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May 21, 1997


N Vittal

Critical mass

In this 50th year of Independence, India has finally reached a critical mass for an information revolution to happen. And this revolution will only take off with the building of a national information highway, however cliched that may sound.

India is in the danger of having 54 per cent of the world's illiterate people by 2000. And the only way to prevent the tragedy is to educate the masses in the most effective way, through a national information highway, an intelligent network of communication systems.

The high-profile March visit of Microsoft chief Bill Gates once again underscored our biggest consolation; that though the task of building nation-wide information systems may seem daunting, India has the expertise to do it, its teaming army of software developers.

The Gates visit also helped draw the attention of the entire nation to the wonders of information technology which is shaping a networked world; one more compulsion for India to wire itself or be left out on the fringes of the networked world of tomorrow.

The task of building the information highway will have to be carried out jointly by the government and the private sector of the economy.

I have been fortunate to have been connected with two key departments of the government, electronics and telecommunications, during the critical early 1990s. I have witnessed, and often participated, in the initiatives of both the government and the private sector towards reaching this critical mass for an information revolution to happen.

A significant step was taken two years ago when the Department of Electronics and the Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services took the initiative to bring together all government organisations concerned like the departments of telecommunications, electronics, science and technology and the National Informatics Centre.

They have now published the Multimedia Information Highway ­ A Conceptual Framework. The paper lists in one place actions to be taken to launch the information highway.

The National Telecom Policy, 1994, has created the basic policy framework for aggressive pluralism and fair competition in the telecom sector.

The setting up of the Telecom Regulatory Authority has created an atmosphere where there is an objective umpire to oversee the telecom revolution, or the next stage of the telecom revolution ­ the information highway revolution.

The Department of Electronics has projected a national information infrastructure project at a cost of Rs 1 billion.

The NIC has already got a well-established network all over the country. The government also took an imaginative decision a year ago to enable the NIC to interact directly with Intelsat and overcome the monopoly of the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (the government's overseas telecommunications monolith) in the administrative management domain.

In fact, it is a sad development that the VSNL took an unfair stand on the development of the Education and Research Network of the Department of Electronics. ERNET mainly caters for educational and research institutions.

The DoE has six earth stations which are linked to Intelsat. The infrastructure played a major part in increasing software exports from $100 million in 1990 to over $1 billion today. We should not allow the momentum generated in the information technology sector to be choked because of the monopoly mindset of some government departments.

The finance minister has given concession like lower interest rates and tax benefits for investment in the telecom sector. The last budget too identified information technology as a key area and has provided for tax concessions.

All this shows that the policy initiatives taken by the government over the last couple of years have created an environment for India to make the great leap forward to build the national information highway.

In the private sector also initiatives have been taken for setting up the national information highway. In fact, the ministries of finance and commerce have, for the last two years, been in close interaction with the exporting community to build what has been called the electronic data interchange infrastructure.

The Manufacturers Association of Information Technology focused on the theme of building a national information infrastructure at their annual IT Asia show in December 1996.

The time has now come for a coordinated action. The time has come when we have reached a critical mass and can launch a chain reaction in this golden jubilee year of India's Independence.

We can see that India's own national information infrastructure need no longer remain a subject of seminars and arcane reports. They can become a reality in the life of every Indian, especially the rural India and the students of the primary and secondary schools and colleges.

But we Indians are very fond of talking. I am told that on an average an Indian speaks for six hours a day! A lot of hot air is made about India's position in information technology and its competitive edge. Now it is time to move over to some cold calculated action.

N Vittal is chairman of the Public Enterprises Selection Board. However, he is best known for his tenure as the secretary of the Telecom Commission and the many revolutionary policies he introduced.

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