As India gets ready to roll out one of the largest vaccine programmes, billionaire Mukesh Ambani on Tuesday said his group is working with authorities to provide technology tools and backbone for mass inoculation against COVID-19.
Ambani's telecom venture Jio was rolled out four years back, offering free voice calling and dirt-cheap data. Today, Jio is India's largest telecom operator with over 400 million users, each connected to the internet.
At a Facebook event, Ambani said the government's digital push kept the country running even during the pandemic and is now helping in the rollout of one of the largest vaccination programmes.
Good digital and internet access allowed people to work from home and helped businesses to run without disruption.
"Sometimes I wonder that if the pandemic had struck India just four or five years earlier, we would not have been in as good a shape as what we are today, with all the connectivity we have," he said.
Ambani, who heads the oil-to-retail-to-telecom conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd, said the credit for this must go to the prime minister's Digital India vision, where he motivated the entire industry to roll out broadband in the five years of his first term.
This digital push helped transfer cash to bank accounts of 20 crore needy during the pandemic, he said.
"And now we are ready and pretty much at par with the world, to roll out one of the largest vaccine programs in the first half of 2021."
Technology has also helped deliver health services.
"We are working very closely with all the authorities to make sure that we provide the technology tools and backbone for even vaccination in the coming quarters using technology," he said.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too had spoken of using mobile technology for mass inoculation against COVID-19.
Modi government had, soon after sweeping to power in 2014, launched Jan Dhan or no-frills bank accounts for poor, scaled up biometric identity programme Aadhaar and seeded them with mobile phones.
This helped the government transfer subsidies and other benefits directly into the accounts of the identified beneficiaries with no pilferage or leakages.
This successful trinity may be replicated to ensure the reach of the vaccine to the people most deserving.
Three leading coronavirus vaccine developers -- Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca Plc and Bharat Biotech -- have applied for emergency use authorisation in India.
While Pfizer India has applied to drug regulator for permission to import its experimental mRNA vaccine for sale and distribution without the requirement for local clinical trials, Serum Institute of India, AstraZeneca's India vaccine partner, has applied for emergency use authorisation using data from Phase-III trials that were conducted locally, as well as in Brazil and the UK.
Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech has sought nod for Covaxin which is being indigenously developed in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
The applications mean that a mass vaccine effort could be shortly underway in a nation that has the world's second-largest coronavirus caseload.
Referring to COVID-19, Ambani said it is not in India's DNA to be deterred by a crisis, and the nation not just faced the pandemic with enormous resilience and resolve but also converted it into an opportunity for new growth.
While the government gave free ration and cash to the needy, corporates did their bit.
Reliance built a hospital dedicated to COVID-19, ramped up testing at its life sciences division and produced PPEs.
And telecom networks of Jio and other service providers kept the country and businesses running.
"We had never imagined that we would all work from home and the network traffic grew multiple percentage and none of us stepped out.
“But we (at Jio) could maintain 99 per cent availability, so that Indians could work from home, shop from home, study from home, and remain connected to the rest of the world," he said.
He said technology, with all the digitisation steps that India has taken, will democratize wealth and value creation for individuals and small businesses.
"To my mind, more wealth creation means more employment and more business," he said adding the partnership between JioMart - the online delivery platform of Reliance group, and Facebook's WhatsApp connects local kirana stores to consumers.
"And together with our platforms and the tools that we will provide to small businesses and to individual consumers, I believe will drive India to a $5 trillion economy and will make a much more equal India, with more equal wealth growth at the bottom of the pyramid," he said.
"I firmly believe that in the next two decades, India will grow to be among the top three economies in the world. But more importantly, it will become a premier digital society."
This will also be helped by the launch of high-speed 5G telecom services a well as government connecting every village in the country with high speed fixed broadband.
Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters