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Kiran Karnik: 'The constraint in reaching broadband to villages is organisational and managerial capability' | Photograph by Shrey Gupta

'Tech must go bottom up and take people into account'

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: Feb. 01, 2019
Updated: Mar. 24, 2020

Digital technology has brought major changes in India and there are more coming. It has speeded up the way people connect and transact. It has made the interface with authority more transparent. Medical advice can be given over long distances. So, too, can education be acquired.  

But in a country with stark social and economic disparities, can technology alone be the answer to the lack of governance and inclusion? Or is it inevitable that some people will just get left behind? In Aadhaar’s implementation it has been seen that even a one percent failure rate has put millions of people at risk of losing their rights and many have. There have been deaths from something as basic as rations not being disbursed.

So what should be done to be more equitable in delivering benefits from sophisticated transformations? How can technology be shaped to meet the needs of those who have a lot of catching up to do?

Kiran Karnik, who has been closely involved with technological changes in India over the years, has interesting answers. He has served in government programmes in space and atomic energy and he has also been part of the IT sector. His book, Evolution: Decoding India’s disruptive tech story, has been recently released. On a crisp January morning, Civil Society caught up with Karnik in his simple and attractive apartment in Gurugram.

The Modi government has made strenuous efforts to use digital technology for better governance. Has it made enough headway?

The national so-called ‘e-governance’ programme started more than 10 years ago. It wasn’t moving very fast. There was some effort to try and see what services could be digitised. This government has given it additional impetus because the prime minister is personally very much involved and desirous of pushing the whole idea of technology, particularly digital technology. It has done very well in some areas in trying to see where technology can be used well to interface. In some other areas — take a thing that is so critical like the optical fibre reaching 50,000 gram panchayats — the progress has been slower than one would have liked. There has been acceleration but it has reached half that number and even that not properly. Taking broadband to rural India can transform lives in a big way — livelihoods, education, health, everything — but the kind of drive one would have expected and hoped for has been missing.

Isn’t it strange because that’s the pipe that would make all the difference? Is there any explanation?

I think the problem comes in looking at technology and not looking at the organisational forms with enough depth. The constraint we’ve seen time and again is organisational and managerial capability. Technology is there today and there’s nothing new to be invented. There’s nothing new to be done. It’s really how you put it into place and execute. So it’s all about management and organisation.

So it’s a combination of good management and being in mission mode?

Absolutely. That’s the whole secret of what you might say is our success in technology areas.

It is what was there in our space programme.

You can say it was in space. In my book I also give the example of atomic energy. You see it in a completely different way in information technology (IT), which is private sector-driven. The government has played a bigger role in the IT sector than people give it credit for in terms of policy and facilitation, but the private sector has driven it. In all three areas you see this combination, which you rightly said, of good management and being in mission mode.

In IT, through NASSCOM, we set ourselves the target of $50 billion by 2008. So there was a goal, there was a congruence of people and there was an  intense sense of competition amongst the players. But the superordinate goal was to reach that $50 billion. Everything needed to support that goal had to be done across companies. In human resources and infrastructure, such as better connectivity, they came together. In other areas they competed. The private sector works so well when you are in mission mode. Here (in e-governance) it’s not been there to the same extent.

And tragically so because you do have current successes like solar.

Yes, you’re right, it is much, much more successful.

So, in the absence of digital literacy at the grassroots and a robust telecom structure, should we have moved slowly and more consciously to deliver schemes meant for the poor?

It’s a very good question. It troubles me because I’m not a technology enthusiast. I think technology can do it, but you have to use it appropriately.

You’ve said in your book, we need the ‘renaissance’ approach.

Absolutely. I think that you just need to look at a combination of things. It’s not just all about technology. Having said that, I think that technology has great potential and the digital literacy part is not really a constraint. You can see this in the way people use the cell phone. It’s not just a cell phone. You use it for all kinds of things. Not just in urban areas, but I’ve seen this even in rural areas. They know how to access websites, they know how to download music and movies, they know how to get the cricket score — all through icons without someone telling them. They know how to make a WhatsApp call. None of it has been done by ‘educating’ them and creating so-called digital literacy.

But for more complex things like financial transactions, we have to ask ourselves whether we have the wherewithal to use just technology. I think that’s been the mistake with things like Aadhaar. It’s not just the issues around privacy and data protection. It’s all about making it the only route when in a country like India you know that you have people being excluded for one reason or the other. I think that has been the problem. It has not been thought through sufficiently in a proper end-to-end manner.

Many technology enthusiasts, among them my friends and colleagues, have pushed hard, saying “this is the magic solution”. There’s no magic in this. In most problems in India we have to take a much wider approach and understand the issues that are there from the grassroots upwards. And that’s been missing.

If I can digress for a bit here, a couple of things. When we did, not that it was great, but when we did good things in the space programme it was always based on beginning with an understanding of what the people you are trying to reach need. That’s why we built a whole team of social scientists to understand first what people want and then see how technology could be used to deliver it.

Here we’ve gone the other way around. You have a technology and say, “Hey this is great, let’s just deliver this.” You’re not trying to understand what the issues are. Things like biometrics for people who do hard, manual work — their fingerprints get erased. Then you have a problem matching them. You have a 99 percent match. It sounds great but when you realise 99 percent is one left out of a hundred and you see how many are left out in one million and then how many out of a billion and you see 10 million. And you realise that 10 million won’t get rations, their pensions or whatever. Then you realise the magnitude of the problem. If you start bottom up to look at the problem, then you begin to see. Very often, technology solves these very problems. It’s not always that you throw away technology. But you need to first understand the problem and see how you can use this tool or this toolkit, then you have to deal with it. Rather than starting with this toolkit and saying, “I’ve got a hammer and whether a screw or a nail, I’m just going to hammer it in.”

The Aadhaar card being a case, where activists are pointing out starvation deaths in Jharkhand, they have also been suggesting alternative methods like a smart card and a local data base. What can be done to get techies to work with activists to understand these issues? We may get very great inventions as a result of such collaboration.

I think this is a very critical issue and again something that is sadly neglected. We need to build common platforms where those who understand the people — activists who work at the grassroots — work with technologists. That has been missing. There has been no dialogue and unfortunately both seem to have taken opposite views where they don’t even talk the same language. The technologists are in a world of their own, thinking that technology can solve all the problems in the world. And then there are some, not all but many I would say, activists who feel that technology is the tool of the oppressor.

I think this is going back to when I first started my career when I was working in rural areas, 50 years ago. I used to have this problem. We would try to deal with those at the grassroots level and always found that most of them were just convinced that technology was a tool of the oppressor and stayed away from it. That’s wrong. I think you have to see how to use it.

But the dialogue on how the two can come together is very critical. As with many areas, particularly in the past few years, dialogue between differing opinions in this country has got lost somewhere. We need to build that again. This is something that civil society organisations need to take the initiative in. Of course the government has a big responsibility to do this, probably bigger. But I think the whole civil society world also should relook at how they can establish a dialogue.

Isn’t this interesting, considering the background to a lot of technology in our country. We’re the originators of satellite TV and the purpose for it was educational. Public health being an example. We have a long history of this, so why is there memory loss? You’ve worked in the private and public sectors, perhaps you have some insights.

It is unfortunate and I don’t have a clear answer as to why this sort of memory loss has happened. I’ve had the good fortune of working with the government and in the private sector and being very active, not just now but in the past with civil society organisations and I think it’s very easy to build dialogue and straddle and cross-fertilise among the three. It’s a huge advantage. We should be taking examples of success from the private sector and transferring them to civil society, to government and vice-versa. The government has done some very good things and there are examples across the country.

The dialogue seems to have broken down, possibly because we don’t have enough platforms and one of my hopes has been that somebody, I don’t know who, will create more platforms where there are possibilities of dialogue happening among these three.

Great opportunities are lost in the process…

Absolutely! For a country like ours, this is critical. We need to understand basic issues and solve them. One of the ways, not the only way, but one of the ways of solving them is to use the powerful new technologies that are now available. Our country has the good fortune to have the capability (to employ these technologies).

In your book one of the important things you’ve talked about is the cashless economy and what technology has done for banking and financial transfers. But in a country like ours, you must have thought how far we can go cashless, right? We have a large informal sector. Can the cashless economy bring the informal sector into the formal sector? Is there a meeting point here?

That’s the great big hope. Of course, going completely cashless is not going to happen. It’s
not just us because of our state of development. Look at Germany. The amount of cash they use
is phenomenal.

Or look at Japan.

Even Japan. Cash is not bad. You gave the example of bringing the informal sector in. It’s something that I’ve mentioned in my book as an example, and that’s the dream that some of us have about how going cashless can be usefully used. If the small vendors accept payments through a digital platform then they’ll have a history of transactions that will be useful in getting loans. You have these people who lend to them at an interest rate of 2 percent a day! Giving them a loan at 18-20 percent would make them so much better off.

I think going completely cashless is a dream, it is a mirage, but it is not so difficult for them to reduce their cash and go digital. I think getting them into the formal economy in some way would be a great help for them in terms of getting loans, in terms of getting recognised, as being credit-worthy, both to suppliers and to buyers. It’s something worth looking at, but again we have to do it with an understanding of the basic issues.

There’s no substitute for the human interface.

I don’t think there’s a substitute. Complete mechanisation or automation is probably not feasible and not desirable.

How do we implement large-scale efforts to spread digital literacy to teachers and panchayat representatives?

I do think such efforts need to be done on scale.  I’ll give you one example from 50 years ago and  the initial days of satellite broadcasting. We trained a huge number of teachers in teaching science. We had 2,500 teachers and we brought 50 of them to places where we had satellite broadcast. In 10 days we trained a massive number.

You need a similar effort.  Start training at the district level and then move on to state level particularly for teachers and panchayat functionaries. Panchayats handle a fair amount of money and accounting. For them to be able to get this on a digital platform will be efficient, useful, quicker, and, more importantly, accountable. It’ll be visible.