Among the many ways that COVID-19 will change us, is the collaborative approach to tackling national challenges in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for COVID-19 Solution Challenge on MyGov is a welcome effort towards involving private sector in times of a national crisis.
Globally, governments are in deep collaboration with private companies and individual innovators to source smart ideas. At the core of such a collaboration is trust.
In the US, the Departments of Energy and Defence offer grants to promising ideas at high speed, in good faith and with little paperwork. The focus on private expertise is high in the US currently. In India, the low levels of trust between government and private sector is a result of nasty behaviour on both sides. The coronavirus crisis should encourage the government and private sector to overcome mutual mistrust and work together for a common goal. Mr Modi said, “Harnessing innovation for a healthier planet. A lot of people have been sharing technology-driven solutions for COVID-19. I would urge them to share them on @mygovindia.”
The government has already received a few thousand ideas and solutions on “Bioinformatics, datasets, Apps for diagnosis etc that can be leveraged for strengthening the fight against Corona.”
As the government focuses on the COVID-19 challenge, it would make ideal to divide this into two distinct categories.
Firstly, the focus should be prevention and cure of COVID-19. All efforts to prevent the spread must use technology in some way or the other. Every entity or individual who is working on improving diagnostics, preventive care and possible cure should be engaged. The European Union has put out a call to start-ups that are working on COVID-19 to apply for fast track funding. The European Union has made available ^164 million through the European Innovation Council to be given to start-ups. This body helps in taking high impact technologies to the market.
India can focus on enabling priority funding for similar start-ups. For the moment, the India COVID Challenge offers less than Rs 200,000 as an award. Instead the Prime Minister’s Office should help create a fund for COVID solutions urgently. This fund can be administered in mission mode by a semi-corporate body. Secondly, the government should strengthen effort on digital delivery of services. COVID-19 crisis is the right time to enhance investment in digital infrastructure of the country. As more people work and study from home during COVID-19 outbreak, there is an urgent need to enhance capacity of communication networks. The microwave transmitters on telecom towers need to be supported or replaced with optic fibre connectivity, which has much higher bandwidth.
“This is the right time for India to deepen its fibre connectivity. Only about 20 per cent of telecom towers are fibre connected so we can really speed up our capacity,” says TV Ramachandran, president of Broadband India Forum.
There are interim solutions too for immediate expansion of connectivity. The government can consider releasing high frequency millimeter wave spectrum for telecom operators. Poor connectivity in this era is like depriving the economy of oxygen. Government must place availability of high-quality connectivity on greater priority than reduced lending rates, tax deferment and bailout packages. Organisations across sectors are heaving to place their work and businesses online. Poor connectivity will fail them and worsen the crisis. Connectivity is as important as oxygen right now. Collaboration between government and private sector would work best with enhanced digital infrastructure. Immediate and long-term measures should be triggered right way. Innovative solutions will need the oxygen of digital infrastructure to take root.