IT and India

Date:   Saturday , March 31, 2007

I want to make a case for the IT industry to bring its influences somewhat beyond what can be seen as its traditional domain...My point is not that the IT industry should do something for the country at large, for that it does anyway. It already makes enormous contributions: it generates significant incomes for a great many Indians; it has encouraged attention to technical excellence as a general requirement across the board; it has established exacting standards of economic success in the country; it has encouraged many bright students to go technical rather than merely contemplative; and it has inspired Indian industrialists to face the world economy as a potentially big participant, not a tiny little bit-player.

My point, rather, is that it can do even more, indeed in some ways, much more. This is partly because the reach of information is so wide and all-inclusive, but also because the prosperity and commanding stature of the IT leaders and activists give them voice, power and ability to help the direction of Indian economic and social development.

Let me begin by asking a question that no one here will, I think, ask (because everyone I meet here seems so polite and well-behaved): why should the Indian IT industry have any sense of obligation to do things - more things - for India, more than what happens automatically from its normal operations (as a by-product of business success, rather than as a deliberated goal to be advanced, among other demands and necessities)? Why assume there is any obligation at all for IT to do anything other than minding its own business?

I think part of the answer lies in reciprocity. The country has made huge contributions, even though they are not often clearly recognised, to help the development and flowering of the IT industry in India, and it is not silly to ask what in return IT might do for India …

…The IT industry has a huge opportunity to help India by trying to make its contribution to the systematization, digestion and dissemination of diverse clusters of information in India about the lives of the underdogs of society - those who do not have realistic opportunity of getting basic schooling, essential health care, elementary nutritional entitlements, and rudimentary equality across the barriers of class and gender. This can also be said about problems of underdeveloped physical infrastructure (water, electricity, roads), as well as social infrastructure, that restrain the broad mass of Indians from moving ahead. There are particular causal connections also here: an enterprise that hugely depends on the excellence of education for its success - as the IT sector clearly does - has good reason to consider its broad responsibility to Indian education in general.

I do not know enough about the IT operations to see whether all this can be turned into a business proposition as well. But my point is that even if it cannot be so transformed, it is something that the IT sector has good reason to consider doing. Can there be a group initiative in any of these fields? Informational issues are thoroughly rampant in morality and politics, and in many direct and indirect ways, the preoccupation of the IT enterprise links closely with the foundations of political and moral assessment and adjudication.

…I should also mention that the role of information and informed understanding can also be very large in the pursuit of global peace and in defeating ill-reasoned violence. When we consider how many of the brutalities in the world today are linked with ignorant hostility to cultures and practices abroad, we can appreciate the contribution of informational limitation, among other causal factors, in cross-border belligerence.

I return now to the domestic scene. In emphasizing the role of the moral domain for the IT sector to feel some responsibility towards making India a more equitable country, I do not want to give the impression that there is not also a prudential case for going in that direction. One of the huge obstacles to the domestic development of the IT sector is the size of the local market, which is still quite small, despite all the recent expansions. Indian IT has done very well in making excellent use of the global market, but competition there is likely to be increasingly fierce.

Other countries are trying to learn from the experience not only of America and Europe but also from India , and while India has some peculiar advantages in the IT field (which I have already discussed), the barriers may well be gradually removed in many countries - indeed even in many poor countries - in the world. China, which has a much larger domestic market already and will continue to expand that market very fast, is not as vulnerable as we may be, in this particular respect.

As it happens, one of the reasons for the larger domestic reach of IT in China is its much wider base of good basic schooling. So, what is an issue of equity, on one side, is also a matter of central importance for prudential reasoning about domestic economic expansion, on the other. The same goes for a much wider base of elementary health care in China, though this, as it happens, has been going through some turmoil since the Chinese economic reforms of 1979 which effectively abolished free health care for all, through insisting on privately purchased health insurance. It is a subject on which I have written elsewhere, so I will not go further into it here, other than noting that the Chinese authorities are quite receptive now of critical scrutiny of the present system of health care that China has ended up having.

This, in fact, is in sharp contrast with the past when we had made similar criticisms earlier, and I do know that very serious critical scrutiny is currently going on in Beijing on this, in a very constructive way. I expect major changes to happen in China in a more inclusive direction before long.

Excessive reliance on private health care in India for the most elementary problems of ill-health and disease (resulting mostly from the limited size, reach and operational efficiency of public health facilities) is similarly a barrier to the availability and entitlement to health care for all Indians, and this obstacle urgently needs removing. These are all subjects on which the IT sector is well placed to provide considerable enlightenment and guidance. As it happens, the IT sector itself will indirectly benefit (for reasons I have already outlined) from playing a constructive and deliberated role in widening the base of social and physical infrastructure. But the more immediate - and also the more foundational - reason relates, I think, to demands from the moral domain to which the IT sector has reasons to respond. This is so, I have argued, for a variety of reasons, varying from Indian IT’s unequal current success and its debt to India’s traditions and priorities, on one side, to - and this is often unrecognized but happens to be extremely important - the central role of information in moral reasoning, on the other. There is indeed, I would argue, something of a socially connected obligation here, the recognition of which could make a huge difference to the future of India.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University Excerpts from his Keynote Address at the NASSCOM 2007 India Leadership Forum.