Atanu Dey On India's Development

A Rational IT Policy: The Introductory Bits

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Follow up to BJP’s Policy of “IT for All”.

In the following, I will present the features of a rational “IT Policy” and argue why it makes sense. This is only an academic exercise as this is not likely to be followed by the policymakers of India. Color me cynical but if Indian policymakers were in the habit of making rational policies, India would not be a desperately poor country, would it? Why India gets saddled with moth eaten policies made by inept policymakers is a different matter that we will save for a rainy day. But first, let’s talk IT and what it is.

Information technology (IT) – like most other technologies – provides tools and ultimately it is valued for utilitarian purposes. One generally does not care for the technology so much as care for what it allows one to do. All tools are merely means and are not ends. Technology tools are not terminal values, so to speak. Neither is possessing tools a good thing merely because it is a nifty tool and is of no utility. Confusing means and ends is not very clever but people frequently do it with predictably negative outcomes.

There is something special about information technology that it immediately attracts the worst sort of confused thinking. Food growing and processing technology, just to take a random example, is extremely valuable for feeding the starving billions. Yet it does not attract the sort of attention that information technology does. The reason could be that food processing technology is generally hidden behind factory walls and the shelves full of food in supermarkets and grocery stores don’t immediately bring to mind the fact that technology was intimately involved in the process. That technology is not visible.

IT technology is very visible. Computers, mobile phones, music players, cameras – a whole range of gizmos with bells and whistles are plainly evident. Not just that, they are what rich people have. Rich people living in rich countries have plenty of IT goodies. From there, it is only short hop skip and jump to the illogical conclusion that if one had IT goodies, one would be rich. It’s like saying, “Rich people drive around in BMWs. Poverty stricken people don’t drive around in BMWs. So if we gave every poverty stricken family a BMW, poverty will be eradicated.”

Actually that BMW example is ridiculous but not any more ridiculous than attempting to help the abjectly poor – so poor that they don’t have a clean drinking water, no sanitation, no health care, no education, and cannot afford to feed their children – by giving them access to last-mile 2 mbps broadband access, laptop computers, smart phones, and a digital identity card.

Let me repeat the implicit argument that propels the sort of IT policy such as the BJP recently declared. It goes like this: “Advanced industrialized countries use a lot of IT tools. If we gave the very poor these tools, our economy will become an advanced industrialized country.”
They confuse cause with consequence. Only after a sufficient amount of development has taken place can IT tools be developed and subsequently used. Below a certain threshold of development, IT tools are pretty worthless. Beyond that threshold, IT tools can accelerate development and are indispensible.

Let’s review what the development experience of the currently advanced industrialized countries has been. They were at one point about a century ago as poor and underdeveloped as many part of present day India. They did not have access to IT, just like most of present day India. Not only did they develop from that low level, they eventually developed the IT tools. Martians did not descend from flying saucers and hand over the technology to them.

That last point needs emphasizing. The economy co-evolved with the technology that it developed. There was co-development: the technology developed together with the human resources required to use that technology. It is a question of balance. And the balance is between the ability of the population to use the tools of IT on the one hand (the demand side) and the development of those tools (the supply side.)

To elaborate just a bit further, they learned how to read and do arithmetic before they started using word processors and spread sheets. If they had been given Word and Excel by a Martian Bill Gates as a present before they knew how to develop these programs or even before they became literate and numerate, it would have been as useful as presenting a bicycle to a fish.

Sequencing matters. One has to learn how to read and write before attempting to do learn quantum mechanics.

This concludes the preamble to the IT policy document which I will release in the public interest. As a big supporter of free and open source content, I offer it for the political parties of India to adopt. There is of course no danger of any party actually taking it because firstly they are not that smart and secondly, this policy would actually help educate the population – which is the last thing these parties want as it will signal their exit from the matter of governing.

So there.

  • http://www.worldisgreen.com worldisgreen

    Nice one.

    What you said about these industrialized countries being as poor as India a 100 years back is something which most people do not grasp.

    A lot of educated Indians that I meet in Australia just does not grasp the point that Australia was poor at one point. In fact, most people do not understand the dynamic nature of a economy and the power of compounded growth.

    Migrant Indians here mock at the fact that the Aussie kids here need calculators to do maths. That many students do not go to university. However, they cannot grasp the fact that they are still one of the most developed and richest countries in the world without all students educated at the university level.

    In fact, Australia’s vocational training is a very successful solution.

    In terms of sequence they miss the productivity part too.

    For example, the weekly exercise of a motorized rubbish truck picking up garbage from 1000s of homes. All achieved by one employee coupled with standardised systems and technology.

    People see this and say, oh! labour is costly here and hence, they use machines. However, they miss the fact that technology and systems improved their productivity which in turn increased the real wages which is why the labour is expensive compared to a low productivity country like India. The costly labour is a consequence in this scenario of a high productivity country.

    Anyway, I have heard arguments of how India is richer than Australia and I just cannot continue discussions from there.

    Cheers

  • AG

    Superb.

  • ghost_writer

    Very well written Atanu (as always!). More power to your blog. If I can tackle this from another angle – providing tools and 2mbps connectivity by itself may not be a bad thing. What parties and the intellectual elites in India have failed to do is to explain how these tools and connectivity will solve the problems the poor face.
    For example, government school teacher absenteeism is a HUGE problem in India, which can be circumvented by connectivity and e-learning. This does not have to be anything fancy – simply recording the lessons that an urban kid receives in one of the fancy air-conditioned school in Delhi and relaying it over and over and over again to the not-so-fortunate (using tools and connectivity) will help. Or consider, digitizing government services to cut out middle men and touts; thus making government less corrupt.
    Of course – none of this will happen. In our system, these people are cynical enough to promise people toys that are of no use, and that never materialize in any case!