Solving social issues through technology

Written by Aravind Sitaraman | Updated: Jan 13 2014, 07:16am hrs
As India launched the Mangalayaan project recently, it joined an elite group of nations in the world overtaking even Japan and China. Naysayers have castigated the R450 crore-project as a pathetic attempt by the country to be counted as an emerging superpower. They say that India should focus more on immediate issues dealing with mosquito borne diseases and alleviate poverty of millions of Indians.

India does have millions below the poverty line and does suffer from serious shortage of essential services. However, this does not mean that we cannot make scientific progress until we solve the myriad of social issues. When you take into account that Mumbai alone spends over R1,000 crore on crackers every year, these arguments seem pessimistic, self-defeatist, and parochial. While the Mangalyaan project will propel our understanding of our universe, it will also increase our institutional learning of fundamental mathematics, chemistry, and physics, it will enhance our application of mechanics, metallurgy, engineering, and countless other applications.

India has never had difficulty in figuring out high technology. Years of scientific isolation from Cold War politics or sanctions against nuclear tests have kept the country starved for technology and her scientists always found a way out. The challenge is more in the translation of said high technology into products that are relevant to local and ubiquitous use. While some have seen its way down, the large quantum of invention has never been translated into innovations. Part of the challenge is the tyranny of numbers.

India has 400 million people below the poverty line and another 600 million in the lower middle class and aspirant poor. Such a large number spread across different states each with a different language, tradition, and practice does seem daunting. How can we address the aspirations of a billion people with varying set of capabilities and abilities The standard refrain from successive regimes is to deliver a one-size-fits-all solution. Thus, we try to teach a child from a remote area complex biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics and try to equate that child with one in an urban set up. This is not to say that the child in the remote area must not be cared for. We must find innovate ways to find, nurture, and develop the Abdul Kalams of the future from such remote areas. However, we must be practical about how we do it.

People have repeatedly responded to every survey that the most important factor for them is a chance to make a decent livelihood. They have said that they are willing to spend as much money as possible to educate their children and to achieve a healthy life. More than handouts from the government, most individuals just need an opportunity to work and prosper. While we must ensure that people get enough opportunities to participate in the economic growth, we must remember that entitlements will only keep them remain where they are.

Starting with Amul in Gujarat and replicated by Aavin in Tamil Naadu, a simple cooperative marketing agency brought thousands of farmers into mainstream economy through the sale of milk. The Y2K scare created a multi-billion dollar software industry benefitting hundreds of thousands of engineers directly and millions indirectly. Selling spectrum created millions of jobs while bringing in billions of revenue. Therefore, when the government creates an opportunity, millions find a way to prosper. Creating a federal enablement was what Indian Kingdoms did successfully for millenniums to create jobs and bring revenue.

In contemporary India, the fundamental reason for our predicament is that 70% of the population lives in rural areas while 60% of the resources (especially human resources) they need are in urban areas. Thus, unless motivated by an internal calling, teachers, trainers, and doctors prefer to live in urban areas because there is no infrastructure for education, skills development, and healthcare.

Government statistics say that we have 1 teacher for 40 children; many experts that this ratio is much higher especially in rural areas. Over 33% of our schools are 1-teacher institutions; the motivated individual teaches across subjects and grades. Just 15% of our population have college degrees and over 75% of them unemployable; not because they are stupid but because our educational system does not impart the right set of skills. For the foreseeable future, India will have the most youth in the world and we do not have the system in place to help them succeed in the competitive globalised world. The Planning Commission says that by 2030, if we do not change our system, we will have 500 million unemployed youth. This makes the perfect recipe for an economic, social, and political disaster.

Given these statistics, there is no way that India can find stability leave alone fulfilling its dream of becoming a super power by 2050. We have to embrace technology to not catch up with the developed world and China but also leapfrog into the future. In 2000, we had one of the lowest tele-densities in the world; today we turn on 13-16 million telephone connections per month. In 2000, we had limited options for automobiles; today we are one of the largest exporters of automotive accessories. India has always moved fast when it recognises a problem. It is time we address our skills development and education issues.

A practical approach for us to follow would be to leverage the huge data network infrastructure we have already deployed. India has over 1.5 million router kilometers of fibre connecting almost all telecommunication offices. We are on the verge of spending over $4 billion from the Universal Service Obligation fund to provide high-speed connectivity to every gram panchayat through the National Fibre Optics Network programme. What better way to use such large investments than to provide livelihood, education, and healthcare to disaffected citizens in rural areas

Leveraging networking, video, cloud and computing technologies, we can deliver teachers, master trainers, and doctors to rural populations and bring hope to the 1 billion people left out of mainstream economy. As ISRO has shown, it is possible for us to achieve the impossible dream and lead the world.

Technology can bridge the rural-urban gap. Technology is the only hope to develop India.

The writer is president, Inclusive Growth, Cisco Systems. He is one of the largest inventors in Cisco with 57 patents