India plans US$2.7 billion IT investment

The Indian government plans to spend US$2.7 billion over the next four years to bridge the country’s digital divide, according to a government official.

“You do not want to get into a situation where information and communications technology, and its progress create social chasms and economic chasms between the haves and have-nots,” said Rajeeva Ratna Shah, secretary for industrial policy and promotion in the federal government, at a conference Sunday in Bangalore, India.

As part of its investment in technology and infrastructure, the government plans to introduce a voice-based information technology device that and can be used by Indian villagers regardless of the language they speak. “(The device) should be able to take commands orally,” Shah said. “There must be total interactivity and literacy should not act as a barrier. Language should also not be a barrier. We are moving towards that.” Shah did not however disclose the technical specifications of the device.

This is not the first time engineers in India have attempted to design a low-cost computer device for rural use. However, the Simputer, a Linux-based handheld mobile computer, with a target price tag of about US$200, ailed to take off because of insufficient interest in its target market. A number of non-government organizations, multilateral aid agencies, educational institutions and state governments have also launched projects for bridging the digital divide in India, where more than 70 per cent of the population live in rural areas where literacy levels are low and poverty is grinding.

The corporate sector also is discovering that bridging the digital divide could translate into new market opportunities. For instance, HP Labs India, which was set up in Bangalore by Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), is developing products appropriate for India’s rural markets. HP is based in Palo Alto, California. Intel Corp., based in Santa Clara, California, has invested in research at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai to explore the viability of wireless Internet connectivity in rural areas.

But the investment Shah outlined Sunday is the first time the federal government has put its weight and considerable funds behind such an initiative. A pilot project on broadband connectivity for rural areas is already under way in the state of Uttar Pradesh, according to Shah. In another trial project near Delhi, postal employees are downloading e-mail on wireless handheld devices and delivering them to villagers, who then use the devices to reply to the e-mail, Shah said. The government also plans to introduce a government-to-business portal, which will allow foreign investors to interact directly with the government, and “enable us to cut corruption,” Shah said.

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