While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley, the first by any Indian PM, has created a buzz and hope for innovation and entrepreneurship, there are many sceptical voices, who feel India’s infrastructure was still lagging far behind to welcome the state-of-art technology.
Modi, who met top CEOs, is pushing for the much talked about digital strategy. He met Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Tesla founder Elon Musk, apart from meeting Google’s Indian-born Sundar Pichai and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella of Indian origin.
In the Silicon Valley, Pichai announced that 500 railway stations around the country will have hi-speed internet, and that the Google keyboard will be available in more regional Indian languages. Microsoft said that it will extend low-cost broadband services to five lakh villages. Qualcomm, announced a $150 million investment fund for Indian start-ups. Modi also invited Apple to set up a manufacturing base in India, to which Cook is said to have responded positively.
Anja Kovacs of the Internet democracy Project said that it is important to carefully assess what the Prime Minister said. “When the prime minister talks of taking internet connectivity to five lakh villages, what does that mean. Will it be an ongoing connection, or will it be connected only to speak to government officials. We need more details there,” she said.
She added that it is great that the government is able to attract investments; and yet, one must be also careful to look at how much is at stake here. Recently, the government’s draft encryption policy created a furore because it necessitated any user to store encrypted messages for more than 90 days.
“Under these announcements, how safe is our privacy, and what are the legal concerns surrounding it, and whether the internet will be the same is what should be the main talking points,” said Kovacs.
Angel investor Mahesh Murthy, who has been a vocal supporter of the net neutrality debate, said that, for him, the only announcement that mattered was that a non-stop direct flight to San Francisco fro Delhi. “The rest have been very vague, and most have been a part of the Digital India initiative. An we must remember that there is a huge dichotomy between promises and reality,” said Murthy.
It must also be noted that Facebook has been lobbying hard to ensure that it’s Internet.org, a initiative that thrives on zero rating, is allowed in India. Prior to the PM’s visit, Facebook has invested in a sustained marketing push to ensure it’s entry here. Google, too, is currently undergoing investigations by the CCI because it has allegedly favoured its own services in Google search results in India. Both Google and Facebook have been vocal supporters in the US of net neutrality, while in India they have been lobbying against it quietly.
Even though India currently has the world’s third-largest number of internet users, only 20% of the country’s 1.2 billion people have access to the internet. Only a fraction have access to a solid internet connection, and commercial interests and bureaucratic stonewalling have ensured that the services remain within a few.
Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said that the prime minister is trying to hide the failures of the government in his push for digital development. “Modi is trying to make believe that merely by typing the words ‘foodgrains’ in Google, foodgrain stocks of 265 million tons will be posted on Instagram,” said Surjewala. “While PM takes great pride on the sacrifices made by his mother in the past, he does not find time to meet her even once in 16 months nor does he decide to ensure that she lived with him either in Chief Minister’s residence for 12 years or in Prime Minister’s residence for 16 months.”