Data Is Not Merely The New Oil, It's The New Roti

by RANJAN SREEDHARAN - Sep 5, 2021 11:57 AM +05:30 IST
Data Is Not Merely The New Oil, It's The New Roti A child speaking on a mobile phone. (Pixabay)
Snapshot
  • The rules of the development game have been rewritten and our development metrics must take account of it.

These days, we often hear that data is the new oil. By now, it’s come to be widely accepted and not contested anymore. As true as undoubtedly it is, I believe it’s missing out on a silent revolution that’s swept through India in recent years.

I first got a hint of it at my workplace. From the parking lot to my office, the easier way is to take a staircase that is the fire exit. As I make my way up, I often come across some of our housekeeping staff taking a break here. They work in a shift that begins before the regular hours so that the first round of sweeping and dusting is done by opening time. They’ll be seated on the steps in small groups of twos and threes. Almost always I see them peering intently into their smartphone screens, watching some video or the other. They are all beneficiaries of the spread of smartphones and the availability of cheap 4G data.

India, these days, has the cheapest rates for 4G data anywhere in the world, and that has spurred the sales of low-end smartphones even among the relatively poor. Back in 2014, the average data consumed per subscriber in India was 3.2 GB for which they paid a price of Rs.269 per GB. By 2020, the cost had plunged to just Rs. 10.9 per GB, and data consumption expanded to 141 GB/person. In 2020, the number of smartphone subscriptions stood at 810 million (72 per cent of total mobile subscriptions) which is expected to touch 1.2 billion by 2026, or 98 per cent of total subscriptions.

The housekeeping staff that I mentioned are outsourced employees who likely work at minimum wages. All the same, thanks to their smartphones and access to dirt-cheap data, the poor in India have suddenly gained access to the content on the web, be it information, entertainment or their newly opened bank accounts and government portals dispensing services and welfare payments.

Access to data has been levelled, data has been democratised, e-commerce and e-payments have taken off and penetrated even the rural hinterlands.

In the decades after Independence, the major concerns of the common people in India were summed up by the catchy slogan, “roti, kapda, aur makaan” (bread, clothing, and shelter). With the mobile and smartphone revolution in India, data has become the new oil, or so we are told.

However, the radical thesis I’d like to put forward here is that things have moved even further, that we have come to a stage where data is more than the new oil. But before I get there, let me digress into some thoughts about development economics, and the signalling metrics we use to capture our state of development and standard of living.

Consider the possibility that some of our development metrics, devised by well-meaning economists no doubt, may have become less relevant, or even irrelevant, as the economy undergoes transformational macro shifts. For this article, a macro shift is a paradigm shift (unfortunately a much-abused term) that has economic underpinnings.

As macro shifts begin and advance over the economy, the economic-signalling metrics in use at the time may lose relevance and become less effective at capturing the underlying reality they were meant to represent.

For example, going by the popular human development index (HDI), countries like Cuba and the erstwhile East Germany did very well, yet their people kept on fleeing to the West at the first available opportunity. What HDI never could capture is that human beings are fundamentally aspirational beings and quite averse to extended life in a well-fed zoo. And so, in East Germany, where the physical quality of life was perhaps the best of any communist country, many wanted to drive real cars, not the toy cars they got in their zoo.

Another example. Many Western economists on the left who constantly bemoan rising inequality keep pointing to how growth of wages has stagnated in the US, and how a large part of the current generation have seen a fall in real earnings compared to their parent’s generation. Indeed, going by their metrics, they have a good case. But then, the inconvenient fact remains, almost no one of sane mind wants to go back to a life without access to smartphones and streaming movies, and all the wonderful day-to-day conveniences of the modern digital world. And so, economists who continue to look at only the traditional metrics to assess development and progress in a developing economy (related to income, nutrition and the like) may be missing out on something that people themselves would consider as having improved their lives dramatically.

For poor people at the margins, a disproportionate amount of time is spent on subsistence and maintenance activities. Free them of these chores and the time saved can then be used for quality leisure, or for productive, income-generating activities which becomes a lever to improve earnings.

Think of the time that goes in collecting firewood that gets saved with access to cooking gas, or in collecting drinking water from distant common wells and taps which is avoided when taps bring water into homes. Likewise, the rise of digital India and the access to quality-of-life transforming products and service it has delivered to a surging population of smartphone users, directly contributes to, and significantly enhances, their sense of well-being. And those development economists who labour on unmindful of this orbital shift are quite simply behind the curve. For they have failed to take account of the transformative impact of the digital economy on common lives.

When people move on to new purposes and paradigms, economists must keep pace, else their writings and perorations will matter only within echo chambers. Data is not merely the new oil; data has become the new roti.

What difference does it make? For long India was the land of snake-charmers, of teeming masses ill-fed and ill-clothed, of open defecation, of cooking on open fires in smoke-filled kitchens, and of curvaceous village belles adroitly balancing multiple pots of water on their heads and hips. Ask yourself, how much of this has changed in recent years, and how much is changing rapidly? And then, ask yourself, if data is the new roti, how well-fed are the people of India?

The numbers are crystal clear.

The rules of the development game have been rewritten and our development metrics must take account of it.

Ranjan Sreedharan is an occasional writer who had written for Centre Right India between 2012 and 2014. He can be reached on email at ranjansr@yahoo.com

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