May June 2003
connectivity could be improved, then con-nection - telephonic and/or internet - would be within the reach of 200 millionIndians, and perhaps a billion citizens inother developing nations. What Jhunjhunwala and his group havebegan to demonstrate, using highly sophis-ticated indigenous technologies, is that itis possible to bring the cost of connectiv-ity far down toward this level of $200 perline and, in certain urban situations, toeven less than $100 per line. This tech-nology exists, it is in use, and it works. Tobe sure, the story is not over: there arecompeting technologies; there are Govern-ment of India regulations which make si-multaneous telephone and internetconnections illegal; there are multi-nation-als fighting for a piece of the market; thereis the unwillingness of BSNL to allow theChennai wireless local loop solution toenter rural areas, even though these areasare loss leaders for BSNL. My point, how-ever, is that the there is no other group inthe world that has produced the results of the Chennai group. If widely adopted,these results could revolutionize access totelephone, email, and Internet in every urban and rural community in India andthe world.The second requirement is a computeror other similar device available at low cost,accessible to India’s millions, and if possi-ble to the 50 per cent or so who cannotread and write. Here, again, I believe thatIndian innovations, specifically the “Sim-puter” pioneered by Prof. Vijay Chandru,Swami Manohar and others here at theIndian Institute of Science is ahead of any other device being created in any othercountry. The Simputer, in fact a highly sophisticated computer running on open-source software, has remarkable features:text to speech capabilities in five languag-es, including Kannada, Hindi, Tamil, andTelugu, smart card capabilities, potentialto receive down-loaded satellite radio com-munications, operability for eight hours with three pen-light batteries, a touchscreen accessible to those who cannot readand write, a case hardened to rain, dust,heat and cold, and many other innovativefeatures. Equally innovative is the conceptbehind the Simputer, namely, not only open-source software but open-sourcehardware: i.e., the capacity to modify,change, and improve hardware with thesole condition that such improvementsbecome universally available. The Simput-er is now being produced in volume, andfield trials are under way in six areas. De-spite promises in countries like Brazil, noother nation has produced a device of thissophistication, complexity, durability, andflexibility. Here too, India leads the world.The third requirement is software.Here, India faces one of the most difficultproblems of any nation. There are eight-een official Indian languages; linguists list32 distinct Indian languages each of whichis spoken by more than a million people.Unlike the United States, where 97 percent of the population speak, write, andread English, in India even basic literacy in one mother tongue (defined as the abil-ity to write one’s name), is available only to slightly more than half of the popula-tion, including less than half of the femalepopulation. For the 50 or so million Indi-ans who speak, read, and write fluent Eng-lish, there is of course no problem:Microsoft takes care of everything, al-though at a price which for most Indiansis equivalent to at least a year’s income.But for the average Indian, to say noth-ing of those in the lower income groups,flexible, available, inexpensive local lan-guage software is essential.Once again, volumes have been writ-ten on this topic and it would be wrong tosay the problem is anywhere near solution.On the contrary, the absence of standard-ized code, agreed upon fonts, usable oper-ating systems in local languages, etc.continues to bedevil the most brilliant ef-forts of Indian linguists and computer sci-entists. It would be possible to spend hoursdiscussing these problems.Instead, however, I will point to anotheroutstanding success, namely the work of Prof. Rajeev Sangal and his group at theInternational Institute of InformationTechnology in Hyderabad. Prof. Sangal’sgroup is now achieving close to 95% ac-curacy in the machine translation of thenorthern Indian languages, using a com-mon-core artificial language closely relat-ed to and built upon Paninian grammarand Sanskrit. The Sangal group also findsthat the South Indian (so called Dravidi-an) languages, with two or three core gram-matical changes, also lend themselves tothe same approach. The Hyderabadgroup’s work is not finished, but the re-sults being achieved are, I think, at theforefront of others working, for example,in machine translations for the North-Eu-ropean or Latin-based languages. In thisarea, too, India is at the head of the pack. Jhunjhunwala, Chandru, and Sangalknow each other and each other’s work;indeed, I was told that some decades agothey were all studying at Kanpur. It is dif-ficult for groups working on disparatetechnological problems to join hands tomerge efforts, to make modifications, sothat their creations will become moremutually useful. But to a foreign observ-er like myself, one dream is that, given what I perceive as Indian supremacy inthese critical technological fields, theremight eventually result a joining of hands,a merger of efforts, a technological collab-oration that would produce what softwareservice exporters call “a complete solution”at the technological level.By singling out these three remarkablegroups, I do not mean to minimize othercreative efforts. But I do want to try todispel that technological imperialism to which people in my nation as well as Indi-ans sometimes fall prey. This holds thatthe process of human and social advanceoccurs by means of something called “tech-nology transfer” whereby the developednations of the world create innovative tech-nologies, which they in turn export to thedeveloping nations, which in turn use theseimported technologies to solve the prob-lems of development. My point here is thattechnologies now being developed in In-dia are superior to those that have beendeveloped in other countries, including my own, and that the concept of technology transfer must give way to the concept of partnership and collaboration.
The mantra of the season
Let me now turn to actual efforts to usemodern information and communica-tion technologies to meet the needs andrights of ordinary people. Over the lasttwo or three years, I have located at least50 sites in India which are attemptingto use IT’s in the service of ordinary people, and often, the poorest sectionsof the population. I have been able tovisit approximately 20 of these projects,