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Going ahead on the digital path

To achieve a trillion-dollar economy, India needs to ensure stable mobile connectivity and local apps that can help every business go digital.

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To achieve a trillion-dollar economy, India needs to ensure stable mobile connectivity and local apps that can help every business go digital.

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By Dr. Ganesh Natarajan

Twenty-five years ago, I was speaking at a conference in Mumbai where Prof. Pankaj Ghemawat from Harvard mentioned, “We spent many years in the sixties and seventies waiting for a telephone and then years with our land phones waiting for a dial tone. One can only hope that India will find some way to leapfrog.” Ten years later, I was listening to a keynote by Sam Pitroda in Ahmedabad where he spoke about his stellar achievement getting the Department of Telecom (DoT) to work and started the revolution of STD-ISD-PCO centres everywhere in the country. And in an almost unobtrusive manner, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-government in 1999 implemented a key policy reform in 1999, separating policy formulation and service provision and giving birth to the BSNL.

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It is amazing to see how industries have been transformed through

the proliferation of internet and availability of mobile phones in most

hands in the country.

From a country which looked at a telephone as a luxury in my childhood, we are today the proud users of over 800 million mobile phones, a substantial chunk of the five billion-plus phones in use all over the world. Thanks to the burgeoning young and tech-savvy population in the country, the rapid rise of e-commerce and mobile-commerce in the country in the last decade and intense competition driving down prices of smartphone handsets, India has far exceeded every target for telecom penetration and teledensity. This is something to be proud of. And while a lot of people may be given the credit, from Rajiv Gandhi to Sam Pitroda to Vajpayee, we should all take credit and be as proud of the Telecom Policy of the nineties as we are of the Software Technology Parks of India scheme of the eighties. One created a global winner in software services while the other enabled us to leapfrog in mobility to world-class levels.

Watching from close quarters as a participant and evangelist for connectivity in the country, it is amazing to see how many industries and service segments have been transformed through the proliferation of the internet and the availability of the mobile phone in most hands in the country. In the education segment, where I did my first CEO role at APTECH, the mobile phone did not really come into significant use because of the weak response to early attempts at e-Learning and MOOCs. But in recent times, with digital learning platforms like Skills Alpha totally transforming the efficacy of learning, using personalization, adaptive learning, artificial intelligence, e-mentoring and peer group learning, the access to learning content through mobile phones any time and any place has led to a sharp uptick in usage.

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Post-COVID, with the need for social distancing, one can expect to see every learner, from the age group of five to 75 reach out for their smartphones for at least pre-requite, remedial or reinforcement learning.

The same is naturally true for skills development. Our own public-private partnership for digital literacy, school education, and employable skills development, Pune City Connect has seen all our learners move seamlessly online thanks to the availability of at least one smartphone in every family, even in the Pune slums. After our weak early results as a nation in skills development, with poor employment rates and major drop-outs thereafter, one can hope to see a new revolution in future for preparing youth for employment and entrepreneurship.

In the manufacturing industry, it has been the introduction of automation and the internet of things (IoT) which has driven the use of mobile phones to be “always connected” with happenings in the factory. With data flowing through the IoT pipes from the shop floor and mingling with process and supply chain data from the enterprise resource planning systems, the data warehouses, and data marts are able to process large volumes of disparate information, provide business intelligence and serve up dashboards and predictive and prescriptive actionable insights to the mobile phones of the concerned folks. Supply and demand chain participants are constantly updated through their phones and even in agriculture, crop data is retrieved through drones and made available from farm to fork on every consumer’s phone.

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The services industry players have predictably been the biggest beneficiaries of the mobile revolution. Banking has been transformed beyond recognition with service like SBI’s YONO bringing amazing user convenience to the common man. Insurance, financial services, access to government services and other areas have been transformed and of course in healthcare, a revival of interest in telemedicine has happened, thanks to a large number of video conferencing apps on the mobile handset, enabling easy consultation and healthcare services on demand.

All readers of this special issue would know that while the dream of a five trillion dollar GDP for our country may have to be pushed back from the original target set by this government for 2024, the goal of a trillion-dollar digital India can be realized if we build on the amazing success of JAM – Jan Dhan, Aadhar, and mobile phone – trinity. The India stack in financial services has become truly world-class, almost the entire country has been registered under the unique identity system and the mobile phone numbers keep growing. With the new one lakh crore plus investment in the Jio Platform, one can assume that mobile telephony will receive a substantial fillip in the next few years and quantum computing and 5G innovations will enable mobile usage at an unprecedented scale.

However, there is one note of caution that could put the brakes on the Digital India story. The trillion dollars will see a contribution of not more than a third from the IT sector itself and a whole bunch of IT-enabled shared economy and platform-based services will constitute that other two-third. This will need both urban and rural participation and the infrastructure has to be available.

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The much-promised BharatNet or the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) must indeed be laid and energize each of the two hundred thousand gram panchayats and a majority of our six hundred thousand villages with high speed or at least adequate connectivity. Mobile phones need that connectivity stability to continue to play their stellar role and entrepreneurs must continue to build and deploy the killer Atmanirbhar apps that will ensure that every business goes digital and we march quickly towards the tryst with a trillion-dollar digital destiny.

The author Dr. Ganesh Natarajan is Founder and Chairman of 5F World and Co-founder of Global Talent Track, Kalzoom Advisors and the Center for AI & Advanced Analytics

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