All this heady talk of digital India makes me think we are aspiring to sprint before learning to walk. The Silicon Valley honchos Narendra Modi met recently egged him on to make breathtaking promises using fashionable IT jargon he probably doesn’t himself fully comprehend. But seeing he is a man of the people, the Prime Minister should realise that men like Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Google CEO Sundar Pichai are making their fortunes in the US because they are more committed to their own careers than to India.
The patriotism of NRIs has always struck me as slightly phoney. If they invest in India it’s not like the overseas Chinese who wanted to develop China. The Gulf War proved Indian expatriates are inspired by only the profit motive. When foreign exchange reserves were down to $1.1 billion and India’s leaders running from pillar to post trying desperately to stave off bankruptcy, our worthy Indian-American billionaires hastily withdrew at least $2 billion. A billion dollars were withdrawn between April and June 1991 alone.
Another crisis will again expose the true colours of these fair-weather friends to whom Mr Modi promised he would make governance more accountable, transparent, accessible and participative while ensuring data privacy and security. NRIs are not interested in accountability, transparency, accessibility and participation if their investment yields high returns. They couldn’t have been bothered that I was stranded to Baroda last week, unable to call a taxi online after the city police commissioner announced vengefully, “The notification has been issued to ban mobile Internet and 2G and 3G services indefinitely”.
That didn’t inspire much faith in the promise there would be no electronic snooping and that “the highest importance” would be accorded “to data privacy and security, intellectual property rights and cyber security”. It was made to foreigners too far from home to be taken seriously.
Mr Modi’s speechwriter probably calculated that since the fathers of American democracy prized these virtues so highly, his cliché-ridden (“Social media is reducing social barriers”) Silicon Valley speech might even earn the media coverage that seems so far to have eluded him in the US.
The announcement of public WiFi spots at 500 railway stations and an aggressive expansion of the National Optical Fibre Network to take broadband to 600,000 villages sound even more delusional when one remembers what grubby dumps Indian railway stations have been reduced to and what a rarity even electricity is in rural India. It would serve a more useful purpose if trains ran on time with fewer accidents, railway catering improved, and if stations had comfortable waiting rooms, clean lavatories, and pleasant eating places. Companies like Kellner, Spencer and Sorabji lie outside Mr Modi’s experience but his office can do some research and advise him on the excellent but affordable restaurants and dining cars they used to run. Today’s Indian Railway Tourism Corporation is a disgrace.
Officially, only 20,000 villages are without electricity. But given the state of even urban electric supply or the non-working charging points on Shatabdi trains, this must be grossly optimistic. India doesn’t need M-governance or E-governance. It needs governance. India doesn’t need smart cities. Just cities that Europe and America would recognise as such. No doubt it’s important to “connect all schools and colleges with broadband”. It’s far more important to ensure there are enough schools and colleges for all our children, that they boast libraries, laboratories, gyms and facilities for learning as well as extra-curricular activities, and that teachers are qualified, well-paid, dedicated and politically neutral. High-falutin rhetoric alone will not create a new generation of which we can be proud.
The claim that “building I-ways are as important as highways” cannot but provoke laughter when even so many New Delhi roads (Mahipalpur for one) are congested, unpaved, ill-lit and without signs. If an IT company really has decided to set up office in a large pothole at Bull Temple Road in Bengaluru’s Basavanagudi, it deserves full marks for taking the wind out of the sails of a leader who seems more full of boast and bombast than the commonsense expected of him.
I am not sure Mr Modi really wants the new-fangled technology he appears to hanker after. It could well be the dazzle of novelty. I suspect his officers and aides are too sycophantic to tell him that IT would be as useless in satisfying the people’s basic needs as membership of the United Nations Security Council. The pernicious effects of social imbalance are evident in many small things around us.
The young jawan from some paramilitary force on duty at Kolkata airport, for instance, seemed smarter than the usual security personnel. The two passengers ahead of me held up their mobile phones — sleek black and silver gadgets that you swipe delicately to send messages, take pictures, listen to music, watch video or check your email. The jawan read them without difficulty and waved on the passengers. But my conventional ticket print-out floored him. He held it upside down and sideways. He pored over it line by line, painfully tracing each word with his finger, and eventually summoned an older colleague. The latter read it easily enough but a smartphone might have floored him. He was digitally illiterate; the young man was just illiterate.
To end on a more positive note, Mr Modi was astute in winning Rupert Murdoch’s approbation. I have always said New Delhi’s policies (say, over Kashmir) would have enjoyed a powerful global champion if Murdoch had been allowed the opportunities he sought in India. China welcomed him, and both the BBC and Dalai Lama were banished from China’s print and electronic media.