India: Our challenges present the best opportunity for tech innovation
India is celebrating its 70th Independence Day. That’s 7 decades. All we can ever fight about in our discourses are the past 6 decades and the progress we’ve made. Sure, that’s a good thing. Accountability is a great virtue. One half of the camp is caustic in disappointment, while the other half is up in arms in defence. The time to look forward is here. What’s the story ahead?
Unfortunately, where that takes us is a perpetual circle of blame. But where’s the solution to those problems? Given that the Government is making it easier for startups to begin their journey of innovation, now is the time for unicorns with strong fundamentals. The startup world is filled with inspirational stories.
A very recent example is of Jan Koum and Brian Acton. Theirs is among the stories that go viral on social media. They created an app called WhatsApp. But both Brian Acton and Jan Koum have interesting stories.
Brian had been rejected by Twitter and Facebook when he applied for a job at both companies. It’s interesting how WhatsApp went on to have more users than Twitter! And Facebook instead bought WhatsApp for $19 billion. That’s inspiration. But the reason I’m drawn towards the Whatsapp story isn’t Brian Acton’s side of the story as much as Jan Koum’s is inspirational.
Jan Koum grew up in Ukraine. According to an article in The Guardian, the thought behind WhatsApp finds its roots in Koum’s memories from Ukraine. Back then, phone tapping was rather widespread. School friends were censured for their views. He told one interviewer: “I grew up in a society where everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on. Nobody should have the right to eavesdrop, or you become a totalitarian state – the kind of state I escaped as a kid to come to this country where you have democracy and freedom of speech. Our goal is to protect it.”
Despite numerous shortcomings, India is at a far better state than the Ukraine described by Koum. Considering that we’re the world’s largest democracy, debate must be encouraged. But it’s essential to channel all the learnings from these popular discussions for the larger good of progress. Every nation on the planet, big or small, great or not, has been through a journey – from starting out small and oblivious till when it arrives on the global stage.
India is no different. We could go on attributing India’s problems to its vast population. Indeed, a lot of those problems are due to the sheer population. We rank number 2 in terms of population. But if the world is looking at India today with great hope, it’s also due to the fact that we’re a huge market with immense potential.
We all use technology products. Some created in India. Few, rather. Some created in China, some in South Korea. Some, Japan. Some in other western countries. But the fact that China and South Korea, and Japan dominate the technology we use is a wake up call to us Indians. Asians, it turns out, dominate the world arena when it comes to tech manufacturing.
It’s a known fact. Go back seven decades and there’s practically no difference in terms of quality of life, or industry with the rest of them. South Korea, or the larger nation that it was back then, faced the same kind of challenges that we face till today. But may be certain priorities were worked upon well. May be they used their lower population density to their advantage. But eventually they have soared on their development index. Japan is no different. Yes, they were a developed nation. But after exhausting resources in the Second World War, and taking on the United States before facing near annihilation, Japan has had a second lease of life. Industrial output was chugging along on full throttle.
China, is an inspirational story again. But I’d prefer the Indian story. We’ve held principles that are valued in the sane world. We value freedom, liberty, and equality. Most importantly we’re a democracy. We have a huge population, but the majority of it is the Indian youth. We may be 70, but we’re a young nation!
It’s usual of the Indian millennial to feel good on 15 August. A day off from schools and colleges. A day off at work. That’s a good thing. Come 16th, and it’s back to a journey of fate. Dependent on a cribbing autorickshaw who would refuse to ferry you to your destination. Then once you reach, the transaction is a hassled experience. The reason? All boils down to a few rupees in change, which the autorickshaw driver claims to not have. A feeling of being cheated prevents you from giving up on the change just yet. You want to persist it.
At the traffic signal, you’re pulled over by traffic personnel. You have two options, come clean, or pay up. Many of us have been through it. We pay taxes, and then we drive on roads ridden in potholes that resemble an alien planet with craters. And that’s when you question where all that money you pay as tax is going. It’s common. You hear less than 10 percent of the Indian population pays tax. Does that shock you? By the way, just 1 percent of Indians pay tax! If that’s true, then where would our infrastructure be if every citizen great or small would honestly pay their tax? We might just end up having the world’s best! That said, a common factor in all these transactions is transaction.
All of these problems could be avoided if we had easy digital transactions. With the convenience of not having to endure long queues. Now that PayTM is spending tons of money on their campaign around change money (or chhutte as we refer to it in Hindi), it all makes sense. Whoever wrote those jingle variation has indeed endured a lot.
India’s true opportunity lies in overcoming its shortcomings. The adverse challenge present the best experience. In my opinion, there’s much to be done in digital transactions to overcome India’s problem with corruption. There also exists great opportunity with surveillance technologies to overcome the rise of crime – especially women and the marginalised sections of society.
The Indian judiciary is ridden with delays. And identifying the cause for it, is a perpetual discussion. Who is responsible for it? The long debate doesn’t help victims who battle it out for years. You must have heard – justice delayed is justice denied! Red-tapism and adherence to practices originating in medieval times only delay what could have been an efficient workflow. A great opportunity to overcome time barriers in our judiciary is to take the help of technology. May be a single large database of every single case. Digitised records with quick search and big data that is able to associate similar cases, such that judges, may be panel of judges have information at their fingertips. Rather than the court staff searching through reams of worn out records.
It’s unfortunate that we’re continuously bombarded with reports of abuse and despicable crimes. And authorities aren’t able to nab culprits because there’s no trail of information. What about improved forensics, surveillance and pattern recognition algorithms working together to nail the identity of the culprit? What if we didn’t stop at Aadhaar? What if we just went a step ahead and mapped each and every citizen with permissible information? Yes, it opens up a pandora’s box. But it underlines the opportunity in tech innovation in India. Our unique adversities present unique opportunities to excel in technology.
Israel is a rather respected name in the world of technology and startups. Given the adversities it faces, the resultant technology wonders such as the Iron Dome air defence system and Phalcon AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) are recognised the world over. Arid geographies in and around Israel have brought about innovation in the areas of water harvesting, and dry irrigation that is a much sought after technology. All of these developments highlight the good old saying – necessity is the mother of invention! There’s much we can learn as well. Rather than harping on big names in the space of ecommerce, India’s favourite startup industry. There’s greater opportunity in solving India’s problems. Indians will value the contribution of transforming the lives of its people and its future generations.
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