December 2010
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The Aspiration - Achievement Gap

The India Economic Summit jointly organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the World Economic Forum (WEF) has been one of the significant events in the corporate calendar for a decade and the recently concluded event in Delhi provided rich food for thought as India sees itself through the lens provided by the partnership talk during the recent Obama visit. Among many threads that wove their way through the event, the role of technology in transformation and enabling the realisation of the “Inclusive India” agenda was one that kept many of the participants from India and abroad truly energised.

The discussion around the Networked Readiness Report was one of the first where some of us had the opportunity to engage with the authors as well as academicians from Stanford and Cambridge in discussing the significance of some of the findings for the current and future competitiveness of the country. The... analysis is based on the three key assumptions that a conducive environment is essential for ICT diffusion, both government and society play a key role in articulating and realising a vision for the role of ICT diffusion in enabling national competitiveness and there is a strong correlation between ICT usage and ICT readiness.

In this context, the fact that India ranks 43rd out of 133 countries in the Networked Readiness Index (NRI), a significant 11 place improvement since 2008, would be credible but for the fact that outsourcing industry competitors, Malaysia and China rank 16 and 6 places higher respectively. An interesting finding of the report is that while the government’s ICT vision readiness ranks 35th and business readiness and usage rank a creditable 23rd and 26th respectively, individual usage lags at an abysmal rank of 109th although the individual readiness to use new technologies ranks 7th, above Malaysia and China and 12 places above the United States. All this is a clear indication of the availability of digital infrastructure creating a significant gap between aspiration and achievement, particularly at the individual level.

Subsequent focused sessions at the Summit served to underscore the fact that large scale technology deployment is the current weakness as well as a significant future opportunity for an inclusive India agenda. A fascinating discussion on mobile health, where extensive use of mobile phones to access diagnostic as well as prescriptive advice could serve as a welcome add-on to the e-health initiatives that are already being undertaken by both government and private sector was followed by a brainstorming session on the role of technology in skills development.

There are many initiatives already underway to provide blended learning solutions for skill building where judicious use of technology would supplement rather than replace the efforts of the teachers and facilitators in classrooms across the length and breadth of the country. And finally the interesting opportunity that was discussed in the session on manufacturing, where the creation of a cloud based software as a service hosted platform to enable the millions of SMEs to access world class productivity enhancing applications again highlighted the ubiquitous role that ICT can and should play in country transformation.

There are three aspects that the NRI report brings out which should provide an impetus for action. The first, which has the risk of being somewhat beaten to death is the demographic dividend, which should serve India well if the right skills are provided. The second is the availability of educated manpower in fair abundance in the country.

The report mentions that India has one of the largest pools of scientists and engineers in the world, on par with the US and substantially higher than its competitors. And finally the leapfrogging that India has done in terms of telephony—an amazing statistic that was heard many times at the summit was India’s mobile phone population now approaching 700 million with 50 phones sold every second. The possibilities are truly mind boggling if the ubiquitous phone is used for education and healthcare beyond the standard calls and messages that we are used to today.

India’s main problem continues to be the infrastructure environment where a ranking of 83 is the result of poor scores in the key areas of internet bandwidth, accessibility of digital content, security of internet servers and even investments in higher education and tertiary education enrolment where countries like China are striding ahead. A lot to think about and more to be done if all the promise we have today is not to be squandered away in the critical 10 years that lie ahead—when we can either become a great knowledge power transforming our country as well as staying ahead in exports or see other countries stealing a march on us. The optimism is there as was evinced in every session of the summit, but there is no room for complacency!


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