Dr. S. Somasegar
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
India is already achieving per-capita productivity in information technology higher than the average per-capita productivity in the developed world. Other service -oriented sectors, e.g. call centers and general business & legal process outsourcing are also not far behind. Thus, an easy way for India to continue growing its GDP is to keep growing its labor pool qualified for these global service-oriented occupations by increasing access to high-quality education and training. Privately run programs, such as, Pratham and One Laptop per Child, and the new government programs, such as, low cost laptop for higher education, and new engineering colleges, are all steps in the right direction in growing a highly educated and productive workforce. India’s Internet penetration is currently very low at 4.38 million broadband subscribers in a country of over 1.13 billion. The Indian government is again heading in the right direction by adopting the WiMAX technology to deliver broadband services to citizens in rural and urban regions throughout the country, bypassing the capital-intensive landline and cable technologies that the developed world had to go through. Providing broadband access to the citizens will not only allow access to higher quality education everywhere in the country, but will also allow each Indian to participate in the ever growing virtual global economy.

Information technology should not be considered as an end onto itself, but more as an aid for providing as great an access as developed world citizens have to high-quality education and virtual global economy. Just like India grew its IT sector as a powerhouse for the world, it needs to sow the seeds for new powerhouses – looking ahead, I see areas such as bio technology, healthcare services and alternative energy sectors having very high rates of innovation that a country like India can participate in and more importantly take a leadership role.

As Indian citizens gain skills that are valuable on a global scale, a huge brain drain out of the country is destroying the hen that is laying the golden eggs. I understand that I have been a part of the problem on this particular issue. As much progress as we have made on having people from other parts of the world do business in India, it is still quite tough to attract world class talent from abroad, which could help further increase productivity of its workforce. This is mainly because of the quality of life issues due to lack of basic facilities taken for granted in the developed world, e.g. transportation, electricity, sewer, water and healthcare infrastructure. Economist Intelligence Unit, which ranks cities around the world in terms of liveability, has always found Indian cities as some of the worst cities in the world to live. This really needs to be addressed if India is to prosper. The Indian government is planning to build 43 new IT cities with all the essential services. As long as the intent is translated into effective execution, this will help in growing and keeping India’s IT talent.

India should take this opportunity to leapfrog into infrastructure solutions of the future that will work for its high-density large population. For example, the developed countries are now embracing high-speed rail to accommodate future traffic growth even though huge investments have already been sunk into highways, cars, trucks, airports and planes over the past many decades. One great benefit of having poor infrastructure in India is that it doesn’t have much baggage of maintaining past infrastructure investments. Next generation high speed rail offers several benefits over highway infrastructure. Today’s computer-run automated trains can safely achieve speeds greater than 500 km/h, while using one-third the energy as transportation on roads. It is also a lot cheaper to build a single track of rail, which can also carry a lot more traffic, than a multi-lane highway. I have not even yet taken into account the costs of cars, trucks, traffic congestion, pollution, greenhouse warming and accidents from human-dependent driving on roads. The biggest obstacle in the developed world has been the population density needed to make rail economical, but that is where it makes even more sense for India. Delhi Metro Rail and the upcoming Mumbai metro are steps in the right direction. India should leapfrog the highway-based transportation, and instead, embrace high-speed rail nation-wide to meet its citizens’ transportation needs. As it did in the developed world, great infrastructure can really help India accelerate productivity growth as goods and human talent can efficiently move to where they are needed the most.

India also needs to make sure its energy needs will be met well into the future. Again, the benefit of lack of energy investments today is that India does not have to worry much about maintaining previous energy investments, but has the opportunity to leapfrog into next generation renewable energy technologies. It is great to see the Indian company Suzlon become the wind turbine manufacturer for the world. While wind is already achieving lower cost per watt than coal based power generation in some parts of the world, there is also a lot of promise in solar. It is hard to predict which solar technology will be the ultimate winner, for example, PV, thermal solar, solar-to-algae, solar-to-biofuels, or solar-to-hydrocarbons, but we’re at an inflection point where PV and thermal solar are already approaching grid-parity. The promise here is so huge that India should seriously consider redirecting government funds from subsidizing oil to creating renewable electric power plants and electricity-based high speed rail transport solutions, which will also have the benefit of using the money to increase employment opportunities in India instead of filling the cash coffers of oil countries. For example, the desserts of Rajasthan offer huge potential for solar power. Availability of cheap readily available energy will not only breathe life into manufacturing, agriculture and other sectors of the economy, but could also solve other problems that plague the Indian population, for example it could help provide cost-effective water desalination to solve water problem in almost all the big cities in India.

In summary, India has a huge opportunity to leapfrog to the next-generation technologies in computing, communication, infrastructure and energy to easily become a developed country in the next few decades. While India has the capability to achieve this dream, can we pull together the wherewithal to get there?

The author is Senior Vice President, Developer Division, Microsoft Corporation

Share on LinkedIn

Previous Magazine Editions