In tech, India has to think ‘Nation First’. The big tech companies are all owned and controlled by the US and China. They will not share it with India on our terms.
It is time to build our defences and our own tech champions. We can’t forever remain tech coolies and sepoys.
As the lockdown is slowly unwound in India, many sectors will slowly start resuming production and delivery of services. The process of unwinding will probably take more than three months, for public transport — the main indicator of the normalisation of economic activity — is still banned.
This offers us a clue which sectors will be the biggest beneficiaries of the Covid-19 pandemic: sectors that facilitate work without people moving to and from homes and workplaces.
There are two sectors that qualify under this definition: telecom and technology. They will be the biggest gainers from the lockdown and the subsequent easing of restrictions on people movement. During the lockdown, work-from-home, video conferencing and online delivery of products and services have become the norm.
When we move closer to normality, safe distancing norms will remain, and so will other measures needed to prevent the spread of infections, including spacing out of workplaces, provision of safe transport to workers, and regular health checks for staff.
This will inevitably push up costs for all companies and organisations. Which means even as we move out of lockdown mode, companies will move towards more tech solutions. And tech always needs telecom to carry out its work. Tech services are often delivered through telecom pipes. Companies will use technology to control total expenses on staff, which means fewer staff, costlier staff.
If India is able to cope with the lockdown in cities, it is at least partly due to the push it gave to digitisation in finance and the arrival of e-commerce platforms and technologies that deliver products and services to your doorstep.
This means the Narendra Modi government needs to not only regulate foreign-owned tech platforms more stringently, but also enable the development of Indian-owned tech platforms. This is the only way to prevent India from remaining a tech sepoy.
This gives rise to five imperatives.
One, data localisation must now become the norm, for no country can cede sovereignty over the data of its citizens to foreign jurisdictions. In fact, the global platforms must, by law, be prevented from sharing the data they already have on Indian customers from any foreign government.
Some government-to-government deals on data sharing to prevent crimes may be essential, but data sovereignty is key. If the Indian approach is to let the customer own his data, it follows that this right can only be adjudicated in Indian courts and through Indian laws.
Two, the government must shift its start-up investment focus from backing companies to backing platforms. In the first tenure of Narendra Modi, the government promised Rs 10,000 crore for funding startups. But this makes little sense when startups can obtain their funding from multiple Indian and foreign venture capital and private equity companies.
What India really needs is its own Amazon, its own Uber, its own social media giant, its own payment platforms. The last is being enabled through the unified payments interface (UPI), Aadhaar-based identification, and the RuPay card.
But sooner than later, the government will have to take steps to promote and protect domestically-owned platforms by investing — or enabling the investment of domestic capital — in promising platforms. GeM (Government e-Marketplace), , is one such platform. If converted into a public-private partnership, it can be scaled up to allow all citizens to benefit from it.
A government-owned or backed taxi-hailing app is required to make the terms for drivers more beneficial. Uber and Ola tend to tilt the contract in their favour, making it tough for driver associates to make a decent living. A government-owned app along similar lines can be subsidised and made more favourable to drivers.
IRCTC, the railway ticketing platform, clearly can go places if it becomes the standard platform for travel and tourism beyond just railways. This can’t happen if it is run like any government organisation. Its monopoly in railway passenger ticketing must be used to make it a bigger platform than it currently is.
Three, India needs to invest heavily in promoting artificial intelligence usage, especially in areas of public priority. It should be used extensively in health data management, defence, and service delivery to citizens — but without compromising privacy. How the government manages this trick is crucial. The Arogya Setu, which is a useful app to help citizens stay clear of Covid-19 patients and hotspots, does not quite pass the privacy test. But presumably this can be remedied once the pandemic passes.
Four, manufacturing, IT and financial services and are no longer going to be huge generators of middle-class jobs. This means more jobs will become part-time, and/or require higher levels of skills. This makes skill acquisition key to higher wages, and this can’t be done without scaling up online education platforms.
The government has its Swayam platform for free (or moderately priced) online learning at various levels, but it is not finding the kind of traction needed among learners. Clearly, fresh thinking is needed here, including the infusion of private sector ideas and initiative.
Clearly, the offline content providers do not see much merit in promoting online education that will cannibalise their own revenue models. This needs to be changed. All educational institutions must focus on online education, by sacrificing high-revenues from few students to small revenues from millions of learners. Online learning certifications must be made equivalent to offline diplomas and degrees for employment
Five, technologies that use tech and telecom to expand small scale entrepreneurship need to be spread widely. For example, there is no reason why thousands of small enterprises cannot build businesses based on 3D printing technology, where designs for products are created in high-quality design houses and then made downloadable for free or for local 3D printing and sales.
Jobs are not going to be created in big companies employing thousands of employees, but small and cottage industries with a handful of employees that cater to niche and local markets using online tech platforms. Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of the self-sufficient village economy is going to happen not by sticking to the charkha, but by embracing tech platforms and making production local using high tech.
In tech, India has to think ‘Nation First’. The big tech companies are all owned and controlled by the US and China. They will not share it with India on our terms. It is time to build our defences and our own tech champions. We can’t forever remain tech coolies and sepoys.