digital-worldAs the Indian political upheaval shows, Indians are fed up with government inaction and corruption . They want accountability, better education and healthcare , and prosperity. And they want them now. 

Technology-led solutions may be the only way for India’s new government to rapidly uplift its population. Large-scale government programmes and social welfare will take too long. Take education as an example. Tens of millions of children receive substandard education or none at all. It will take years to train new teachers and build schools, and an entire generation will be left out. The only practical solution is to roll out digital tutors with the help of NGOs so that communities can uplift themselves. 

This might seem like a utopian dream by a professor in Silicon Valley. But it could be a reality. Landlines were once scarce, unreliable and unaffordable. Now, India has amongst the best and cheapest phone connections in the world and a billion cellphones. 

Tremendous possibilities are opening up as cellphones evolve into smartphones – which provide internet access and run apps – and tablet computers become as cheap as cellphones. Most of India now has affordable 3G or 4G data connections. This means that India’s masses will soon have access to the same tools and knowledge as the elite of Silicon Valley. They can watch YouTube videos, visit websites, download apps, and network with people from all over the world. They can crowdsource solutions to problems and accelerate social change. 

To transform its education system, Uruguay started an ambitious project in 2008 to give a laptop to every child. According to Miguel Brechner, who heads this programme, it has turned a privilege – the internet and a computer – into a right. It has enabled every child to get a basic education – even in regions where teachers are in scarce supply. Children in Uruguay are writing computer code and creating apps. This, and more, could happen in India. 

India’s Aakash project had a rocky start, but led to the production of inexpensive tablets now being used by children in Silicon Valley. American children love the India-made tablets. These tablets with the capabilities of the original iPad can be produced in high volumes in India for less than Rs 3,000, according to Datawind, maker of the original Aakash tablets. Prices will continue to fall, and capabilities will increase. There are thousands of apps available today that, running on these tablets, can teach subjects such as history, geography, music, maths, and science. The digital tutor of the future can provide equally good education to all kids – rich and poor. 

India’s populace can also help rein in corruption. To facilitate the recording and reporting of corruption, there need to be government-supported , but privately managed, websites such as Ipaidabribe. com as well as smartphone apps. E-governance needs to be implemented at both national and state level. All government tenders and procurement, budget reporting, and status monitoring need to be transparent, the data being made immediately available to the public via the Internet. Social welfare should be distributed directly to recipients via their Aadhar numbers using secure systems. Companies such as Kolkata-based Quantta use sophisticated data analytics to find patterns and trends in commercial data. Their technologies can be adapted to monitor public data and independently report on corruption and abuse. The key is to automate procurement processes , cutting out the middlemen who allow corruption to thrive; reduce bureaucracy; and eliminate the information gap. 

Advancing technologies can also dramatically improve healthcare. The leading causes of disease in India are water-borne viruses. A technology from Chile could help solve this problem. The Advanced Innovation Center has developed a system that converts water into a plasma state and eliminates microbiological content. It has been tested by the leading US authority, NSF International, and it exceeded NSF’s highest standards by killing 100% of all bacteria and viruses. Village-sized units of this plasmabased water-sanitization technology – which consume less energy than a hairdryer – will cost around $500 when mass produced. This technology is being rolled out in South America later this year, and could also be brought to India. 

At the most basic level, what is lacking in India is knowledge of disease prevention and cure. Using smartphones or tablets, anyone can read about the latest medical advances, visit online health-discussion forums, and learn from others who have the same symptoms. Villagers in remote parts of India can seek help from doctors anywhere in the world. 

Technology has levelled the playing field, and the same advances that are propelling American innovation are available to India. The new government has to give priority to technology infrastructure so that it can reinvent India. 

  • Siddharth Bal

    I respect the emphasis on online services to broaden accessibility to free courses: Coursera, Khan Academy, etc. But, India’s economic problems will only be addressed through a merging of competent leadership: adherence to the law, sound economic practices, and respect for minorities. Technology can play a role; but it is not the panacea that will resolve every single issue.