Editorial: After the charm offensive

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September 29, 2015 12:41 AM

Delivering on Digital India, JAM, SEBs critical

One hundred billion dollars (R6.6 lakh crore) for the solar mission, to generate 100 GW of solar power by 2022. Another Rs 4.5 lakh crore, or thereabouts, for delivering on Digital India to connect 1.2 billion Indians, including the cost of the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) to connect 2.5 lakh village panchayats and the rollout of voice/data networks by private telcos. Just under R1 lakh crore for smart cities and urban rejuvenation plans … Apart from the fact that Narendra Modi is the first Indian prime minister after Rajiv Gandhi to truly believe in the power of technology to change people’s lives—he is the first to think of using it for governance on an all-India level—the fact that there are really big bucks riding on it was certain to charm all the Silicon Valley CEOs that the prime minister met over the weekend. Not surprisingly, each one of them promised to invest both money and time in delivering on this digital Indian dream. Google has offered, to start with, setting up free wi-fi facilities at 500 railway stations, Microsoft is going to help rollout low-cost broadband in 5 lakh villages, Qualcomm is going to spend $150 million on helping Indian start-ups.

With this kind of ringing endorsement, prime minister Modi should feel doubly recharged to deliver on this digital dream. If the world’s best-known electric car/battery firm Tesla is willing to collaborate, think of the push this will give the solar mission. If Google, Facebook and

Microsoft are going to help in pushing broadband, this will make Modi’s task that much easier; ditto for Cisco in the case of both broadband and smart cities. If Qualcomm is going to invest time on nurturing Indian start-ups, imagine the boost this will give to the country’s R&D space.

At the end of the day, how much work Silicon Valley giants do will, of course, depend upon how much work the government lets them, and on how much the government is itself able to deliver on its promise. Broadband-for-all will not happen, for instance, if the NOFN project remains as stuck as it is today—the challenge will be to galvanise the PSU structure in charge of delivering on it, or to open it up to private players. The private telecom revolution, critical for Digital India, requires the government to get more spectrum from defence and other users and to find ways to reduce costs from the exorbitant levels at which they are today. The solar mission will remain grounded unless the biggest buyers of electricity—the state electricity boards—are made solvent which, in turn, means convincing consumers across the country to pay market rates for the electricity they purchase. Modi’s JAM vision will not take off unless the current leaky way of delivering subsidies is completely replaced with one of direct cash transfers—even the UPA’s unnecessarily lavish National Food Security Act can be funded if cash subsidies replace the current FCI-based model. Indeed, as this newspaper has argued, dismantling food subsidies is critical to agricultural reform as well, as also to ensuring the Jan Dhan bank accounts for the poor also become viable. Having won Silicon Valley’s overwhelming endorsement, Modi now has to deliver on it.

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