Can We Embrace The Brave New World?

Date:   Friday , November 21, 2008

I recently had the opportunity to address a conference of IT ministers in Delhi, at which the Chief Ministers of Delhi and Maharashtra were also present. Since I happened to be in Chicago at the time, my address was presented via video, at midnight local time.
My simple message for the ministers can be summed up in two parts. One, I am very concerned that India is missing out on the opportunity to bring about generational change and, once and forever, leave behind the legacy of the British Raj and associated methods and procedures that are obsolete and outdated. Two, develop an integrated policy framework which goes beyond IT on to other areas such as finance, privatization, liberalization and labor laws with multi-pronged implementation.

We are in the middle of an information revolution. If were not conscious of that fact, we may miss the unique historical opportunity to empower our people and to create an honest, open and transparent system in which knowledge is shared by everybody and one which brings the best out of our people and expedites the process of development. To do this, we must leave behind government policies that pick and choose which information will be made available to the public. To cite an example of such policies, take this: everybody knows that many satellites in the world can zero in on any 10-foot stretch of an airport (or other public buildings), but the public is still not allowed to take pictures at Indian airports. This is clearly old-world thinking. Similar restrictions abound whether it is to open a bank account or start a business.

Systematic Suppression

All of our existing systems were designed by the British for command and control; that is, they were created so that a select few could control a large number of people. Examples include revenue collection and octroi; the fact that every state and district had its own collector speaks volumes of the excess bureaucracy that was established. In some cases, we have even perfected it since Independence.

These days, Im afraid were all so busy computerizing our legacy systems, that were just putting the same old obsolete forms and processes into our computers. If we dont reexamine the structure itself in the process, well probably end up with the worst of both systems.

To avert this situation, bold vision and government initiatives must bring about a generational change in our thinking and processes. To achieve this, we need to question each and every process in our large bureaucratic systems. I can recall that, when I applied for admission to colleges, we were required to get a true copy, or attested copy, of our transcripts, which needed to be signed by a senior government officer or a judge. What a hassle it was! Now we have a whole new set of things such as digital signatures. The transition to this phase cannot be done on a piecemeal basis, but must be brought about by one swift stroke.

We can really benefit from the use of information technology only if we start employing it all across the process of governance and relationships between parliament, legislators, secretaries and joint secretaries, all the way down to the tehsildars and collectors. For this, all job descriptions need to be rewritten. Every public interface with the government needs to be examined afresh.

I recall once suggesting a redesign of the money order form. After all, it only needed to have all the essential information: who is sending the money, to whom is it being sent, how much, and the addresses of sender and recipient. But it took two to three years to get the form changed. Now were talking of redesigning thousands and thousands of forms and ways and means of doing things. I am told that the state government alone has 20,000 to 30,000 forms. Can we really reduce this number to about 3,000?

This kind of bold initiative can only come from outside the system. Change from within the system is very difficult to effect; people will always justify current methods because status quo is very comfortable and change is painful.

Cant Do IT Alone

We cannot benefit from information technology in isolation. IT is not a distinct sector by itself. It is pervasive. To be effective, IT must be present in education, health, government, libraries, banks, factories and just about every other area that touches those areas. Its about computers, voice, data, broadband, convergence and much more. As a result, many different policies have to be integrated for the benefits to trickle down to the economy as a whole: policies on telecom, computers, broadcasting, company law, labor laws, financial systems, privatization, liberalization, fiscal policies, entrepreneurship and venture capital and much more.

The American success story tells a tale of integrated policies that encouraged growth of information technology. We should not underestimate the role of Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan in the Internet revolution. If we in India expect one little ministry the IT ministry to make it happen by itself, were in for a disappointment.

Coupled with this, if IT is to reach large numbers of people in India, we have to create local content in local languages. English cannot be the language of the Internet, especially in India. Most of our states are as big as some European nations, yet they have their own unique language, cultures, traditions, art and music.

Total IT integration is indeed a tall order; I am concerned that India may not be prepared to take on these challenges. Although we may make small adjustments and compromises in policies and procedures and take pride in software exports, this will not be sufficient for us to tackle the larger problems of India, to make India a significant power in the information age. I have yet to see national debates address these issues. India needs to start a consensus-building exercise and plan action on a war footing if India is not to squander the opportunity to participate in the IT revolution sweeping the world.

When you put together these two broad thoughts it is clear that India can benefit from the IT revolution only if it can formulate an integrated policy framework and leave behind the British legacy and bureaucratic processes of the past. This alone will determine whether India will remain a mere software source for Silicon Valley or whether it will become a software giant in its own right. The next decade will tell.

This article is based on a telephone conversation with Mr. Pitroda.