Bijli, Sadak, Pani, Broadband & Smartphone?

08 Aug,2014


By Pradyuman Maheshwari


The in-laws are scattered across India and the United States. It’s been 13 years since all of us met. A little over a decade back, I set up an e-group that facilitated the family to stay connected. The group – called ChapraNet, named after the town in Northern Bihar where the wife hails – from was an instant hit with the family.


We started wishing each other on birthdays and anniversaries that no one remembered and suddenly there was much conversation between sections of the family. Auto alerts on special occasions and photo albums etc ensured that the e-group didn’t require day-to-day monitoring.


I tried moving it to a Facebook group, but that didn’t much favour. The group lives on, and the family stays connected.


We’ve even had a family meet-up via Google Hangout though have just managed to do that once. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law is able to join in from Chapra, in biting cold cuddled up with multiple layers of woollens. Under a mosquito net, iPad in hand, Facetiming with her grandkids in Mumbai or Maryland.


Bijli, Sadak, Paani and Broadband. That last bit was added by the late Dewang Mehta, head of the software industry association NASSCOM. Mehta would’ve had a hearty laugh as he would see politicians fighting over getting broadband or wifi to their voters as part of their poll promise. Although we are lightyears behind other economies on internet speeds, mobile phones have been a huge gamechanger.  The proliferation and usage of basic feature phones and smartphones has redefined the way Indians will seek information and transact in future.


The arsenal is getting readied.  Reliance Industries is planning to launch 4G next year, Airtel already has it in the air. The problem currently is of the rest of the ecosystem. For instance, save a handful of mobilephones, 4G cannot be accessed by most devices currently in shopshelves.


Already wireless connectivity has ensured that you could be on Manori beach off Mumbai, and checking out the newest season of an American soap.


As devices get more dexterous, newer apps are being built to achieve the impossible. Get your heartbeat by placing your finger on the back camera of your phone or tablet. Count the number of steps you have taken or the calories you’ve burnt by wearing what looks like a ‘friendship band’.  Not all these things come cheap,  the Nike ‘fuel band’ can set you back by Rs 11,500.


Clearly, even the sky doesn’t appear to be the limit when it comes to information technology.  Soon, you could scan the quality of alphonso mangoes being sold at the neighbourhood bhajiwala and figure if they’ve riped right.  All this with the help of the Google Glass, the early variants of which are with a select few in India. The price is upwards of a hundred thousand rupees currently, but don’t be surprised if breaks the Rs 50k barrier in a year or two.


Advancements in IT will dictate the way we live. And they are indeed a great equaliser. The watchman’s daughter has as much access to information as your kids and the networked device (television set included) can be a great equaliser.  There are stories of how a domestic at a stockbroker’s home made a few crores off online trading from the various tips he gathered while attending to his sa’ab. No fantasy from a Manmohan Desai flick, but happy nuggets from Mumbai.


A small provisions store-turned-supermarket in Lokhandwala Complex now asks its patrons to Whatsapp their shopping list and a fisherwoman sends pictures of her morning catch to regular customers so that they can place their orders. A young lady sells cookies off the boot of her Nano in South Mumbai by Facebooking messages and the location where she will be parked. A tuition teacher communicates with students from across the country via an e-learning software and a therapist heals patients globally via Skype.


The mind boggles at the possibilities. Will life in Mumbai (and the rest of the country) be governed by information technology. Perhaps it is, and perhaps it will finally save a lot of the infra problems that plague the city. You don’t have to suffer the traffic jams because you needn’t get out of your home to work.  No need to sweat it out to pay your utility bills as they are all payable online. Many automated, with standard instructions and pre-defined caps so that you don’t pay extra if there’s an error in a bill.


There are of course issues here. Not all information that you get on the internet is authenticated. Especially Wikipedia.  A lot of news sources – on Twitter and Facebook included cannot be trusted. Transactions may be secure but there is need to be careful about fly-by-night operators.


Believers in the new information order will tell you that all these worries are misplaced. While Wikipedia cannot be trusted, it’s the same democratised media that ensures that untrusted sources are flagged off. Ditto with news sources and e-commerce players out to con unsuspecting netizens. And just as you have fake university taking students for a ride and quacks-turned-medical practitioners getting away scotfree in the real world, they exist online too.


What’s important hence is to exploit the medium to its fullest, but follow old world values to check the bonafides of the source.  While technology must decidedly be handled with care and caution, we can’t not embrace it.


While a lot of what’s likely to happen is inspite of the government, much could be achieved if the administration at the State and city level contribute to the cause.  Successive regimes in Maharashtra have ensured that infrastructure in the state sucks, and while it’s impossible to reverse that, there’s an opportunity to ensure the state is has a large wi-fi cover. In addition to infra, the State must also deploy software and tools (apps included) to communicate with citizens. Bijli, sadak, paani and broadband.  Perhaps we should add smartphone, right?


This article first appeared in the Free Press Journal dated July 11, 2014


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