The Digital Empowerment Foundation and the Center for Development Policy and Practice hosted a conference in Hyderabad last week. The event, honored by Jayesh Ranjan, Principal Secretary, TI, Government of Telangana, celebrated 20 years of digital inclusion in which DEF succeeded in reaching 20 million people in 40,000 of the country’s most remote villages. Professor Syeda Sameen Fatima, former director of the College of Engineering, University of Osmania, gave the opening speech highlighting the impact of information technology on humanity.
It is common knowledge in the development sector that the lack of appropriate access to adequate technology is one of the main reasons for the stagnation of growth and the economic and social development of the regions. An example can help illustrate the point. India and China were both relatively poor and backward colonized countries, with relatively similar populations, in the 1950s but 70 years later, and China is the richest country in the world while the India still lags behind, being the 8th richest country in the world. So what made China grow so huge, leaving behind not only India, but much richer countries like the UK and Germany as well? While the exact causal relationship is much more complicated, with a variety of factors at play, a plausible answer is that China has focused on developing its infrastructure and technology with a tenacity almost unprecedented in history. .
The scope of the above analysis is not limited to transnational reviews and can easily be extended to review developments in smaller regions. Take the example of India itself. We can see that some states have grown much faster and more vigorously than others, although they have started on the same footing, or in many cases, on a much more backward foot than their less successful counterparts. Take, for example, the city of Hyderabad. The sleepy city where almost nothing happened 50 years ago is one of the most technologically sophisticated cities in the country. Not only that, but it is also the city that attracts the largest share of foreign direct investment (FDI) to India, was one of the first and only cities in which Microsoft established an overseas office and has been consistently ranked as the ‘Best city to live in India. Why has it gone from a relatively sleepy city to one of the country’s most dynamic tech capitals? Again, the response is similar to that of China, leading development forces towards improving technology and infrastructure. The story of how Microsoft set up its center in Hyderabad is an excellent illustrative point.
Bill Gates came to India in 1997, which was his first visit to India. Before Gates’ visit, a few Indian Microsoft employees were discussing opening a center in India. They pointed out that India has a lot of computer science students, who also have decent English skills and would make good employees. But despite the discussions, there was general hesitation, even among Indian employees. However, Gates’ visit allayed any hesitation. He was particularly impressed with the quality of the people he found in India and was very excited to start the center. Six months later, the plan was approved by Microsoft’s board of directors, and the company was to set up its first overseas center in Hyderabad. What happened during Bill Gates’ visit that made him overcome his initial hesitations? Well, the factor that played the biggest role was a presentation given to Gates by the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu. Naidu gave a PowerPoint presentation to Bill Gates on a laptop. Gates was surprised because he had never attended a government meeting where he was presented on a laptop. The incident put an end to all apprehensions for Gates.
However, the goals of city governance did not stop at simply getting multinational corporations (MNCs) to open service centers in Hyderabad, but went beyond that. Years before the central government’s “Digital India” plan, the Telangana state government already had a “Digital Telangana” plan, which was arguably much more comprehensive than that of the central government. When the central government launched its Digital India plan, Digital Telangana had already set similar goals and, in some cases, had already achieved them.
Digital Telangana aimed at the complete transformation of Telangana into a vast cyber-metropolitan state, making maximum use of new technologies. It was based on two economic pillars: supply and demand. On the supply side, it is about developing the appropriate infrastructure to allow the massive use of the Internet and similar technologies, that is to say to ensure that there is no insufficient supply issues facing consumers and businesses. It aims to secure a fiber optic Internet connection to all homes across the state. Simultaneously, it aims to establish around 3,000 WiFi hotspots in public places across the state. The ultimate goal is to ensure that absolutely no one is excluded from connecting to the Internet.
Unlike traditional macroeconomics, it is quite unfortunate that Say’s law does not work here, and therefore supply does not create its own demand. Increasing the Internet offer does not guarantee that people would use it. To combat this trend, the state government is also working on demand side issues. The state government plans to expand its digital training centers, which are located in various locations throughout the state. These centers actively engage with people and provide them with digital literacy. They help them learn to browse the web, buy and sell the web for better prices, network with their consumers, and more. Soon it is expected that each village in Telangana will have its own digital training center for its inhabitants.
Telangana has come a long way in its digital development, but there is still a long way to go. Proactive government policies would ensure that it gets there as soon as possible, and so it is hoped that the government will continue to do so with the same vigor that it has done so far.
The authors Amir Ullah Khan, Anjana Divakar are researchers at the Center for Development Policy and Practice (CDPP)