Shyam Ponappa / Jan 03, 2013
Things That Work…
Simple aspects of everyday living that actually work in India can leave one wonderstruck. Like the daily newspapers, organised and delivered seamlessly, reasonably early in the day, almost regardless of where one lives provided it’s a city or town. Or the availability of milk, eggs, bread, vegetables, fruit, and whatever else for daily provisions. And this despite the supposed shortcomings of our logistics and organisation in the context of wholesale and retail markets. Some of the revolutions that we’ve lived through in the last two decades include the manifestation of such wonders, like the phenomenal and ubiquitous growth in the supply of dairy and poultry products.
On a different plane, as it were, are the changes in the quality of automobiles and the improvements in India’s roads, although patchy and considerably lagging. Likewise, there have been revolutions in mobile communications and in air travel, disregarding anomalies such as the horror of Mumbai airport on private airlines, with its incompetent cab mafia on arrival, and a disorganised and demeaning crush on departure, squeezing past crowded boarding gates. (This is the state of the commercial capital? Woe betide us — but I digress...) Another source of wonder is the performance of the Indian Railways. Much abused by exploitative politicians, given short shrift on everything from cleanliness and toilets to much else, overloaded by hapless passengers in desperate need of transportation. One can only marvel at these services.
And yet, there are debilitating areas that seem utterly intractable, like sanitation, water, power supply and communications services for data (apart from voice).
Comparing the state of sanitation or power with the railways, one might say the latter had the benefit of being set up as an integrated system since the 1850s, although deprived in recent times of systematic development and investment, and so reduced to decrepitude. By contrast, sanitation has been playing catch-up on our old, established society, behind the curve for hundreds of years, never having had the advantage of installation as ab initio systems. Open drains are an Indian feature, even in Delhi. A similar situation obtains in power supply, where the contradictions and inequities of piecemeal, encapsulated interventions that tried to address power generation first were followed by sporadic efforts to address transmission and distribution, with realpolitik all the while playing to the users’ self-indulgence of having it all without paying for it. This sense of entitlement without accountability has resulted in the vicious circle of “free power” that leads to no power, annihilating possibilities for improvement.
In communications services for data (broadband), we have a different kind of problem. For one, governments, citizens and activists don’t seem to get it that these services are as essential to infrastructure as energy and transportation. There is no logic to their exclusion, but it has taken the National Telecom Policy of 2012 (NTP-2012) to announce the objective that telecom is part of infrastructure, although the associated benefits, such as lower interest rates, are yet to follow.
The malady with sectors such as power, communications and transport is that solutions seem to be designed without an integrated, end-to-end, goal-oriented perspective favouring users. For instance, otherwise successful initiatives like the Delhi Metro provide services from an islanded “product perspective” that is simply not user-centric in its orientation. This results in insufficient feeder buses, inadequate parking at the Metro stations, a gaggle of disorganised cycle-rickshaws at stations like Mayur Vihar, and so on. Instead of being an unadulterated blessing, a Metro station in the neighbourhood becomes a curse, because user needs are not treated as being central to the delivery of the service. Passengers are left floundering while people in the environs (like the denizens of Mayur Vihar) are left to fend for themselves. There is also the question of capacity and demand. Again, the “product perspective” results in overcrowding and other inconveniences. On the flip side, well-meaning though misguided critics attack attempts to build capacity in anticipation of demand, as was the Metro by proponents of a Bus Rapid Transit system pushing for the latter as a silver bullet instead of as an adjunct.
What Could Have Been, But Isn’t Yet
The Unique Identification Authority of India’s Aadhaar augured a potentially revolutionary electronic enabler. In practice, however, its design has been baffling. A brilliant concept – abstracting a smart identification number from a smart card – has been reduced to an identifier for cash transfers to bank accounts. The question is, why to bank accounts and not to transactions, whether for retail or for services, activated by a mobile phone? Kenya’s M-Pesa was the pioneer for mobile money transfer, subsequently enhanced to include interest earned on virtual accounts.* Introduced in India by ICICI Bank with Vodafone in November 2012 and State Bank of India in January 2013, not only would this be much more practicable as the majority of our population doesn’t have bank accounts, it would cost far less, while being much more convenient for users. It would obviate setting up millions of physical micro-accounts at relatively high cost at banks, as well as giving users proximate access to products and services.
Another puzzling aspect is the contradictory, sometimes changing signals about Aadhaar. It is supposedly voluntary, yet reportedly mandatory now for marriage registrations, yet not accepted by banks for account opening, nor by some mobile phone operators, nor for passport applications, nor for driver’s licences. And inexplicably, except as a ruse to garner votes from non-citizens, it is for all residents (who choose to apply?), and although it could include citizenship information, it doesn’t.
It is best to start out right, recognising that we need user-centric, end-to-end systems design and execution, and apply this approach across the board going forward.