Q: You have been wearing two hats; for the first time one selector has looked after both Information Technology (IT) and telecom. What are your current priorities and has your world really changed because of that?
A: My world view has not changed, but I think I have a slightly better understanding of the complete picture, including both the possibilities as well as the hurdles. But based on what I have seen, I think we are about to enter a very exciting phase. In fact, we are already in it…we are at the initial stages of that very exciting phase. Let me explain what exactly that is. We are getting into a phase where the spread of voice services throughout the country is fast approaching a platter. Of course, we still have some way to go in the rural areas but considering where we started from about 10-years ago, it would not be an exaggeration to say that we are fast reaching the peak. Some would consider that as having reached maturity, but it’s actually beginning of the next phase. This phase is mainly about data and services, value-added services of all kinds and broadband services. In India, broadband services would be driven by two things. First is entertainment, because it always is a big business in India. But that depends again on convergence, whether we are able to subsume cable within this framework, cable and broadcasting. The growth of services on this broadband is critical.
The second is the government itself. The social sector services are largely dominated by the government and they have the potential of being great drivers of the broadband. For example, the need and willingness to spend on education or the desire for education is extremely high in our country, right down to the smallest village. But, because of the limitations of the public sector, people in many cases are spending a lot of money getting education of a very dubious quality. So, the availability of relatively high quality of education has the potential of being a big driver for the broadband. Health services too have a universal requirement and, given the lack of high quality medical care in terms of the first level care in the rural areas, there again are immense possibilities. So, there are possibilities, which exist both in the government and outside. Many of these require a transition, which has to be steered and driven by the people. Having seen this potential, a national broadband initiative is now under way. TRAI has also come out with recommendations and we are now entering the largescale roll out phase for broadband connectivity, both through optical fiber and wireless technologies. These initiatives would take broadband right to the last village in the country. It would then become possible over the next 2-3 years to actually have services, which reach every corner of the country and which require a ride on broadband. One is trying to create an environment where such services are possible.
Now, even if you have created such an environment, for things to actually happen is a very major thing. That requires a completely different eco-system in terms of people, and companies, and ideas, and application development, and so on. I think there are three elements to this – technology, creativity and actual content. For example, if you create an educational software, there is a technological part – where there is coding and all sort of stuff – and an artistic part – where you make it more appealing and attractive. And then there is actual content part, which is the substance of what is being presented. Putting these three parts together requires the kind of entrepreneurial ability, which is best achieved by creating and enabling an ecosystem where not just a thousand but a million flowers bloom. The policy challenge is to combine those things, which the government alone can do, with the need to create a system in which the government doesn’t act as a stifling influence on the emergence of this kind of ecosystem. For us, I think, the advantage is that we have all the pieces in place. But aligning them is the key function of policy going forward.
Q: In the past 7-8 years reforms have been in high gear and there’s talk about India growth rate story. But if you look at two very key parameters – e-readiness index and human development index – we are possibly worse off than we were before. Same is the situation with income and equities. What is the learning from all of this and how will you address some of these issues?
A: It can create a situation where people who are either wealthy or literate can benefit, or if it is done in a different way it can actually work as a bridge and make for a more equitable access to opportunities. Quite frankly, my view is that it is not technology, which is the arbitrator of which way it goes, it is other forces that exist in society. These very forces are also responsible for controlling the manner in which technology is used. If the whole environment is driving the system in a direction in which divisions or inequities increase, technology is not going to suddenly reverse the direction.
Q: There seems to be lots happening in the different spheres of digital, social and financial inclusion. But is there any way of finding a better coordination mechanism so that everyone works in tandem. How do we solve this issue?
A: In my view, it is simply impossible in a country of India’s size and magnitude to have coordination in the nature of a national blueprint where there is a clear plan, everybody knows exactly what they want to do, and there is some mastermind who is articulating this grand plan. That’s not our model – in any case it’s not a system, which is supportive of that kind of a pattern. For example, people often talk about China as having a much more structured and organised model. Our model is slightly different in the sense that it is actually based on a large number of people doing different things and then aligning them through policy.
“Financial inclusion does not necessarily have to await broadband; financial inclusion steps can and are being put in place even as we speak”
Look at liberalisation for example – it means releasing market forces, releasing initiative of individual people and trying to unlock different kinds of potential. So, the same principles would apply here because they are more effective in a democratic environment. Now to the question of how do you coordinate? When the whole stated purpose is to achieve a more inclusive society and if that is the goal which is being pursued independently both from the points of financial inclusion and digital inclusion, they will have to converge even through natural forces to a certain extent. The risks are there. For example, we have seen that non-standardisation does not only produce islands but actually prevents coordination down the line. Here the role of public policy is important. It has to identify and ensure those points where all these support and mutually reinforce each other rather than becoming impediments to the other.
Q: Given the federal structure of India, don’t you think that technology has an important role to play in integrating planning objectives instead of everybody working in different silos. So while constitutionally they remain independent initiatives but horizontal linkages are formed through technology. Would that be one of the priorities in the twelfth plan?
A: I think, one key point is about silo busting. It’s like saying that if two people are not talking to each other, provide them with a telephone. The thing is that technology only helps you to do those things, which you want to do. In some areas there is an effort to coordinate, but it’s not very successful because of the limitations of size, scale and other kinds of complexity.
Q: How do you make people to do what they don’t want to do. So within the government what is the framework that is happening for people to start talking to each other and coordinating?
A: I made this point specifically in response to your question on how to ensure better coordination using technology. As I was saying, the need is to create the mechanics of coordination first and then use technology to support that, rather than the other way around. That is the main point. Also, there are lots of people trying to bring about improvements in the system in their own limited domains. Not only does technology offer a fantastic opportunity to make those changes effective, but also, from a long-term prospective, to make them permanent and nonreversible. We have to use technology in an intelligent manner and not look at it as a panacea for every problem.
Q: Any specific plan you have for financial inclusion. You talked about health and education; financial inclusion is, of course, the logical third focus area…
A: The only reason I didn’t mention financial inclusion is not because it’s less important – it’s more important in many ways than others – but it’s not particularly bandwidth intensive. Financial inclusion does not necessarily have to await broadband; financial inclusions steps can and are being put in place even as we speak. It’s absolutely clear that the mobile has to be the principle instrument for achieving a much higher level of financial inclusion. This has happened much more easily in Africa for the simple reason that they actually had no other way of doing it. The fact that we have made more progress in rural areas than Africa in terms of availability of connectivity or Intranet access, etc., may have actually been a diversion and a disadvantage in achieving the full potential that the mobile could have had in India. I think, in the field of financial inclusion we definitely do need to work that to its logical conclusions. We have taken steps in that direction, but we need to do more to reach a completely unified model for financial inclusion between the mobile networks and the financial system.