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Technology, second only to death: Sam Pitroda

July 07, 2007 12:50 IST

Sam Pitroda, chairman of India's Knowledge Commission, has predicted that the "digital silk road of the 21st century is definitely going to be all about information highways of tomorrow."

The telecommunications icon, who was the keynote speaker at a conference titled 'The Digital Silk Road of the 21st Century', hosted by Bridging Nations - a Washington think tank founded by Prakash Ambegoankar, an entrepreneur turned policy wonk and close friend of Pitroda - said, "All these highways look to become national and international."

He argued that "how the United States, China and India guide us will depend on the real understanding of the opportunity not just to reshape their own countries but to really reshape the world."

"Technology has been the key driver in development in the last 50 years," Pitroda acknowledged and said that when he looks at technology he comes up with several observations.

"I view technology as the greatest social leveler second only to death. It really puts two unequal human beings on an equal footing. It has far reaching implications in development, reducing costs, providing opportunities, reaching out to people, and increasing richness."

Secondly, Pitroda said information technology in particular, "with which I have had something to do for the last 40 years, brings about openness, accessibility, connectivity, networking, democratisation, decentralisation, and as a result social transformation."

Thirdly, he observed that like it or not, "almost all of these technologies, unfortunately, have its roots in defense, and as a result some of these technologies are expensive so much so that they are not looking at the human side of development."

Talking about 'yet another unfortunate observation', Pitroda said, "great technology has created a fair amount of distortions," where "five per cent of the people enjoy 50 per cent of the energy, five per cent of the rich control 50 per cent of the wealth, and contribute to global warming."

Thus, he argued that "the real issue here is sustainability, accessibility, affordability, and scalability, and these haven't been getting all the attention."

"Take for example, telecommunications," Pitroda said. "I started by working in the telecom sector in 1965. Telephone lines used to cost $1,000. It remained at $1,000 for almost 30 years, offering more features - 150 - of which you could operate only four but the cost remained a $1,000,until mobile came in and then the cost went down to $100."

He said there was then this spurt of exponential growth. At one point of time, in India, there were two million telephones for 750 million people. A $1,000 a line and maybe 200,000 phone connections were added every year. Today, the figure has jumped to nearly 7 million phones a month.

While acknowledging that technology has certainly revolutionised everything from telecommunications to several other areas, Pitroda said these technologies "are capable of abuse," adding the US model of development, now being copied to some extent by China and India, could be at the cost of social imperatives like health and education, costs of which had risen exponentially.

"Privatization, development, globalisation, free market economies, big cars, big roads, lot of energy, expensive hospitals, makes me begin to question this entire model," he said, and declared, "I believe it's time to reengineer the world."

Pitroda, who said as head of India's Knowledge Commission, he has pushed for e-governance and takes great pride that the Indian government is all for it, however, bemoaned that "we have lost track of innovations in the process."

"Look at transportation. There are lot and lot of cars in India now, but you cannot get anywhere. It takes you an hour from Mumbai airport to Nariman Point and sometimes it takes two-and-a-half hours. We don't have enough energy and I think these are the challenges that require new thinking and new knowledge."

Continuing to cite the example of India, Pitroda said, "We recognise the phenomenal challenges in India," with the "disparity between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, the haves and the have-nots, and the divide is just too big."

"And if we can't bridge that divide, development will have no meaning," he said, while at the same time "all kinds of development going on in India needs to be expedited."

Pitroda said that while plwnty of changes are happening it was "not happening fast enough. We are building our schools but not fast enough, we are building new roads, but not fast enough, and there's also the question of demography. We have 550 million people who are below the age of 45 and what are we going to do with that? What kind of jobs and future will we provide for them?

"And to meet these challenges in our democracy with our diversity is the real challenge," he added.

The conference also included discussions on workforce development, the free flow of human capital and the new security architecture of Asia and featured experts like Professor Jagdish N Sheth, the Charles H Kellstadt Professor of Marketing at Emory University in Atlanta,             who, addressing the issue of workforce development for global competitiveness, predicted that "while the 20th century was driven by governments of advanced nations, the 21st century will be driven by markets of emerging nations" and the 21st century in terms of economic growth engines for the world would necessarily be "the Asian century."

He asserted that "the rise of Chindia - China and India - is inevitable and it will be followed by the rise of other emerging nations all over the world."

"This will result in a dramatic shortage of workforce globally, despite availability of human capital, especially for the knowledge economies."

Consequently, Sheth said in response to this global shortage, "workforce development will require shift from domestic to global access and from government funded regulated education to market funded accredited education."

He said that "to be globally competitive in workforce development would require creating corporate universities, retraining the existing workforce, investing in on-line learning, encouraging public-private partnerships, establishing free trade agreements specific to workforce mobility, encouraging immigration reforms, and utilising NGOs (non-governmental organizations) focused on workforce development."
Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC