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  Arun Shourie surveys IT - India

That an erudite, upright, fearless man like Arun Shourie could become a minister in India, is in itself good news. Times indeed are changing. He is a man without any political base but the evidence so far indicates, he has the freedom nevertheless, to be bold and creative. In a recent series of articles in the Indian Express, he roamed the world in his care: information technology.

Together, the four parts are rather long and without much structure. So, let’s try and get to the points he’s making.

He begins with the advantages that India enjoys and makes a very insightful observation. It is widely parroted that China is rapidly ‘learning’ English and will soon threaten India. Yes, English will come to the Chinese but not so easily, without institutions like democracy, courts, financial systems, free press, free trade, private enterprise etc, which together make an educated Indian, a unique person; plugged into the way the modern world works. Shourie says, ‘Indian firms are able to provide not just software… but complete business solutions.’ For the same reason, India will maintain its edge in the emerging disciplines of nanotechnology, tele-medicine, embedded software and others where ‘IT will be what arithmetic is to calculation.’

There is therefore hope that the $16 billion industry will grow. But do go easy before you swell too much. Microsoft alone does $32 billion and IBM, $81 billion. Even if India’s IT majors grew at 20% a year, we won’t get to the $50 billion we have set ourselves, for the near term. The way forward, is by catering to the vast domestic market. Opportunity lies in the fact, that only 15% of India’s IT revenue is from domestic markets.

Shourie rightly turns down suggestions of massive government spending on eGovernance projects. He reveals that already, ministries have been directed to spend 3% of their budgets on IT. But that has only resulted in hasty projects and idling investment. He says that unless developers build in ‘interoperability’, eGovernance will not take off. The good news for India is that we have a clean slate to start with and so can make for example, passports, visas, immigration and their various forms, ‘talk to each other’. He points out that 9/11 happened in the US because the FBI, immigration and IRS were not sufficiently integrated.

He is firmly averse to bringing the culture of reservations, as in small-scale industries. Innovations by small groups will readily find markets with very little help from the government. He goes on to list many exciting developments:
--IIT Delhi is working on a stand alone kiosk for villages without any connectivity. Buses fitted with the right gear, will download and upload email and data as they cruise past the villages, and then, transfer the cache to a connected computer.
--Chennai Kavigal , a small company, has produced Indian language clones of MS-Office for just Rs.1800/-
--WEBEL, Kolkata has developed IT products for the blind.
--C-DAC has a product that converts on-screen text to speech.
--F C Kohli, the legendary IT pioneer, has spearheaded a software that leapfrogs alphabet learning, and takes illiterates straight to reading.

Shourie feels --as would, C K Prahlad-- that this is where the markets are; not just in the government. He also indicates how, old mind-baggage can ruin the great Indian chase. India’s nearly-disenfranchised trade unions, have begun to covet the IT sector for their sustenance. They have begun to talk of the need to ‘organise’ the ‘exploited’ IT workers. Shourie however points to a fitting --and, delightful-- reaction: the Left Wing government in Bengal has named the IT industry a ‘public utility’, and hence beyond the Unions’ pale.

A more real threat to the on-going boom in call centres, BPOs and tele-working could be from privacy issues that many Indians are innocent of. He quotes an American expert as saying, “You are just one privacy incident away from disaster.”

Altogether, Shourie’s is a clear eyed romp over the entire IT industry. It is relieving to know that a well-informed, realistic, sober mind like his, presides over the IT ministry. You can read the full story starting here.