The IT vision statement released by the BJP (the first major political party to do so) has its due share of populist measures, which is to be expected in a pre-election exercise. Also, some of its assertions are unrealistic. Nevertheless, the exercise indicates the extent to which IT has become mainstream in India, or an important party would not have considered it worth its while to make such a large number of promises on one industry. Among the populist measures announced are PCs at Rs 10,000 to 10 million students (free to those who cannot afford it), a free mobile phone for every family below the poverty line (who will pay the monthly bills?), and a 2 mbps broadband connection in every village at less than Rs 200 per month. Aside of the cost to the public exchequer if a future government, with the BJP in it, were to come to power and actually try to implement these measures, the question is whether these would be the best ways to close the digital divide.
To access the internet, not only would a person need to be literate (nearly 40 per cent of all Indians and almost half of the women are not), he would need to access a computer and be assured a reasonable supply of power. But should you want to use a computer, subsidising it at Rs 10,000 would help, just as getting a 2 mbps connection at Rs 200 would be a boon. Even here, the reality is that many people are willing to pay much more but are unable to access a broadband connection worth the name because of last-mile and other problems. A free handset for the poorest families may well improve their lives, but the footprint of wireless signals is yet to reach many rural areas where a lot of the poor live. The policy also promises 12 million new IT-enabled rural jobs when urban-based IT and IT enabled services have till now created only 2 million jobs.
In short, much of this is a pie in the sky. But the policy makes many sensible promises too, on which there is wide agreement; indeed, many of the ideas are already being implemented. The use of smart cards is increasing, particularly to make welfare payments through computerised processes so as to reduce corruption. The idea of a national multi-purpose identity card, which has also been mooted, marks the culmination of what has been initiated in bits and pieces and will be opposed by none. The same holds for equipping the country with a national digital highway and an internet backbone. Any government that pushes the country in this direction, spreading e-governance facilities along the way, will have wide support. Very few, except corporate interests in mobile telephony, will oppose the idea of allowing unrestricted internet telephony, which will bring telecom costs down even further. But at least one specific idea needs to be debunked. There can be no quarrel with promoting the domestic hardware industry but the promise to minimise dependence on imports is absurd. The global hardware industry runs on the criss-crossing of borders by the components that make up all hardware. To restrict this will lead to depriving the country of hardware, as had happened till 1980.