Use Technology for Social Development

Author: Nandan Nilekani
Co-Chairman, Infosys Technologies
I have rubbed my shoulders with two or three companies in the past two decades of my career. While one has been that of co-founding and running Infosys, the other has centered on bringing about improvements in systems of governance, working on developmental issues like roads, healthcare, and essential services, and so on.

In the initial years of my tryst with community development and social change, I thought that technology did not have any role in it. One of the reasons for this was the fact that I did not want to be perceived as yet another geek who thought that technology was the panacea for all problems of the world.

Yet, after trying to address the issue of social development for 15 years, I came to realise, reluctantly, that technology can, and actually does, play a great enabling role in the process. This is true especially of developing countries like ours, where solutions to existing problems need to be implemented on a very large scale.

But, let me first underline that any solution in a country like India must be scalable, given the large number of people it must reach; it must be cost-effective, since a large number of people are not economically well off; it must also be possible to deploy the solution in a short time; and above all, the quality of the solution must be good.

All these aspects are relevant to our work in technology. This strengthens the call for technology's role in social development. Moreover, as you will see in the examples that follow, it has already happened.

Let me start with the elections; they are a humungous and, in more ways than one, an event unmatched in scale and scope by the elections that take place in any other country. Yet, the last general elections in 2004 were quite an achievement, since electronic voting machines were used across the length and breadth of the country despite the presence of largely illiterate communities in the vast rural areas. It made the process of voting hassle-free and counting was easy and fast. Incidentally, it took the Election Commission 27 years, by no means a short span, to implement the plan to use EVMs across the country, an endeavour in which technology played an enabling role.

The second area where technology has played a remarkably enabling role is mobile connectivity. 90 percent of the mobile phones in the country are prepaid, and 40 percent of those connections are recharged with average values of Rs. 10 or less. It points out how many poor have become connected, and how technology has played a role in terms of making devices and services cheap and easy to use.

Stock exchanges are also an area where technology has come to the aid of the people at large. Many will recall the colossal multi-crore share market scam involving Harshad Mehta in the early 1990s; that was when all transactions in the exchanges were paper-based nd therefore susceptible to frauds on a large scale. The developments in recent years have transformed the exchanges and all records pertaining to shares and transactions are now stored electronically. There are computer terminals across the country that are connected through the Internet, and share trading can be carried out from places as disparate as Agartala or Kanyakumari. This has ushered in equality and removed regional imbalance: earlier, over 80 percent of transactions were done in Mumbai, where the BSE (Bombay Stock Exchange) is located. Today, the city accounts for only 40 percent of the transactions.

Technology has also played a role in digitizing land records in Karnataka. 2,000 kiosks across the state now dole out land record certificates to farmers for a meagre fee of Rs.15. Gone are the days when one was required to bribe the revenue officer to get the certificate and the possibility of the officer changing the record without the illiterate farmer realizing the same.

All these point out the fact that over the next decade or so, technology can play a highly significant role in social development of the country. To this end, let me suggest a few things. Firstly wireless connectivity should be widely available across the country within the next decade. I don’t want to go into ideological issues as to which technology should be used to do that; what’s important is that all people are brought into the loop. Secondly, there must be a practical convergence of devices. There will come a time when everyone will have a device; again I will not go into the ideological question as to what that will be, but will only harp on the fact that information, services, education, healthcare, et al can be delivered through this device. Now, what does this mean? Let us look at the possibilities.

The presence of green house gases (GHG) in the atmosphere is ever-increasing; it is 430 ppm today against 270 ppm in 1850.We need to stabilize the level of GHG at 500-550 ppm by 2050, when an estimated 9 billion people will populate the world. This means that carbon consumption cannot be more than 2.5 tonne per person per year. At present, the figure for the U.S. is around 20 tonne per person per year; for Europe, it is 12-14 tonne; for China, 4-6 tonne; and for India, 2 tonne.

Obama has said that the U.S. will reduce its GHG emission by 80 percent by 2050. That will bring the per-person per-year carbon consumption in the U.S. down to 4 tonne. Our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also has recently said that our emission will be less than that of the developed world at any given time. What does this mean?

History shows that there is a linear connection between increase in per capita income and energy consumption. Projections show that our GDP will grow to 16 times the present by 2050, but, if the PM’s promise is to be realized, carbon consumption cannot grow more than 4 tonne per person per year (that's, at double the present level). Therefore, we need to take a hard look at our development model. The role of technology in this is huge.

Another area where technology can play a role is power. Presently, our power generation model is such that one plant produces 500 megawatt (mw) of power using conventional sources like coal. Instead of such mega power stations, by 2050, we will have 500 smaller plants producing 1 mw of power each using renewable sources like biomass, solar, and wind energy. Our power grids will have to be designed in such a way that they can handle varied sources of power that produce varied amounts of power at different times. The grid must be bi-directional, so as to regulate supply based on usage. They must have sensors and intelligence and enable variable pricing.

Subsidy is another area where technology must play a role. We need to move from indirect to direct subsidy. Take, for instance, subsidized power to farmers. In the present system, it is made free, thereby creating the need to enlarge the customer base that pays more for power to make up for the subsidy. Also, most of the time, the free power does not reach the poor farmers for whom it is intended.

We need to shift from this to a fresh model where we can identify the people who really need subsidy and direct it to them; this can be possible if all citizens have biometric identification cards. They can then go to kiosks and avail of subsidized power using, say a prepaid pool, which gets created based on the information in the identification card. This way, we will have no need to reduce the price of a commodity (say kerosene) as a whole, but only make it available to the needy at a lower price, while the rest of the market can pay the normal price.

While one can go on giving such examples, it is important that we, the people with the power to create new technologies and innovations, look at social development from the right perspective. We must then fruitfully contribute to realization of such development by changing the channels of delivery of services by making technology the enabler.
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Reader's comments(15)
1: From: Mrs. Mary David

This mail may be a surprise to you because you did not give me the permission to do so and neither do you know me but before I tell you about myself I want you to please forgive me for sending this mail without your permission. I am writing this letter in confidence believing that if it is the will of God for you to help me and my family, God almighty will bless and reward you abundantly. I need an honest and trust worthy person like you to entrust this huge transfer project unto.

My name is Mrs. Mary David, The Branch Manager of a Financial Institution. I am a Ghanaian married with 3 kids. I am writing to solicit your assistance in the transfer of US$7,500,000.00 Dollars. This fund is the excess of what my branch in which I am the manager made as profit last year (i.e. 2010 financial year). I have already submitted an annual report for that year to my head office in Accra-Ghana as I have watched with keen interest as they will never know of this excess. I have since, placed this amount of US$7,500,000.00 Dollars on an Escrow Coded account without a beneficiary (Anonymous) to avoid trace.

As an officer of the bank, I cannot be directly connected to this money thus I am impelled to request for your assistance to receive this money into your bank account on my behalf. I agree that 40% of this money will be for you as a foreign partner, in respect to the provision of a foreign account, and 60% would be for me. I do need to stress that there are practically no risk involved in this. It's going to be a bank-to-bank transfer. All I need from you is to stand as the original depositor of this fund so that the fund can be transferred to your account.

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All correspondence must be via my private E-mail ( for obvious security reasons.

Best regards,
Mrs. Mary David.
Posted by: mary lovely david - Monday 26th, September 2011
My Name is Tata I was impressed when i saw your profile at and will like you to email me back to my inbox so that i can send you my picture for you to know who i am.i belive we can establishe a long lasting relation ship with you.In addition,i will like you to reply me through my private e mail box (
This is because i dont know the possibilities of
remainning in forum for a long time.
Thanks,waiting to hear from you soonest.
Posted by: tata tatababy os - Friday 30th, October 2009
3: Your art of Management has become a part and parcel of everyday life, be it at home, in the office or factory and in Government. In all organizations, where a group of human beings assemble for a common purpose irrespective of caste, creed, and religion, management principles come into play through the management of resources, finance and planning, priorities, policies and practice. Management is a systematic way of carrying out activities in any field of human effort. Management need to focus more on leadership skills, e.g., establishing vision and goals, communicating the vision and goals, and guiding others to accomplish them. It also assert that leadership must be more facilitative, participative and empowering in how visions and goals are established and carried out. Some people assert that this really isn't a change in the management functions, rather it's re-emphasizing certain aspects of management.
Its task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their weaknesses irrelevant, says the Management Guru Peter Drucker. It creates harmony in working together - equilibrium in thoughts and actions, goals and achievements, plans and performance, products and markets. It resolves situations of scarcity, be they in the physical, technical or human fields, through maximum utilization with the minimum available processes to achieve the goal. Lack of management causes disorder, confusion, wastage, delay, destruction and even depression. Managing men, money and materials in the best possible way, according to circumstances and environment, is the most important and essential factor for a successful management.
Posted by: mulavana parameswaran bhattathiri - Thursday 25th, June 2009
4: Dear Mr. Nandan,

We talk of thinking out of the box and being innovative, but do we really do it? We think of only uni-direction effort of changing or impacting the society. We have groups of technocrats, groups of industrialist, groups of politicians who never gel together in their ideologies and thinking. In 60 years of independence we have been able to achive a bigger gap betweeen rich and poor. We do not follow capatilism but the outcome of our democracy is nothing better than that.

In 60 years we have achieved two main things -
1. The National Highway (thanks to Mr. Vajpaee)
2. The Space Research Program

Today also we are not self sufficient on Power, Water and Food for all.

Think before you answer as a technocrat, think before you react as an industrialist, think before you speak like a politician. Have we really made this country self-sufficient!

We as human being, the most intelligent animal on this earth, have not put our thinking cap to get to the bottom of the issues and resolve them ... we have made proposals after proposals but not implemented them ...

Think of the number of farmers who had given their lives due to shortage of food, water and shelter. Think of the number of farmers leaving their homeland and coming to the cities for sake of job and then just becoming daily wage earners with no security of future.

Is this that we had dreamt of after the independence?

We had been talking of connecting the rivers and building the quadraple canal ... we have not implemented the same. Why? What makes people like you not take up such matters and address them.

We talk of leadership and management capabilities ... but what's use of such big jargons when we can't do a simple planning and implementation in 60 years.

Instead, we are embarking on projects like airport upgradation, monorail, underground, bridges across the sea, and so on but what percentage of people use them and benifit from them.

We don't know to priortise "our country's" requirements, we know only to priortise "our own" requirements.

In 60 years, we have concentrated on industrialization, technology and have forgotten on agriculture. We should start thinking on what we have lost and start to regain by taking proper decisions together.

Together we can do it and let us do it. Request support from people like you who are change agents of this society and create a forum to act on our responsiblities towards this nation on whole.

Appreciate your thoughts as well.

Tapan Das
Posted by: Tapan Das - Sunday 26th, April 2009
5: Dear Mr Nandan,
Its a pleasure to read your comments and the astonishing factor is that in the current scenario you shall find a few in thousand with such valuable ideas. Your comments about the solutions for problems in a country like India for which there are no words to express my gratitude to your thoughts, still there is a query in my mind and my conscious as to whether the society which include the politicians, top dignitaries etc will permit a common citizen to express his opinion on the above subjects as commented by your kind self. Its even if the elections are boycotted by many yet there shall be many who on the face value shall vote inspite of knowing the simple fact that by voting in elections for such politicians they are at the end making the country go to the dogs. I may be wrong on some angle, but my age and experience has forced me to spell out such words which in one way is denting the image of our country.On reading your comments of Biometric identicification cards which has really left me agast as till date polling indentification cards are not issued ton the majority in a Metro city such as Mumbai which in other words is also known as the financial hub of our country.
Posted by: Pullin Parmananddas Kapadia - Monday 13th, April 2009
6: What you wrote is absolutely right sir.First step is boycott election.Those geeks who make such statements should not continue in the political scene.We need literate, proactive leaders not the conventional kind of figures who can hardly speak or write their mother tongue or cannot even get along with the latest trends.We need leaders in our parliament and assembly who has the brains to build up a better india.What do you think we can do in this.Pls read my blog about our right to boycott election which can save us and our country.There is no doubt technology has its due importance we need a better bharat where we can make technology reach beyond our expectations.We should strive for it.And remember that we are responsible for the future of our employees who serve us and through them we serve the nation.One Narayana murthy or Nilekani alone cannot make it happen. You need thousands to serve you to bring it into fruition.(Related to the news that 2100 employees fired from infosys)
Posted by: Sri sai - Monday 13th, April 2009
7: Hi Sir,
As always your article is simply great but all this seems to be idealistic. I am very sure that all the techs and products which you have described in this article and even others are feasible and at low cost indeed, coz i have also worked on few of them. But the real problem is that we are not having a proper system to encourage these kind of experiments and products. I hope that there will be some changes in the system if we continously point out this type of problems.

Best Regards,
Vikram Khemchandani
Posted by: vikram Gyanprakash khemchandani - Wednesday 01st, April 2009
8: Dear Nandan ji,
you are absolutely right in making technology as a tool of social development. But sir as you know only technology cannot address the root cause of indian poverty. we know that our country is suffering from different type and sets of dualism. even we divide our country between INDIA and BHARAT. technological dualism also co exits. Sir please develop a tool where we can revolutinise our education sytem so that the basic know how of understanding technology can be solved. Can you ask your team members to develop a technology where education can reach to last man of the country and can be accesed 'FREE of COST'?
with due regards
Posted by: devesh charan - Wednesday 25th, March 2009
9: Dear Nandan ji,

Instead of buying power from government why can't farmer sell power to the government.It's 100% possible if we have scheme like a Amul(Co-operative Milk production). how they transformed small farmer into profitable monthly income holding man. if i able to get (Rs 500 to 1000)/month/person in my village then think who's powerful.

this is possible if we able to use following two technology

1)solar energy harvesting
2) wireless sensor network.

it has all capable option to put our intelligent on to it.

with respect,
Dhakshina Moorthy.T

Posted by: dhakshinamoorthy thavamani - Friday 20th, March 2009
10: Yes, IT can change my real India in real sense. Its the tool which doesn't need much investment as the manufacturing, but sir, why don't our government doesn't focus on this issue centrally. We at the lead position in IT since 95 and after, we made other governments Web 2.0 enabled when are we going to do it?
Hope the dream comes true soon!
Posted by: Prakash Pimpale - Friday 06th, March 2009
11: Dear Nandan
IT IS a great and powerful development tool if properly directed we could achieve fabulous results. My only concern has been that tier I IT Companies like that of Infosys are in to BPO business and not putting efforts in providing IT services for the community
12: Hi Sir,

Really awakening article to young minds of india, it is the right time to get into action.

Posted by: hanamant halli - Sunday 22nd, February 2009
13: just simply great,
Posted by: Ranjeet Jalane - Saturday 21st, February 2009
14: Respected Sir,
Your Global Mind is Delivering the Best in the Minds of Young India a Passion for Change and Development.
Posted by: PAKKIR MOHAMED SAIT - Saturday 07th, February 2009
15: good
Posted by: arun singh - Friday 06th, February 2009
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