As countries experience rapid growth, it is not unusual to see fault lines develop where the old edges up against the new. It is no different in India, although with a billion plus residents and burdensome poverty, the scale and magnitude of the fault lines remain formidable. What Mark Twain called the “cradle of the human race and the mother of history,” India continues to exist in multiple centuries at the same time.
Roads are clogged with late model automobiles, entire cities resemble construction sites, and consumer brands are everywhere, catering to the nation’s 30-and-under crowd, which makes up 50 percent of the population. Yet if you scratch the surface, the “old” patriarchal India – where tradition and ritual have always run deep – never seems too far away. Add technology, always the great equalizer, and nothing is the same anymore.
India has adopted technology with a passion over the last two decades, evident in the proliferation of broadband Internet and rapidly expanding public transportation networks (the groundbreaking New Delhi metro has just completed 10 years of service). But nothing epitomizes technology’s impact more than the ubiquitous mobile phone. With over 850 million active subscribers, it would not be an exaggeration to say that pretty much everyone in the country who wants one has one. One cannot underestimate the impact mobile telephony has had across the entire spectrum of the population, from street vendors to information workers.
Next page: The convenience of mobiles
The subziwallah (vegetable seller) at the bottom of the economic pyramid no longer has to push his cart in the 110 degree heat of the Indian summer. He can merely park under a shady tree in the neighborhood and wait for his customers to call him instead (incoming calls are free, so no extra cost either). On the other end, for the female office worker taking the notoriously dodgy public transport home after dark, there are the smartphone apps (for example, Fightback and Sentinel) where with one click she can:
- Alert a whole bunch of her Facebook friends as to her precise GPS location
- Send panic SMS text messages to a list of pre-identified individuals
- Notify mobile police precincts
At the enterprise level, the private sector is deploying technology to boost productivity and efficiency. Many would argue that they are also doing it to avoid dealing with labor laws that haven’t been fully updated since the passage of the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, the same year the country gained independence. Meanwhile, the government sees technology as a panacea to make up for its shortcomings in transparency and clean governance. Transparency International ranked India 94th in its overall 2012 corruption index, better than Somalia but a lot worse than Burkina Faso and China. Even Djibouti scored better.
Biometrics, GPS and public transport initiatives
While the massive Unique Identification scheme (UID, also known as “Aadhar”) is attracting a lot of attention on the global stage (biometric scans have been completed for 450 million people already), there is a whole slew of other technology driven initiatives that have taken hold, which are perhaps lesser known but equally powerful in their consumer impact. All 60,000 auto-rickshaws in Delhi (analogous to the 3-wheeled tuk-tuks seen in Thailand), for example, are being equipped with a GPS-enabled system. Now consumers would not be gouged on the fare and public safety officials can track the location of every vehicle in real-time, thanks to a new public-private partnership of the Government of India and IDFC, a private company focused on infrastructure development in India. A similar project is already underway for making this system available on the entire fleet of 11,000 public transport buses that ply through Delhi State.
Additionally, traffic police organizations in a large number of cities are actively using Facebook to interact with citizens and respond to routine complaints of parking and traffic-related issues (the page of Delhi Traffic Police has over 170,000 likes), while the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai now uses SAP ERP to run the megacity of 20 million residents.
Questions about privacy
For the average Indian, dealing with endemic corruption and graft is merely a part of life, you learn to deal with it. And which is why the public overwhelmingly approves of technology-focused initiatives like GPS-enabling auto-rickshaws and public buses – they are better alternatives than endlessly waiting for real change to happen. What tends to get lost in the technology debate, however, are the long-term implications of the massive amounts of data that the government is now collecting, and the impact this will have on an individual’s privacy. Given that a majority of the population’s biometric data will soon be collected, this is no longer a mere theoretical conversation. Of course, when basic law and order issues are still to be resolved, data privacy can seem like an unaffordable luxury.
Technology stirring up Indian society
Every school kid in India knows about the legend of the churning of the oceans (Samudra-manthan in Sanskrit) where the forces of good and evil worked together in search of a lifesaving elixir. From making the government more responsive to radically changing social norms, technology is churning Indian society in ways just as radical and unimaginable. Hopefully, it won’t be long before Twain’s cradle of the human race will have both feet firmly planted in the twenty-first century.