Innovation Priorities for India: Inclusive ICT and Renewable Energy

Wednesday May 08, 2013,

7 min Read

India is going through the first wave of a mobile boom, but the data and broadband wave is just beginning. Success in this phase will depend heavily on inclusive access to ICTs, and meeting the large energy needs of this sector. Without innovative technologies and business models, the risks of a digital and energy divide loom large for India, according to speakers at the India Global ICT Forum 2013. For startups and investors in this sector, this also implies that vast opportunities for entrepreneurship will continue to emerge in the years to come.


Organised in Delhi by the CMAI (Communications, Multimedia and Infrastructure) Association of India ( and Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation ( headquartered in London, the event covered topics such as innovation policies, entrepreneurship, service infrastructure, smart devices, app development, universal access obligations, renewable energy, and empowerment of girls and women through ICT's.

Smart Devices and Content Models

Making ICT accessible as well as affordable is a key priority in India. Therefore the aim of computers such as the Akash tablet is to provide Internet access via a device which is “just good enough,” and not necessarily the market leader in quality or excellence, said Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of Datawind. The project is not without its share of controversy, but Singh claimed the model was based more on principles of frugal innovation, strong focus on cost, and avoidance of ‘feature kill.’

“Computer penetration in the US took off when the PC price point dropped below 25% of monthly income. For a similar take-off in India, tablets must come below Rs. 5,000 at least. The next versions of Akash will be priced below Rs. 2,500,” said Singh.

India has only 50 million landlines for a population of 1.2 billion people, and mobile is the best way ahead for widespread Internet access. Content is the other half of the equation, and Datawind is part of the Apps To Empower contest ( which invites app developers to submit apps for education and empowerment for the next billion users, by July 26.

Other device players in this space are Nokia, which is targeting the 1.2 billion mobile phone users in the world who have access only to voice and SMS. Nokia Life, for instance, provides SMS and IVR based access to information about tractor management for farmers, health tips for diabetes patients, and educational information for rural school children.

The service has acquired 100 million users over the last years in India, China, Indonesia, Nigeria and Kenya, according to Nikhil Narayanan, product marketing manager, Nokia Life. Content partners include UNICEF, IGNOU, Plan International and Arogya World.

Sapna Narula, professor at TERI University, highlighted the importance of social entrepreneurship in bringing the fruits of ICTs to Indian farmers and fishing communities, via initiatives such as mKrishi, Handygo, and FisherFriend which help overcome information asymmetries.

In the discussions after these sessions, I shared the examples of competitions and awards held by YourStory, such as TechSparks, MobiSparks and eSparks. For example, KashmirBox was an eSparks 2013 winner, and is a social e-commerce marketplace that takes Kashmiri products to the globe by linking artisans, craftsmen and entrepreneurs via cybercafés. The Digital Empowerment Foundation also recognises innovative use of ICTs by government and social entrepreneurs (Manthan Awards, mBillionth Awards).

Girls and ICT

A special session was held to mark ‘Girls in ICT’ day. Giving more ICT access to girls can spur employment and entrepreneurship among women, according to the panellists.

While the IT industry has attracted more urban women than many other sectors, they are still not present in adequate levels at top management. Studies by companies such as Intel have shown than ICT access can give women not just information and education but jobs and a sense of self-esteem.

Unfortunately, patriarchal barriers and some regressive attitudes by Indian men towards women hold them back; other emerging economies are doing better – for instance, Uganda has a larger percentage of women accessing ICTs than India.

Currently, India has only 15 million broadband Internet users for a population of 1.2 billion, and initiatives like the government’s Bharat Broadband Network Limited are addressing this gap.

Swati Rangachari, vice president at Ericsson India, cited data which suggests that a 10% increase in broadband penetration can increase a nation’s GDP by 0.1%, and doubling the broadband speed can increase GDP by 0.3%. According to research by consulting firm Booz, if Indian men and women were equally employed, India’s GDP would increase by 27%.

This calls for more interventions by government, such as women entrepreneur training programmes, according to Tulika Pandey, scientist at the Department of Electronics and IT. More mentoring, women leadership councils and role model sessions are needed.

This is an issue in other countries as well. “Did you know that sixty years ago, six young women programmed the world's first all-electronic computer, the ENIAC,” asked Pandey. But the programmers ( -- Betty Holberton, Jean Bartik, Kathleen Antonelli, Marlyn Meltzer, Ruth Teitelbaum and Frances Spence – were honoured for their pioneering work only 50 years later.

Nirmita Narasimhan, policy director at Bangalore’s Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), shared insights on other aspects of digital inclusion, from her work in drafting the Indian National Policy for Electronic Accessibility. She has also participated in the World Blind Union Treaty negotiations at WIPO. CIS is working on an open source text-to-speech project for 15 Indian languages.

The Other Divides: Hardware and Energy

In addition to accessibility and affordability, other divides in India exist at the level of hardware and energy. Most of the components of mobile phones in India are being imported; the domestic manufacture of these components needs to increase, advised Kapil Sibal, Union Minister for Communications & IT. By 2020, India will be spending more on hardware imports than crude petroleum imports, he cautioned.

Domestic hardware manufacturing will be good not just for India but also other emerging economies such as Africa, and reduce dependencies on external manufacturers, according to Sibal. For this to happen there needs to be not just corporate social responsibility but global social responsibility by the telecom industry, and we need not just an Internet but an ‘Equinet,’ he said. (I wondered whether there needs to be more ‘government social responsibility’ in India as well, given the 2G Scam and other such scandals!)

India is currently importing 80% of its energy, and that is still not enough. The telecom sector is one of the heaviest users of energy, observed Farooq Abdullah, Minister of New and Renewable Energy. This calls for innovative approaches in cleantech and renewable energy, he urged, and the government should set up a Centre for Innovation in Energy.

In addition to manufacture and access, the creative application of ICTs for tackling important problems is key. For example, India is responsible for the highest number of road deaths annually in the world, followed by China and the US. “In terms of road fatalities per 100,000 motor vehicles, India is unfortunately at the top of the list. Can ICTs help improve traffic safety? That is the focus of this year’s World Telecom Day on May 17,” said Hamadoun Toure, Secretary General, ITU (

I thought the best observation of the day about the challenging divides facing India came from Mukul Sangma, chief minister of Meghalaya. “The real divide in India is the political divide, between parties and states,” he joked!

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