We usually associate decades with themes and collective events that happened in them. So what do the 2020s hold for Tech India? Can we take a lead and make this decade ours?
The 1980s India was the decade of the PC and software policies along with the DTP and graphics revolutions. The Tech India story really began here. The pace picked up in the 1990s when we had Liberalization, the satellite TV revolution, the National Telecom Policy, and the advent of the Internet. The 2000s launched the IT services biggies and mobiles became ubiquitous. Smartphones, apps and startups ruled the 2010s.
We similarly hope for something to define the 2020s. One must say that they got off to a torrid start. First, we had the Covid disaster after which India’s GDP growth collapsed in 2020. We recovered in 2021 and the outlook is good from 2022 onward. There’s still a lot of fight left in this decade. 2023 can be the year where we set the tone and pace.
So rather than sit back and wait for trends to emerge, it might be the right time to ride on the wave of post-Covid techceleration to write the new rules of the game. There’s a lot we could do.
1. Aim to be the world’s AgriTech Superpower
India is still primarily a rural farming nation even though the focus is urban. A report came some years back that our AgriTech market is not even 1% of what it could be. For the sake of our farmers and villages, we need to become an AgriTech Superpower to become a fully developed country. Food production will be optimized and we will achieve agrarian prosperity. While the last national farming policy failed due to the protests, we can make a new one with AgriTech at the centre of it. To be fair a lot of good AgriTech startups have come up in the last few years and are backed by the government. But we need many more.
2. Become a Data Center Powerhouse
India will very soon be the most populous nation in the world. It probably is already the leading digital democracy. During the pandemic, ecommerce took off big time. We are the mobile broadband capital of the world. Rural India has taken to smartphones the way large enterprises have taken to data centers. Storing data locally is key for security and sovereignty. Both the government and private sector need to build a chain of hyperscale data centers across the country. We should in fact have the capacity to store the data of other countries of the world and be a service leader in that.
3. Embrace Digital Literacy
When we got Independence in 1947, the literacy rate was less than 20% and stayed under 50% till the 1990s. We did a campaign and really ramped it up with many regions reporting 100%. But the mantra today is Digital Literacy. This is a concept which keeps evolving, and unlike reading and writing, is a lifelong process. Wikipedia defines Digital Literacy as “an individual’s ability to find, evaluate, and communicate information through typing and other media on various digital platforms.” 100% of Indians should meet the above criteria. Let’s officially launch the National Digital Literacy Mission.
4. Niche/speciality (not more) universities
Growing up we had 4 IITs and 4 IIMs. Now the numbers are 23 and 20. This is great but beyond a number real dilution will start. That way the 25 IIITs that came have been an extension of that and not just “more”. With the way tech is changing at a blistering pace and the fact that we are heading towards complete digital transformation in every sphere of life, we will probably need a lot of AI institutes of technology. We will require at least one major globally recognized centralized institute/university/research centre each for quantum computing, hyperscale computing, Extended Reality, blockchain, data management, 3D printing, nanotechnology, robotics etc.
5. Unlearning, reskilling and upskilling
Online education can reduce costs, cater to remote areas, integrate Extended Reality and use data crunching to see what works and who is left behind. The “online” aspect has to be extended to schools, colleges, institutes, the industry, government organizations and even for private citizens who may think they don’t require all of this. Learning was always a lifelong process, but now we need “professional learning” for life. Before the focus was on learning and skilling. Now: Unlearning, reskilling and upskilling.
6. Finally becoming an R&D Nation
This seems to be the toughest thing and we are way behind by whatever metric you use. When you look at patent global patent activity, then China and the US are the clear leaders. That is followed by the small countries of Japan and South Korea. Europe is at fifth. India follows at a wide gap, which is not done for a nation of 1.4 billion people. It is estimated that India spends a mere 0.7% of its GDP on R&D, which is among the lowest in the world. Israel is the highest at 4.5% and countries like the US and Sweden are in the 3% zone.
7. Universal HealthTechcare
The Indian healthcare system was in shambles even before the pandemic so what hope was there for it? Even America, the richest and most powerful country is struggling with healthcare, so what do we do? As democracies go, we are emerging as the most digitally developed country, so therein lies hope. We came out with Aarogya Setu and CoWIN in record time and we are expanding the latter. We launched the world’s largest healthcare scheme. HealthTech startups are mushrooming. We upgraded our system during Covid. Now the most important question. Can we keep up this pace for the next 10 years?
8. Empowering ecommerce at the bottom
In the US Big Retail has simply taken over. “Mom and pop shops closing down” is a common headline there. US Big Tech is dominating Europe too. India cannot afford that. We are a more densely populated country with different needs. Tier 2/3 towns and villages depend on kirana stores. But ecommerce is inevitable and is more powerful and loaded with money. We need the smaller stores to be empowered. They are already on UPI and online money, so that’s a big step forward. We need the Open Network for Digital Commerce to succeed to empower the bottom part of the pyramid.
9. Going from Industry 0.0 to 4.0
Till the 2010s many rural areas couldn’t even implement the first Industrial Revolution properly and were in an agrarian state of mind. The push towards 100% of Aadhaar, bank accounts and smartphones along with the goal of 100% electrification was capped with the Covid upgrade. This means that we finally can aim to be a fully industrialized nation in the rural areas and embrace 4.0 in urban India.
10. Using AI as a great tool for Governance
In Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short story The Evitable Conflict, the description on its Wikipedia page reads, “Earth is divided into four geographical regions, each with a powerful supercomputer known as the Machine managing its economy.” While we are far away from that and it does sound a bit dystopian, AI can be a great tool for basic operations, analytics and guidance. In an overpopulated country like India, a lot of basic functions can easily be outsourced to AI.
11. Embracing a Universal Drone Zone
Drones were used to spray disinfectants in Indian cities and to monitor lockdown violations during Covid. But the uses go way beyond that. It’s great that India has finally come out with a national drone policy. Drones can deliver packages of all sizes, deliver to hazardous zones, be used for surveillance, land surveys and 3D mapping. They can be active in war zones and observe wildlife. In remote areas they could serve as Wi-Fi devices and there’s also a concept of drone chatbots to help people in trouble on the streets.
12. Integrating Extended Reality into our fabric
XR, which is the umbrella term for AR/VR/MR can be a great tool for training, education, collaboration, ecommerce, entertainment, gaming, architecture, healthcare, military simulations, virtual sports, tourism, engineering, robotics, cinema, etc. How far-fetched would it be to aim that every Indian had a cost-effective VR headset coupled with the smartphone? With immersive technology, citizens can participate on a large-scale with things like city planning. For government officials it would be easier to view actual projects, plans and certain documents in the XR realm.
13. Blockchain is not just about cryptocurrency
While Bitcoin is a public blockchain, you can also have a private one and both in the form of hybrid blockchain. It can be used by individuals, corporations and governments. Like a Bitcoin Wallet you can have a Voting Wallet for security and transparency. Aadhaar can be made a digital IDs backed by blockchain. Distributed ledgers in banking were one of the first research subjects. A blockchain powered database can monitor arms and weapons from inception to current usage for a dynamic database. In the healthcare industry, blockchain could solve issues like interoperability.
Blockchain is among the most complicated and least understood technologies hence the need for blockchain startups and Blockchain-as-a-Service (BaaS) players.
14. Quantum Supremacy is the future
Moore’s Law computing will ultimately reach a roadblock. That way the multi-core era was revolutionary. Hyperscale computing is the future. Out of this quantum shows the greatest promise. The US and China are miles ahead in quantum supremacy. Maybe it’s time to launch a Department of Quantum under MeitY that will oversee research departments, educational institutes and help the private sector.
15. Our own Social Media-Search-GPS Ecosystem
We lag sorely behind on innovation in all of these and they are important for national security, especially if you look at the latest Twitter files in the US. Election interference and national security disruption can be done on a great scale on social media and search manipulation. On a positive note, the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System or the NavIC will serve as the Indian GPS as against the one we use which is controlled by the US military.
16. The Internet of Things super network
We already have tens of billions of IoT devices in the world and they quietly collect and transmit valuable data without human intervention. They are quite handy in utilities, manufacturing, supply chains, in medical and agricultural devices. Along with sensors, they can save a lot of time and money. They can serve as early warning systems for calamities. Citizens have started using IoTs in a big way thanks to smartwatches. Medical insurance companies love this. It is beneficial as a medical monitoring system and advance warning system for patients too.
17. Cybersecurity to be taught at an early level
Once cybersecurity was just a centralized concept to be handled by the IT teams at the server level. Slowly it had to protect all the computers, laptops and peripherals. Now it’s everywhere. The devices are everywhere. The cloud is everywhere. The home can be a target of attack. The government can be attacked, and utilities shut down. Teach the principles of cybersecurity at the early school level and take it more seriously, giving it a greater budget.
18. Get into 3D Printing
Another big area is 3D Printing. That refers to industrial 3D printing as well as the home one, which hasn’t taken off due to it not being available at the right price point. This is still nascent, and the dollar amount is in billions, while in India it is still in the millions. But the potential is endless considering the fact that the manufacturing industry is in the trillions and tomorrow it may be possible to manufacture absolutely anything using 3D printing.
19. Make India an Assistive Tech Nation
Today there are 21 recognized disabilities, and it is estimated that maybe 7.5% of the population may fit those criteria. That’s around 100 million people in India alone. Counting old age and accidents, this is something that covers the entire population. Look at a family in any of the above and you could say that some sort of assistive technology is required by almost every household in India. The smartphone can be maximized to use assistive tech and the same can be incorporated into the very fabric of smart homes and offices.
20. Let’s not forget about the Mental Health of this country
Tech progress has always been there but only now is it detaching you from nature and society. The agricultural revolution was in the lap of nature. During the Industrial Revolution you went home and slept in a non-tech house. The TV and desktop computer were not on all day. But now tech is on 24X7 and the smartphone is a permanent part of your life. Social media has made it worse. Not only do we have to focus on mental health, but we need to focus on the use of tech tools to reduce, monitor and remedy mental stress.
…and 20 things we got right so far
1. We became a STEM powerhouse
While the US youth seems to have gone woke and the Chinese youth are adopting Tang ping (lying flat), the Indian youth is still eager to excel academically and secure their future. STEM is respected and more than 40% graduates in STEM in India are women, the highest in the world. Our science and technology foundations are strong.
2. We became an IT Services superpower
While the West saw Doomsday in the Y2K crisis, India saw opportunity and we became an IT services superpower soon after. After two decades, they show no sign of stopping and the likes of TCS, Infosys, HCLTech, Wipro & Co march ahead full steam ahead. This has laid the foundation for the startup revolution that followed and the fact that global tech companies are setting up R&D centres.
3. We are nearing 100% electrification
About 10 years back a third of India was not electrified and with the amount of power cuts it could be argued that much less than half of India were bereft of uninterrupted power. We are finally reaching 100%. This is key in powering your homes, computers and even smartphones. In 2001 the then NASSCOM President Dewang Mehta (who tragically died before he turned 40 in 2001), grandly declared that every Indian needed: Roti, Kapda, Makaan, Bijli aur Bandwidth. That can finally happen now.
4. Our strong infrastructure push
It’s not just electricity that is happening, but overall infrastructure. Low-cost housing, toilets and roads are all going full steam ahead. Technology works the best and goes to the bottom of the pyramid only when the basic infrastructure is there in all the towns and villages. If all this works out, then we can truly call ourselves a developed nation on the way to becoming a tech power.
5. Making the Jan Dhan project reach the poor
Financial inclusion is important for every citizen of the world. That way the Jan Dhan scheme was a landmark for India. Banking reached all the corners and the marginalised could receive their government subsidies thanks to the Direct Bank Transfer scheme and be informed of it on their mobiles. This is a great foundation for the future probably belongs to online-virtual banking.
6. Making ISRO a low-cost powerhouse
Once only the top rich countries could indulge in space fantasies. ISRO took the low-cost route to compete and even best the rest of the world. This is the best example of: Sasta, sundar aur tikau (Economical, beautiful and lasting). To think this organization began its tech journey by transporting India’s cutting edge space tools via a solitary jeep and bullock carts for its launches.
7. Taking the smartphone to the bottom of the pyramid
The desktop failed. The laptop failed. The tab failed. The smartphone succeeded spectacularly. It doesn’t matter whether you are in an Indian city, town or village, everyone is equally addicted to the smartphone. But the flip side is that you can also use it as a tool for empowerment. The smartphone era has truly democratized India.
8. Not letting Covid beat us down
2020 was a disaster year for India no matter which way you look at it. But we rebuilt the nation in 2021 and from 2022 are looking at high growth. Kudos to the people of India from the local traders to the SMBs. The tech industry went into overdrive to upgrade, the startups kept the solutions flowing and the government backed them all with HealthTech and AgriTech becoming buzz words.
9. Embracing the startup culture
If the 2000s launched the IT services industry, then the startups ruled in the 2010s. We now have had more than 100 unicorns. While there was a time when most school students wanted to become either an engineer or a doctor, now the aspiration to become an entrepreneur is quite strong. The startups came good during the Covid crisis too.
10. Becoming a broadband nation
In the 1990s the Internet in India was super slow and the pace started picking up in the 2000s. Mobile broadband exploded after the Jio launch and we are arguably the best in the world for that. Covid expanded all other broadband. This is important because today, you can do practically nothing if you don’t have good broadband, whether it’s business, entertainment or even your personal devices.
11. Global Domination by UPI
If one had to pick India’s greatest software or app or tech platform-system-interface, then it’s arguably UPI, which was launched in 2016. It is going from strength to strength. After uniting umpteen players in India, it is now looking to dominate the globe. Its monthly transactions crossed `10 lakh crore some time back. It has more than a 100 million monthly active users.
12. Making Digital Aadhaar a huge success
When the Aadhaar scheme was launched, it was slow off the blocks, but it picked up pace and soon encompassed the entire adult population and children too were brought under its umbrella. While this was the largest identity scheme in any democracy, what was the real icing on the cake was its digital version which was connected to all your other identities.
13. Boosting Ecommerce during the pandemic
This was what kept the country going during the pandemic. Everything whether it was an essential or luxury good came under the ecommerce umbrella. We had a proliferation of delivery boys across the country. It was a great way to counter the lockdown and lessen the crowds when there was no lockdown.
14. Setting up CoWIN in record time
One of the imperatives of the pandemic was to roll out vaccinations fast and then get them certified. That way the CoWIN platform was set up in record time and was quite handy for travel. While it had glitches in the beginning, it became essential later so much so that
this will now be expanded to embrace our online healthcare system.
15. Launching India Stack as the backbone
Did you know that India Stack is the globe’s largest open API? The government has said: “India Stack is a set of APIs that allows governments, businesses, startups and developers to utilize a unique digital Infrastructure to solve India’s hard problems towards presence-less, paperless, and cashless service delivery.” It has helped with Aadhaar, UPI, DigiLocker, eKYC etc.
16. Becoming a collaboration nation
We were nowhere in online collaboration before Covid but adopted it quickly. It became the backbone of remote work and business continuity. Thanks to the ubiquity of the smartphone, it was handy in rural areas too.
17. A government scheme for everything
Digital India encompasses Make in India, Startup India, BharatNet, Bharatmala, Sagarmala, UMANG, e-Sampark, e-Panta etc. The PLI schemes include electronics, networking and mobile and manufacturing among many others. A lot of this has already taken off. India is already the second-largest mobile handset manufacturer in the world.
18. We finally launched 5G
Before Covid, 5G was dragging such that many thought it would never come. During Covid it became next to impossible. But we quickly moved to trials after the lockdown and have launched 5G services. This will be key for continuous high all-pervading broadband. It will power Industry 4.0, smart homes and smart cars.
19. Becoming the medical factory of the world
In the 2000s when Africa was reeling under the AIDS crisis, it couldn’t afford expensive Western drugs. That’s when India stepped in with its generic drugs and became a drug factory for Africa. They stepped up after that and recently could easily vaccinate the entire country and even export. With HealthTech, we are now ready to go to the next stage.
20. Became the backbone of Silicon Valley
While we have no shortage of engineers in India (per capita, compared to the rest of the world), there are no shortage of them in the rest of the world too. An Indian origin CEO heading a top tech firm has become a cliche. In America it’s not just Silicon Valley but they are getting into the corporate world and politics.
By Sunil Rajguru