Tackling India's social problems with IT
By 2001, the Western Indian state of Gujarat— known locally as the “Jewel of the West”—was deep in the doldrums. Years of political instability, mismanagement and corruption had frittered away precious resources. The public cried out for a savior. Instead, they got an earthquake that killed 20,000 residents, destroyed nearly 400,000 homes and caused over US$5.5 billion in damages. From the fallout, Narendra Modi, a former tea peddler and science enthusiast, was catapulted into power.
Gujarat’s unpopular government intended for him to be the deputy chief minister. But Modi refused: “I’m either going to be fully responsible for Gujarat, or not at all.” Some called him arrogant, if not authoritarian. In truth, Modi simply understood science and technology’s ability to solve the seemingly unsolvable.
His model is simple: Lay the infrastructure—electricity, roads, schools, public transportation, broadband and so on—and harness information technology (IT) to streamline governance and achieve synergy between public officials and grassroots society. Such a model calls for far-flung flows of critical, often scientific, knowledge to empower individuals. This means linking agro-scientists and technological engineers with local farmers and entrepreneurs, digitally educating the under-educated and creating responsive and transparent civil institutions that can be accessed and monitored from one’s home.
The “Modi model” worked wonders in Gujarat, now India’s premier e-governed state. Today, all 18,000 of its villages enjoy nationally unparalleled 24-hour electricity and Internet access, 95% of its electronically submitted public complaints have been addressed and its GDP and agricultural sector have grown at 10% and 9%, respectively, over the past decade.
Having been elected, overwhelmingly, as India’s Prime Minister in May 2014, Modi is poised to work his magic at the national level. Challenges—including limited funds, infrastructural shortcomings and stifling regulatory environments—abound. Nonetheless, with bullet trains, “smart cities,” new solar projects and scientific research hubs in the pipeline, Modi has faith in the force-multiplying effects of science and technology.
Consider Modi’s “Digital India” campaign: by expanding broadband and mobile Internet coverage across the country, virtual medical technologies can then be used to ameliorate a health crisis compounded by the 700 million Indians who live isolated from the nearest hospitals.
On this front Anita Goel, CEO of Nanobiosym and developer of the Gene-RADAR technology—a wireless iPad-sized diagnostic tool that rapidly tests for many diseases at a cost of just a few dollars—has been discussing plans with Modi “to place this mobile device in every village throughout the country.”
India faces an arduous road ahead, but the significance of Modi’s undertaking cannot be overstated. Modi, says Goel, “wants to turn India into a technological wellspring. But most of all, he wants to inspire hope in hearts around the globe.”
Illustration by Nicolet Schenck
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