Nandan Nilekani
Sunday, February 1, 2009
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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