Innovating Out of Poverty
Posted on Jun 28, 2012 / Author: Anita Singh / Tags: Politics, Policy and Diplomacy, Global Economy, Human Rights and Development, Education, Culture and Communities, India, PBD, Rajasthan
India’s development divide is so oft-cited that it has become cliché. On one hand, India has been heralded as a superpower in information and communications technology, with 100,000 engineers graduating every year. It is also home to companies such as InfoSys, TataSteel and Wipro Systems. India’s innovations in nuclear and wind energy are world-renowned – for example, the government of Gujarat recently opened Asia’s largest solar park, which is over 3,000 acres and is capable of generating 600 MW of solar-generated power or two-thirds of India’s annual solar power production. On the other hand, India’s population continues to suffer from gender imbalances, a huge gap between rich and poor, and limited development in its rural regions.
India has introduced some innovative mechanisms to address these economic and social development challenges – particularly in connecting with its global partners. That is why for the last decade, the Government of India has hosted the Pravasi Bharitya Divas (PBD), a conference for the Indian diaspora aimed at promoting investment, economic development and bilateral relations with the sizable overseas diaspora.
In January 2012, I travelled to India to participate in the PBD as part of a delegation with the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce. Despite its theme, ‘Globally-Inclusive Growth’, the three-days of meetings with India’s most important business leaders, information technology organizations, and politicians were unsatisfactory in dealing with India’s most important development challenges. In numerous panels, people like Chhavi Rajawat, India’s first female village sarpanch, asked how the PBD’s high-level discussions would help bring fresh water, education and electricity to India’s villages. Yet, time and time again, the uneasy silence could not answer how macro-level economic investment would lead to the crucial grassroots development required in India’s villages.
This challenge became even more obvious to me when the second part of my trip took me to my family’s village, nestled in the heart of Rajasthan, 100 kilometres outside of Ajmer. The family home in the village sits empty while the entire family works and lives in a marble quarry in a colony outside of Kishangarh. They live in single-room dwellings, sharing a living space with four other families, rented at 1000 rupees per month. Over the course of 48 hours in the village, I experienced some of my life’s most intimate moments, sharing meals over a fire-stove, singing songs on the open roof and sharing stories of generations past. Yet, in a village where electricity is sporadic and one computer serves the needs of dozens of students, the disconnect seemed even more stark – how can diaspora groups and the international community make an impact on development in this and other Indian villages while simultaneously benefiting from the economic advantages of India’s global market?
A couple examples highlight the Canadian potential to address these issues:
The Canadian experience in rural medicine can be directly applied to India. With a chronic shortage of doctors in rural areas, innovations in telemedicine allow medical expertise to reach the most vulnerable locales in India. The Ontario Telemedicine Network - the largest telemedicine operation in the world – uses webcasting and videoconferencing to reach thousands of patients in northern parts of the province, especially in vulnerable communities. For technology-rich India, the use of pre-existing information networks can provide important medical consultations and early diagnoses in a low-cost format for some of the more geographically remote areas. Telemedical technologies also hold important educational benefits as an effective training tool for local medical specialists to update their experience with more recent innovations and discoveries. This technology could also be used to teach primary and secondary education to children, train midwives and deliver information about family planning and community health.
Another example is the role Canadian businesses can play by focusing their innovations on the needs of rural and low-income families in India. This means mimicking the success of low-cost innovations currently in demand in India such as the Godrej ChotuKool refrigerator which operates on battery-power to minimize the use of electricity in power-scarce regions. Canadian innovators have demonstrated their potential, as illustrated by the thirty-five dollar Aakash tablet computer, developed by Suneet and Raja Tuli of Datawind Incorporated. Aakash has the potential to bring internet access and computing to students all over India, including my village in Rajasthan.
Socially-aware economic development is not just a hypothetical. These examples show how Indo-Canadians which have promoted the deepening of business linkages have the potential to affect Indian education, health and development projects – just like the Canadian innovation has already made access to the internet a possibility for India’s youth though the Aakash computer. With endless possibilities, time is ripe to build on the Canada-India partnership.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.