A little detour with this post. But when one of the most prominent politics and policy writers in America, if not “the West,” devotes some time to India, I say it is worth our attention.
That writer? The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman. Here’s a link to his column today, plus some excerpts:
Somehow, though, without benefit of police or stoplights, this flow of humanity that is modern India impossibly went about its business. But just when your mind tells you that this crush of people will surely overwhelm all efforts to lift the mass of India out of poverty, you start to notice a pattern: Every few miles there’s a cellphone tower and a fresh-looking building poking out of the controlled chaos. And the sign out front invariably says “school” — engineering school, biotechnology school, English-language school, business school, computer school or private elementary school. India is still the only country I know where you can find a billboard advertising “physics degrees.”
All these schools, plus 600 million cellphones, plus 1.2 billion people, half of whom are under 25, are India’s hope — because only by leveraging technology and brains can India deliver a truly better life for its masses. There are a million reasons why it won’t happen, but there is one big reason it might. The predicted really is happening: India’s young techies are moving from running the back rooms of Western companies, who outsourced work here, to inventing the front rooms of Indian companies, which are offering creative, low-cost solutions for India’s problems. The late C.K. Prahalad called it “Gandhian innovation,” and I encountered many examples around New Delhi.
Finally, there’s Nandan Nilekani, the former C.E.O. of Infosys Technologies, India’s outsourcing giant, who is now leading a government effort to give every Indian citizen an ID number — a crucial initiative in a country where most people have no driver’s license, passport or even birth certificate.
In the last two years, 100 million people have signed up for an official ID. Once everyone has one, the government can deliver them services or subsidies — some $60 billion each year — directly through cellphones or bank accounts, without inept or corrupt bureaucrats siphoning some off.
Now, there’s no mention — beyond, perhaps the Gandhi reference — of the spirituality that is the Western yogi’s connection to India. But for many in the West, the technology side of India is becoming, or already has become, increasingly familiar. That familiarity may be through clinches and stereotypes, but as Friedman’s column suggests, the West risks its status if it doesn’t look past those cliches.
If you hew to Friedman’s most positive take, that risk of status loss already is happening, to India’s benefit.
Posted by Steve