"The digital divide is also about a divide in the mindset"

Sam Pitroda, regarded by many as the father of India’s telecom revolution, was in India recently for the Fourth Annual Baramati Initiative on ICT and Development. Kushal P S Yadav caught up with him

By Kushal Pal Singh Yadav
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

On the IT revolution and his brainchild, the ubiquitous PCO booths:
We planted the seed for the information technology (it) revolution in India in mid-1980s. When we started, we needed infrastructure, access -- wired or wireless, content and applications. std/pcos was an answer to the fact that there was no way India could improve telecom density substantially with the resources we had, but we could improve access quickly by providing 600,000 public phones. Now the challenge is to upgrade these to Internet kiosks.

But STD/PCOs owners are in trouble...
You know, 15-20 years is a long time for a business model to hold. So this should have been expected, but as usual in India we do not prepare ourselves for such changes. Now we have 50 million cellphones, long distance prices slashed to 10 per cent of what it was. Where would std/pcos get their revenues from?

How do we bail them out?
I have been experimenting in converting std/pcos into transaction centres. The merchant gets 2-5 per cent commission. His income level goes up and the whole model becomes financially viable. I am convinced that in the next three to five years all 600,000 std/pcos will be converted. But this requires sustainable applications, scalable -- otherwise you will not really reach out to large numbers -- and simple.

How does this work?
What we need is a standard smart phone. On that telephone I have a wallet, a digital wallet. I open this wallet and I would be connected to a bank account of my own. And this is highly secured. From here I can instruct my bank to transfer my money. The idea is to give the std/pcos one of these phones -- could be wired or wireless -- where one can go, have an account or a special number and conduct financial transactions. So to pay my phone bill or get a rail ticket, I go to this transaction centre, take this device, punch in some numbers, and conduct transactions and give him money for enabling the transaction.

This will require infrastructure
The beauty of this is that the infrastructure is already there.

And the time frame?
It is still very early. We have talked to some banks and telecom operators. We had a trial with Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited in Mumbai. This is the technology I developed in the us, and have ten patents on it. We have launched this in Japan, though for a different application. In Japan almost every consumer has a smart phone, so its their own wallet, they do not need to go to an std/pco. The Indian model would be to empower a merchant. That would be the basic difference.

Can ICTs propel development?
Unfortunately we are busy computerising our old processes, as opposed to questioning those processes and changing the nature of conducting business. To me this is the biggest challenge: question what we have, redesign the systems and then use it to improve productivity and efficiency, reduce cost and improve access. This requires different kind of linkages. We need to go beyond it professionals, beyond the realm of technology into the minds of people. I would like to get social scientists involved, because only then will we understand what it takes to bring about generational change in mindset. Think: how do I convince the rural population to change, to do things differently? And what does it take to convince government to redesign these processes?

What technological issues are involved in e-goverment?
To me the technology is all here: wireless, broadband, software, access, wifi, you name it. The question is how do we create new business models and make it cost effective for a large number of people to use. There are some great experiments going on in India for the rural community in applications related to fisheries, agriculture, education, and health, but until we focus on new dynamics of doing business it will be hard to scale some of these applications.

55 years after independence, everybody wants five copies of the same form. I want every form to start from scratch. Every time I come here I see this piece of paper that I need to fill in for customs. I don't know what they do with it. Everyday they collect millions of these, what happens to it, nobody is asking.

Everybody is filling more and more papers. I think until we create pressure on the government to rethink through everyone of these processes, nothing much will happen. I want to question the basic process. If collectively we can do that I think we will bring a lot more to our rural communities. They need simplicity, they need less governance, less interference; they need flexibility, information, knowledge, and improve their productivity and efficiency, so that they can generate more jobs, and really narrow this digital divide. The digital divide is not about just equipment, software, computers and access. It is also about divide in the mindset. And if we can help bridge that mindset, I think we would have done a great service.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.