to learn how to navigate the web, how to buy and sell on the web for better prices, how to establish networks with their consumers, and so on and so forth. Soon, it is planned that every village in Telangana will have its own Digital Training Centre for its residents.
Telangana has come a long way in its digital development, but there is still a long way to go. Proactive government policies would ensure that it gets there sooner rather than later, and hence there it is hoped that the government continues to do this with the same vigour as it has done so till now.
The authors Amir Ullah Khan, Anjana Divakar are Researchers at the Centre for Development Policy and Practice (CDPP)