Did I know these factoids (below)? Of course I did; because this is the story I had been sold…
A recent report from the World Bank states: Mobile phone use has skyrocketed from less than 1 billion in 2000 to 6 billion in 2012. With the ownership of multiple subscriptions mobile phone usage may outnumber the world’s population in the near future. India has 70 mobile subscriptions per 100 people [World Bank, 2012].
The first cellular (mobile) call in India was in July 1995 and currently there are roughly more than 700 million mobile subscriptions. India’s telecommunication network is the second largest in the world based on the total number of telephone users (both fixed and mobile phone).
The growth in the Information Service sector in India has contributed substantially to increase in GDP, employment, and exports. The sector has increased its contribution to India’s GDP from 1.2% in 1998 to 7.5% in 2012 [NASSCOM].
Apparently, China and India together churn out 1 million new engineers each year, about 12 times as many as the U.S. “Chindia: Jai Ho.”
This was the “good” slum-dog millionaire story of emerging economies fed to me (and many of us) for the past decade until very recently (maybe in this year) when the Federal Reserve decided to turn “bad”; became tightfisted with its dollars, started playing games…. And low and behold the poor emerging economies (except China, of course) found out that they were really poor!
However, the Ugly has always been around in the emerging economies – it cannot shake off that inherent ugliness because it is a part of it. It comes from the inside and no amount of blaming the developed nations will eradicate that. As I realized, beauty may be skin-deep but ugliness… well, that is embedded in the soul.
I had heard and memorized all the buzzwords emanating from governments and paid media across the world. What I had erased from my memory was that words (not action) have been the norm through centuries. I had forgotten that this “code” language has been in vogue since the days of Hammurabi? For the Hammurabi, the father of ancient code of law was himself an unjust and ruthless autocrat (Marc Van De Mieroop, 2008).
The year was 2011…
India was (reportedly) firmly rooted in the digital age – the established “software warehouse” of the world OR the “world’s back office.” India was surging ahead in this new millennium which was an era of telecommunications including the field of medicine, with new jargon born every day: mobile ECG, telemedicine, tele-health, tele-radiology, tele-opthalmology, tele-mentored surgery, e-Health … and so on.
I was asked to conduct a webinar (another new terminology) on cardiac pacemakers for physicians across the nation. Family practitioners from across the country were planning to spend their Sunday afternoon listening to me over the web understanding the use of this new technology. After having physically traveled over the pot-holes of India for the past three Sundays in order to make these presentations, I was just ecstatic that this new technology had liberated me from those arduous travels. The “webinar” salesman said that I could just walk down the street to the local “telecommunication center” and deliver my lecture. No planes, trains, automobiles and swearing in congested traffic. My back screamed in happiness and my body danced without taking permission.
D-Day (Sun-day) arrived. I reached the telecommunication center on time. The sponsoring agency showed the excitement expected from them and so did the center manager and staff. They greeted me with statements that began and ended with “Sir” this and “Sir” that. Even before I had fought my battle, I felt knighted. I got down to the console. The family practitioners in the Wi-Fi enabled restaurants across seven cities of India were not exactly waiting for me with bated breath. If at all, I was lucky it was a virtual lecture. The audience of physicians across these cities has been “somatized” with Indian lunch, and I would not have to breathe the garlic and chutney breath.
We got down to business. All the seven locations can hear us, we can hear them. They can see our presentation projected on a big screen “Perfect!!!” Just like one of our Prime Ministers had promised: India had arrived into the 21st century.
About ten minutes into the lecture, while I was excitedly talking about the energy delivered by the pacemakers, the lights went out. At first I thought it was something I said that offended the computer. Then, I cursed myself for having punched or touched the wrong button. About two to three minutes of confusion later I realized that the electric power to the entire area had just gone. There was no electricity. It was not my fault! The digital age cannot comprehend the dark ages at the speed of light! It takes some time.
When I realized what has happened, a wave of disappointment came over me. I sensed that the presentation and hence the experimentation with webinars is over. Back on the road to give these talks! However, I noticed that the representatives of the sponsoring agency were already on their cell phones. I realized they are talking to their colleagues at the other centers and informing them of the situation and asking them to sit tight for a bit. A bit?!?
How can you predict when we are going to get the electricity back? Are we going to set a time as to how long to wait? Next, the telecommunication manager walked in with a flashlight in his hand focused it on the computer and pulling on the USB drive, he said, “Sir, our neighboring center is 10 minutes away and has power, you can continue over there. They are setting up things for your presentation. Take this USB with you”.
The next suburb over had electricity and they were going to host my talk at a moment’s notice! I was floored……Living in the US, I am used to a can-do attitude only to be dejected by the occasional “I am either on the other line or away from my desk” message and attitude. But, I was in a country of “No, cannot do that” and here is this spark of initiative and “Can-do attitude”.
The sponsor’s representative ushered me into a cab and we were on the road. Road? What road, the traffic laden, potholed path with no traffic lights and a whole lot of stop-and-go traffic.
When a young vibrant ex-prime minister of India wanted to take us into the 21st century and the world talked about leapfrogging technology, there was a basic understanding that the public goods of the 19th century will be available to leap frog from. Providing electricity and paved roads are “mission critical” to let us jump into the digital age. Someone forgot to remind the government of this! We were trying to leap from to the 21st century but we did not have the launching pad of the 20th century. Was this the “lean government” or was it the “public-private venture” that I was hearing about? It was clearly not a “synergy” being created or an e-government enterprise since the e for Electricity was missing!
Eventually we reached the neighboring center. The electricity/power shut-down had reached this second center before our car did. However, by this time news came in that electric power had been restored in the first center; guess they had been “empowered!” So we packed ourselves into the car and drove back to the first center.
All I had to do was plug in my USB and open the presentation to a crowd of gathered physicians waiting me at the other end. The little fiasco had woken many of them from their post-lunch slumber. I was back on the webcam, they smiled and clapped, and a grand-motherly physician commented on my huffing and puffing and shouted virtually: “Dikra (son), bring Sir some water”. The staff at the center were back to their “Sir, this and Sir that” attitude and promptly got me three glasses instead of one.
Talk about water being forced down ones throat while one is submerging. I felt like one of those million gods being immersed in one of the dirtiest rivers in India… can’t even pinch their nose to shut out the dirty smells– their hands and feet are made of clay. However, the music of Sergio Leone from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly provides the scene with the grandeur it deserves.
© Jignesh Shah, 2013
- World Bank. 2012. Information and Communications for Development 2012: Maximizing Mobile. Washington, DC: World Bank]
- ”Indian IT-BPO Industry”. NASSCOM. http://www.nasscom.in/indian-itbpo-industry]
- Marc Van De Mieroop. 2008. King Hammurabi of Babylon: A Biography. Page 119-120.