Mr Ramesh Krishnan is the Director of Operations for VeriSign Communications Services in India. Before joining VeriSign, Mr Krishnan held senior positions at Lucent Technologies, Quintus Corporation where he led the Siebel business unit, and Avaya Communication. Mr Krishnan actively participates in various industry events, and has spoken and chaired sessions at conferences such as NASSCOM, CTI, and Supercomm. Mr Krishnan received his Masters degree in Economics and Business from the University of Delaware (Newark/DE, USA), and is an alumnus of Wharton Econometrics (Philadelphia, USA).
Today, the urban Indian is a mobile carrying, e-mail savvy consumer who is reaping the benefits of a global digital revolution. India’s 300 million strong relatively affluent middle-class has huge buying power. Income levels are up significantly, with India’s emergence as the world’s back-office and software development super-power. India’s people, educators, private sector, multinational corporations and government, needs to work together and harness the country’s energy and transform the world’s largest democracy into the largest digital economy on the planet.
There is no denying that communications has been the single largest contributor to a shrinking globe, and continues to shatter boundaries that were previously considered unassailable. The digital divide that was once a yawning gap between the developed and the not-so-developed economies is slowly but surely closing. Paying your utility bills, topping up your mobile phone or making reservations for your vacation, need but a few clicks on your slick handheld using a simple service called SMS. Whether its movie tickets, or dating services, hailing a cab or ordering pizza, everything is but a SMS message away. Sitting in a train during rush hour is easier when you tune to a melody coming from a mobile phone–one that even allows you to capture a photo. You no longer have to appreciate your photography skills alone; you can share your photos with friends and family or post them on your website, directly from your wireless device. If you think this is San Francisco or New York or London, or the latest ‘Mission Impossible’, guess again; it is in today’s India, a country with a young, growing, educated, middle-class that is larger than the population of the United States. Education, access, affordability, and adoption are the keys to a society’s ability to absorb innovation and reap the benefits of technology. Had it not been for the private sector, specifically companies like Bharti, Infosys, Satyam, TATA and Wipro, this digital life in India would still be out of grasp for the millions who are currently experiencing the transformation. The community as a whole embraced this new digital lifestyle; its insatiable desire to keep up with the times is a catalyst that speeds up the adoption of new technologies. In digital India, if you are the only one in your group without these digital implements you will be left behind. After many years in the US, I had a pleasant awakening a few years ago on my first return to India. I was not prepared for the bustling IT parks, glassy buildings, manicured campuses, locally manufactured autos, coffee shops at every major locus, pizzerias, and the list goes on. One could call it a reverse culture shock of sorts. Walk into an offshore development centre, or a business process outsourcing campus, and one would think one was in an office park somewhere in the USA. India’s well-educated labour pool–swelling by few million every year as new graduates join the workforce–has attracted the largest Fortune 500 multinational companies to maintain a presence in India. Adoption of new technologies and living in a wireless world comes quite naturally in such an environment. Until about six years ago, owning a telephone, let alone the latest wireless gizmo, was a luxury in this land of a billion people. There were a few cyber cafes and e-mail was just beginning to make its presence felt. Today, the urban Indian is a mobile carrying, e-mail savvy consumer who is reaping the benefits of a global digital revolution. There are now 40 million mobile subscribers and the number continues to grow at an aggressive pace. Although wire-line still provides most telephone access, ahead by about 8-9 million over wireless, that may be history by the time we roll our calendars to 2005. Much of this development and growth has been due to the liberalisation policies of governments over the past 8-10 years, especially since 1998, that have enabled this transformation in a largely agrarian economy. Less known, is the fact that 50 million households have cable access–and these are the official numbers. This is a significant contributor to modern India, and has been a huge catalyst in the digital revolution. To their credit, content providers have been very innovative in spreading this message and fanning the flames of digital living. Technology for technology’s sake will never find mass appeal unless it can address the needs of the consumer. What good is it if you can buy the latest mobile phone, but no access to the network? There was a time when a phone was a luxury even for the middle class, not because of the cost, but due to the lack of available lines, the bureaucracy and an inefficient system. In present day India, you may have a hard time finding a post and telegraph office, the old bastion of communication, but mobile SIM cards and top-up cards of your choice are available in plenty at any roadside shack. It is this kind of easy access that enables contacting your plumber, or milkman or carpenter to make your daily life easier. Then too, it is no longer a matter of pride, but a necessity to have a mobile or an email address in India today. In fact, the transformation has gone to such an extent that not having an email or a mobile phone these days is detrimental to one’s success. Being digital is not only a state of mind, it is reflected in our behaviour, our habits, and the way we go about every day lives. A good example of this is the Indian Railways, one of the largest networks worldwide. It is still the cheapest and most accessible way for anyone to travel within the country. Gone are the days when you need to physically go to a railway reservation booth at the station to make or even find out schedules. While it may not be the friendliest of websites, the Indian Railways has definitely made it very easy for someone with computer access to buy tickets online–and it works like a charm. For the savvier e-Commerce buff, India boasts its own version of eBay where you can buy and sell almost anything. The same is true for buying books online, ordering dinner, renting DVDs, buying clothes, etc. The growth in popularity of online matrimonial bureaus is most impressive in a culture that has the deep-seated custom of arranged marriages. Websites that act as introductory forums are very popular, so much so that the leading newspapers, and their Sunday classifieds, have jumped into the online fray in order to preserve their evaporating clientele. A significant portion of the population, though, is still quite sheltered from the on-going digital revolution. Education in rural areas is still wanting, there are not enough schools, none in some areas, and basic needs in such places are a luxury. Seventy per cent of India is still rural and dependent upon agriculture, a sector that has yet to experience benefits of modern technology. Electricity and running water are still wanting in many rural areas. This might be attributed to the government, but the private sector is equally to blame as there is a dearth of corporate social responsibility in India. Technology providers have a captive audience in urban areas, more than they can handle, so they focus much of their effort there. India is a complex society with a very diverse population. The only way to spread and share the benefits of technology is to take a collaborative approach between the government and private sector. Look at Japan with its un-stable political machinery; there the common man, the farmer, the young girl in a rural area, everyone enjoys the benefits of development. Granted they do not have a billion mouths to feed, but they do have discipline, above and beyond politics, ingrained in the system. Discipline and collaboration can overcome India’s difficulties and bring technology to people in rural areas so they can enjoy the same experience as those in urban areas. It is only a matter of good management and right coaching. So, where do we go from here? The new way, the new age of communications and commerce has not only arrived, it is also well, growing and will continue to shatter any roadblock that comes in its path. This is because mankind wants more; it has a thirst to live–to live well. It is a lot like learning to fly or ride a bicycle, once you succeed there is no looking back. Sentiments aside, there are numbers to prove the point. India’s middle-class is 300 million strong with a huge ability to spend. This generation is not like its predecessors who believed in saving for a rainy day, not in enjoying life while they were young. Income levels have jumped up significantly, with India’s emergence as the world’s back-office and a super-power in software development. The under 30 age group makes up 55 per cent of India’s population, and within five years, they will add up to almost 60 per cent. Given demographic dynamics of that nature, the demand for newer and better ways of life can only increase. Reputed institutions such as McKinsey and the World Bank have predicted that India, China, and Brazil, will be the top three economies by 2025. All the basic ingredients are there. It is up to the people, the educators, the private sector, the multinational corporations, the Indian government, and the political machinery to combine and harness this energy and transform the world’s largest democracy to the largest digital economy on the planet.