Atanu Dey On India's Development

Seduced by ICT

Yesterday I started writing about the ICT for development meeting I was at held at ICRISAT at Hyderabad earlier this week. The usual suspects were in attendance. I had met many of them at the MS Swaminathan Policy Makers’ Conference at Chennai a few months ago. One face new to me was Prof Ken Keniston of MIT who gave an opening address.

He made five cautionary points which are worth noting. They are:

  • Do not get seduced by ICT
  • Localize, localize, localize
  • Do realistic cost projections
  • Given the complexity of systems, choose operators with extreme care
  • Be patient

The use of ICT tools for development is a no-brainer. But it is a mistake to think that a Pentium4 in every village will solve India’s developmental problems. The point one has to pay special attention to is to examine the entire set of ICT tools and then choose ones that are appropriate to the task. Information and communications technology tools are not limited to PCs and internet connections. There are many other tools such as radio (both FM and shortwave), ham radio, and TV which may be more cost effective and relevant in a given context.

Recently I came across a news item which said that they are looking at solving Mumbai’s traffic problems by making Mumbai roads “electronic intelligent roads.” I don’t have the slightest doubt that it would involve huge outlays to the tune of millions of dollars and lots of people will make lots of money up and down the line providing expertise and hardware and software for this hi-tech venture. I am also convinced that it will not make the slightest effect on the congested Mumbai roads because it is not the roads that need the intelligence but the people designing the roads that need to be intelligent.

Close to where I live in Kandivali, a suburb in North Mumbai, there is an intersection that is almost always caught in a grid-lock. The intersection is like an “H” with bi-direction flow of traffic along all the sections and it has one traffic signal at one of the points where the horizontal section meets the vertical sections. Traffic gets log-jammed around 300 meters of this intersection and it takes about a half hour to cross this bit every evening. Hundreds of autorickshaws, buses, cars, trucks, two-wheelers, and whatnots spew exhaust fumes and honk continually and people suffer. It is astonishing that the traffic people have not figured out that the simplest thing to do would be to paint some part of this intersection with the “KEEP CLEAR — DO NOT BLOCK” sections and put a couple of traffic cops to teach the people to keep off these sections. It would be a simple effective system which would cost very little compared to the enormous price that everyone pays throughout the day due to the congestion.

Instead, the Mumbai municipal corporation is investigating ways of using electronics. Why not better road markings and so on? Because there is not much money involved in a simpler but more effective system. Simpler may be better but there is not much profit in it. A blackboard, a teacher, and a dozen slates and some chalk may be simpler and better for adult education, but there is not as much profit as in putting PCs with literacy programs to teach adults how to read in rural areas.

PCs have powerful lobbies to promote their use. Chalkboards, radios, TVs, etc, don’t have that. Put it this way: the manufacturers of expensive shiny new hammers need people to be convinced that every problem is a nail and that everyone should have a shiny new expensive hammer. Never mind that sometimes a rusty screwdriver is better at a particular task than a shiny new expensive hammer.

HP, Microsoft, Intel and others of its tribe have to keep pushing their products. For impoverished people who can barely afford food, finding the most cost-effective solution is more important. But doing that involves much hard thinking and for those who make the decisions, there is not as much money in it. So the poor get saddled with expensive but ineffective solutions.

I should hasten to add that I am not a Luddite. I don’t need to be convinced of the extreme utility of computers and connectivity. Not only am I a user of these technologies, I have studied computer science and have worked for computer corporations. Some of my best friends are computer geeks (there but for the grace of god go I.) My concern is that PCs and the internet are crowding out the other more effective technologies that could help India develop.

  • http://mblog.com/forsv/ SV

    I agree that Information and communications tools are not limited to computers and yes there are many other tools such as radio (both FM and shortwave), ham radio, and TV which may be more cost effective and relevant in a given context.

    But in India the radio and TV medium has done more damage than good. It has eroded the ethos of the masses. We need a more aware and willing media and in that I would include the publishing industry too.

  • Akila

    Naturally people get carried away by new technology thinking that is going to bring wonders. The internet and computers are no way exceptions.
    Nowadays many people feel if they loose their mobile they may loose their contacts from the whole world and once for all they are lost including me . I am not talking about the business magnets but very ordinary India citizen nowadays .I really feel proud of my country’s development.
    An example to quote the passenger, a villager sitting next to me, in the bus had her mobile ringing. She wanted to show that she has a mobile by allowing it to ring for a longer time or is she new to her mobile ring tone? then later…… after everyone turned back at her… after drawing everyone’s attention she picked up her handset at last and started ……..Blaa Blaa Blaa and her conversation went on and on and on.
    I had my own doubts whether her mobile connection is prepaid or post paid? Can she afford the cost? Who will pay her bill? From her conversation I could infer her husband is a farmer and she is speaking everything under the sun to her mother ……May be for more than an hour….

    People watch the TV listen to the radio and now they talk A real communication era we are all living in ……..But what are these communications for? I do not blame everyone but many do such communications for their own reasons. I heard my cell ringing “Hai Shall I wait in the bus stop to pick you up” I said “yes” to my husband and ended the call. I immediately checked my balance it said Re 1.00 for the call which I answered yes and the remaining balance is RS.85.50……

    So we should not under estimate the latest communication tool as well. As Edward De Bano rightly says in his writings every one has their own logic bubbles. The worries I had about her economic feasibility is hypothetical and a waste of exercise .It is like an economist worrying for the whole country were we have lots of population to such logic bubble categories …..

    Certain technologies cannot be curtailed by anybody entering the system. They are mandatory no one can prevent .Aftermath of the introduction of the new ICT tool
    The System has to have a different sector of people to worry for that to streamline that. To plan, to execute….and to put all their life to maintain some balance
    But one thing for sure these ICT will give a wider contacts, better to and fro information flow what we call an information exchange sometimes even to the international levels at a very high speed @ the speed of thought by a click of a mouse ….
    Good and bad are the part and parcel of any system (two sides of the coin) many times it may not be good, but for some people it may be very good…..It is all about how the end users are going to use the technology but the rural India in once again getting another fair chance ……Hope it is for good

    Akilakalai

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