Feb. 22, 2018
“Technology, if used well for public good, can deliver lasting prosperity to mankind and a sustainable future for our planet.”
That was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking recently at the World Congress on Information Technology, an information and communications technology forum centered on addressing core challenges and successes in the ICT field. Since his election in 2014, Modi has been an advocate for increases in technological capacity and infrastructure to boost economic growth and trade. He’s also sought to enhance the delivery of basic services. One of his landmark programs, for instance, is the Make in India initiative, which aims to jettison India’s “Fragile-Five” label and shelter the nation from future crises through improved business conditions and increased foreign direct investment and manufacturing. In addition, Modi’s Digital India program hopes to fuel inclusive growth via improved internet access, connectivity, and digital literacy.
Naturally, these moves have stoked controversy. More specifically, many critics have pointed out that India is a nation with pressing challenges: its large malnourished population (14.5 percent of the total population), its staggering rates of violence against women, and its status as the country in the world with the highest number of people without access to appropriate sanitation facilities (732 million people). These issues won’t be solved by technological silver bullets alone.
Yet these criticisms suffer from a critical flaw: the fact that they perpetuate arguably outdated models of growth. Many of these arguments are rooted in the conventional line of thinking (often adapted from theories like Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth Model) that assumes that in order for a developing country to achieve modernization and economic growth, it has to follow a linear development model that divvies up progress into stages. Modi’s administration, however, seems to be bolstering a new model—one with the potential to reinvigorate India’s development.
According to linear conceptions of development, India—and other developing countries like it—ought to focus first on delivering, in both quantity and quality, basic necessities: health care, education, water and sanitation facilities, food. Only then should the country turn to investing more aggressively in flashy projects that promote higher levels of modernization.
But here’s the rub. If countries like India followed this rigidly linear model, eventually they’d succeed in delivering quality services at scale, but by the time these results, which can take decades to achieve, are visible, core industries like IT, which allow a nation to be competitive, would likely be dominated by developed nations. Developing nations would, once again, be at a disadvantage and subject to a Rostow 2.0 model. Just take a look at history. This either-or approach contributed to India’s missing out on the advantages of the Industrial Revolution, something the government is determined not to recreate with the rising Industry 4.0 wave. An emphasis on linear development also often encourages the use of blanket metrics, overemphasizes so-called first-world nations as ideal models of development (for instance, the United States, which, despite massive economic and technological growth, still has pressing inequality and socioeconomic challenges), and fails to account for country-specific contexts that may yield alternative models of development.
Modi’s approach to growth seems to be an attempt to implement such an alternative model. Rather than investing in either the provision of basic offline necessities or the development of enhanced technological capacity, Modi and his administration have an eye to doing both, simultaneously. Through programs such as Make in India, India can become a nation that’s strong infrastructurally and technologically and can compete on a global scale. It’s likely that, in the initial stages of this initiative, Indian elites and already-established businessmen will benefit more than the average person. However, through programs such as Digital India, the administration is also working to bring India’s rural population (the majority of which comprises the country’s 660 million-person unconnected population) into the fold.
What has this looked like? By galvanizing BharatNet, a government-established telecom infrastructure provider that operates under the National Optical Fibre Network, the government hopes to deliver broadband connectivity services of at least 100 Mbps to nearly 625,000 villages. Moreover, the administration has prioritized further developing initiatives like the Common Service Center program, which has enhanced digital integration in rural communities by establishing 725,000 kiosks around India to provide trainings on over 300 services.
At the same time, the Indian Government has worked to invest in offline services. One example of this is the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission, whose objective is to eliminate open defecation and promote increased hygiene by building 12 million toilets in rural areas of the country. The government also recently announced a new health-care program that would provide free health care to some 500 million people. As well, these two spheres of offline and online development have coalesced via initiatives such as the Aadhaar program, which has attempted to prevent the leakage of funds and enable the average person to side-step corrupt institutions and access services such as healthcare and banking with greater ease.
There’s no doubt that this new model of development has had its fair share of hiccups and controversy. That’s to be expected, especially in the world’s largest democracy, where offline and online development will continue to spark crucial conversations on issues ranging from data protection, to privacy, to corruption, to surveillance and institutional and cultural barriers to empowerment and progress. On top of that, given that this is a relatively new model, it will surely take time to strike a truly effective balance between online and offline progress.
Even so, the direction India appears to be going in is bracing. It demonstrates a novel approach by an emerging nation to prioritize both competitiveness and the provision of basic needs, and to integrate these areas as smoothly as possible. The results will only be visible once the dust settles, but as other nations reassess their own growth priorities, India’s new model may be a wise reference point for understanding key lessons and challenges in the years ahead.