A further write up, this is dated 26 October 1992. I had a quick squiz at this and don’t agree with some of my 1992 thoughts. But I can see how I was steadily evolving into a policy thinker. Remember, this is how India’s “great” IAS officers are – ill-educated, incompetent thinkers. It takes many years to develop into a serious policy thinker. It took me a very long time to start understanding the dynamics of this world. Still learning.
TECHNOLOGY AND INDIA
One of the major things which comes to mind when looking at the prospects of India versus a developed country is the huge technological gap between the two. Ranging from agriculture to industry, from bureaucracy to retain stores, the difference in the use of technology between the developed world and India has become so vast that it appears to be a difficult matter for India to ever catch up with the developing world.
This concept needs no great elaboration, but one can illustrate it by considering the output of two different farmers, one using a bullock-driven plough and the other, a tractor. The man who sitting on the tractor ploughs a greater area, produces more and even if he sells at a lower rate per unit than the farmer who uses a plough bullock, he makes more money in a year’s work than the former. The possibility of the farmer who uses the tractor becoming the owner of two tractors increases very fast, whereas the possibility of the farmer who uses a bullock cart, being able to afford a tractor, remains as remote as ever before. This is the difference between an average person in India and an average person in the developed world. The latter produces more, becomes richer, and continues to become richer at an ever-increasing rate compared to an Indian. The disparities thus increase and ever-widen. This phenomenon is visible to some extent in India itself, between people living in different parts of the country.
The difference between India and the developed world is now so much that whereas India as a whole is unable to produce aeroplanes on its own (it requires assistance from other countries to do so), in Australia, a high school has recently produced an air-worthy two-seater aeroplane on its own as part of a school project. Children in Australia know how to handle computers, microfiches, CD-ROMs, and have been exposed to practically all kinds of educational aids which are a now routine part of their education. In addition, by virtue of living in this society, the child has experienced extremely high technology and quality in the day-to-day part of his life. Little wonder then that the child is many strides ahead of his peer in India or a developing country, and is able to produce a much higher output from the day he becomes a worker.
The widespread use of technology in day-to-day life in Australia is best illustrated by some common examples. Coming from Indian, I have noticed these few as the more obvious examples, but surely, there are many more which are not easily noticeable to the common eye, but where technology is used for some other day-to-day purposes.
- Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) are located at various places in the shopping centres and one can draw cash 24 hours a day on all days of the week (subject to a daily drawal limit).
- In every supermarket, except for vegetables, which one picks directly from the shelf, every item sold uses the barcode system. The checkout girl only has to pass each item above a bar-code reader or a digital weighing machine, which are connected to a central computer. The computer immediately picks up the bar-code or the weight of the item, locates its price, and inputs the item name and price into the cash memo. After all the items are inputed, one can either pay in cash, or by the plastic ATM card of any bank (since the supermarket computer is also attached to the banking network) and one can even draw some extra money from one’s bank accounts at the supermarket itself. Payments can also be made by the credit card system.
- Mobile car phones are a day-to-day part of life. One finds people carrying mobile phones in their briefcases and contacting people from any place in the city (even outside the cars).
- Most of the commercial buildings including ordinary shops, buildings of a university, etc., use automatic sliding doors, wherein an electronic eye detects an approaching person and slides open. These doors are electronically controlled and can be opened at night only by special electronic cards/ identification systems.
- Almost all buildings use the solar water heating system for domestic heating, and have 24 hour hot and cold running water in their bathrooms, kitchens, etc.
- Many shops and supermarkets use sophisticated security systems with cameras/ etc., which are monitored centrally to prevent shoplifting.
- Workers in the construction, carpentry, car repair, etc., businesses use the latest technology, mostly computerised, and the quality of their work is therefore as perfect as one can possibly expect. The finishing of a street, a wall, a table, or a traffic light is to be seen to be believed. Even manual workers use such high quality and latest machines that their work turns out to be almost perfect.
- The greatest miracle to a person coming from India is that power does not trip, nor fluctuate wildly as in India. Of course there could be sudden spikes due to line-failures on account of various mechanical reasons from time to time and one is advised to use a spike-guard in the more expensive electrical equipment, but certainly one does not have power cuts of any sort.
- There are many frequency modulation radio stations in Perth itself, which relay stereophonic music. If one has the proper receiving equipment, one cannot distinguish the quality of reception coming from a radio station with a good-quality compact disk being played in one’s music system.
- Compact disks are the common mode of music packaging. Audio cassettes and record players are also available, but these are on the way out.
- The standard size of computer disks is 3 1/2″. These disks contain more data and are also smaller in size than the 5 1/4″ standard mostly used in India.
- Computers are as common as manual typewriters are in India. Even primary schools use computers to manage the facility and the students.
- Each house has piped cooking gas.
- Milk is packaged in tetrapacks of one litre and the milk lasts for nearly three months.
- There is a system of “phonecard” which is a magnetic card and can be used in the telephone booths, to make local/ STD calls. The magnetic component of the card is “consumed” each time a call is made.
- Similarly, photocopiers in schools, libraries, and universities are fitted with a system which accepts coins/ magnetic card, etc., which measures the money paid for use of the photocopying service.
- Automatic vends are located at various points in public places, where one can put in a coin and punch the item number to get a snack/ coffee/ cold drink/ cigarette, etc. There is no pan-walla, of course, which is something one misses at times.
- Parking in most public places requires a parking ticket to be purchased from the nearby ticket machine. One inserts a coin and the ticket purchased is displayed inside the car, in order to prevent fines from being levied.
- The public lottery system, the horse-betting system, and most of the games in the local casino, are highly interactive and fully computerised.
- Federal government offices in Perth have remote terminals from their parent office in Canberra, but when working on these computers one does not feel that there is any delay caused due to the distance. Thus while sitting in Perth, …. kms from Canberra, one gets the feeling that one is working in Canberra. Communication with the head office is thus absolutely instantaneous.
But all this and more, does not imply that a place like Australia is anywhere near the cutting edge of technology. Even the USA has been edged out of that position. It is now Japan which possesses the best technology and uses it in its day-to-day life.
I happened to view a recent television programme which showed that in the USA, business is having nightmares about the Japanese. Japan has progressed so vastly in the technological field that the US industries are now years behind in certain major industries such as automobiles. Detroit and Chicago are losing their status as premier cities of automobile production as plants are closed down in quick succession. In fact in the USA Japan-bashing has started and posters have started appearing showing the apprehensions of the Americans that the USA is going to be a colony of Japan. Toyota has now enough money in the bank (20 billion US dollar equivalent: less than the size of the total export of all goods from India) to buy Chrysler three times over.
Technology, when fuelled by the right mix of governmental economic policies, is a most potent force not only for the eradication of poverty, but for gaining a superior competitive position in the world.
And yet, in India how many of us realise this? We tend to be fascinated by low level and preferably primitive technology. This could be either due to Gandhian influence on our thought, but I suspect this is largely due to our ignorance. How many of us make it a point to read about the great advances made by the common man in the developed world?
Without meaning to be critical of the sincere effort made by some people, in Assam we have still got a good number of people who hate the thought of the introduction of computers in government. Some others attribute great power to these little machines and put these up on a pedestal. Not many are there who are beginning to make use of these machines without any emotional sentiment. Even I have been a party to this, I feel. Having pushed for and ultimately got the post of the Director of Computer Applications, Assam, created in March this year, I felt that this is a right step for Assam in the field of improving its information technology use in government, but now I feel that we are so backward compared with the rest of the world that we have to work overtime in providing the right information base in government, and not to rest on the little work done, but to study harder and try to introduce the best systems of management in government.
It is high time that we all realised that only the best technology available must be used at any given point of time: there is no justification for the use of primitive technologies. Of course, if appropriate down-scaled, labour intensive technologies exist, there should be no objection to the use of such technologies, but even then the main criterion should be improved productivity above all.
Primary education is compulsory in Australia (that is the way it should be in India too), and the Government spends a considerable amount on the facilities provided to primary schools.
I feel that whereas it is as good policy to go out of India to exhibit Indian products in various fairs and exhibitions, it would be much more strategic if a marketing approach it taken to promote technology in India. Since it is felt that India may not have adequate buyers of technology at present (this is a myth to which I do not however, subscribe), then the best thing would be to purchase a thousand each of the various items of high technology and to display these in the form of a permanent Cutting Edge of Technology Exhibitions all over India, even upto the level of small towns (at least at the district headquarters), and about ten to twenty such exhibitions in the bigger cities, so that there is a rapid increase in the awareness of such products in the school children, the entrepreneur and the common man in general. Displayed here should be all the kinds of hand-tools which are sold commonly in the supermarkets of developed countries, and other products which have high sales volumes in the developed markets. These products would give an idea to the the entrepreneur about what sells abroad (including its retail price), and he would then be able to either set up production units which produce such items, or would be able to get hold of the appropriate technical collaboration to produce such items.
The fact that Indians can do this is obvious when we look at the example of Maruti. Till the Maruti car was put on the streets of India, the Indian entrepreneur had not been exposed to high technology cars and kept on producing shoddy quality goods required for the Ambassador and the Fiat. But suddenly, within a few years of his exposure to Maruti, the quality of goods produced has gone up and even the other cars have been forced to use better quality in their cars to be able to compete with rising consumer expectations.
I contend therefore that the government is totally unjustified in promoting outdated technology and must therefore take all steps to strategically promote high technology. The plea of heavy density of population does not cut much ice. When we examine the example of Samsung, the Korean giant, we find that he sold practically all of his microwaves to foreign countries, until, partially induced by the wealth brought into Korea by these sales, the people of Korea became rich enough to afford his products within the country itself. Therefore, just because markets do not exist for certain products at present in India, it does not mean that we should make this an excuse for promoting only the labour-intensive primitive or even appropriate technologies, but should definitely strike out in the direction of high technology, where we are now decades behind even our Asian neighbours.