Adam Osborne, a Silicon Valley super geek who 42 years ago created the portable personal computer (PC), once observed that people somehow believed computers would keep them from making mistakes. “They’re wrong,” said Osborne. “With computers you make mistakes faster.”
Something like that appears to be happening to India’s diverse political parties in the run-up to general elections in 2014. Political parties with diverging ideologies have converged on a common idea: the tablet PC, the latest iteration of Osborne’s great innovation.
Billions of rupees are being spent by the Centre — which is reviewing a much-hyped project to distribute a $35 tablet PC nationwide — and various states to give away tablets and laptops in a hasty, ill-advised attempt to win over an increasingly young electorate.
In tribal-dominated Chhattisgarh — home to a Maoist insurgency, some of India’s poorest people and a reasonably efficient BJP-run government — about 100,000 final-year students in arts, commerce and science colleges will receive tablet PCs next month. More than 14,000 medical and engineering students will get laptops.
In chaotic, mismanaged Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party — whose manifesto in 2009 promised to curb the use of computers and English — gave away 10,000 computers to college students two months ago; it intends to hand out an additional 1.6 million PCs. The Meghalaya government is buying a similar number of computers for free distribution. In prosperous, little Goa, the government is buying 50,000 tablet and notebook computers, each of which it will sell to students at R25 (R10 if the student belongs to a Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribe). The only caveat: parents must hand over a letter saying they have “no objection” to the heavily subsidised gift.
In Rajasthan, a land of ancient traditions, grinding poverty and indifferent Congress rule, there were no caveats last week as the government distributed R6,000-cheques to 350,000 Class 8 students to buy subsidised tablet PCs. What if the students do not spend the money on computers? With six months to go for assembly elections, the government isn’t particularly concerned with the details.
Dodgy details threaten to scupper India’s oldest and grandest free-PC scheme (it will cost more than R10,000 crore), launched in 2011 by the Tamil Nadu government. Media reports reveal how some students — perplexed by the computers or desperate for money — have sold some of the 6.8 million laptops given, or being given, to school, college and polytechnic students.
A computer dealer who clandestinely buys government-supplied computers — each adorned with an image of chief minister J Jayalalithaa — told the Hindu in December 2012: “Many of these graduates don’t have jobs, and their families are in a poor state.”
Providing access to computers and the Internet, in general, is an excellent idea. India’s global success has arisen from its prowess in information-technology, and computers have wormed their way into sectors as diverse as retail, banking and manufacturing.
But the Tamil Nadu dealer’s comment spotlights three big flaws in the mania for free-PC schemes. One, in a country of plummeting educational standards — nearly half of all Class 5 students cannot subtract simple two-digit numbers — there are too many students unfamiliar with computers. Two, governments distribute the PCs not as part of a detailed, educational plan with investment, research and outcomes but in the vague hope they will somehow address increasingly unmet aspirations. Three, the real answer to these aspirations is not free computers but jobs — and more jobs.
Not so long ago, there was much talk of India’s demographic dividend, the economic potential of possessing the world’s youngest working-age population. About 550 million Indians are 25 years old or younger. By 2020, the average Indian will be 29 years old, compared with 37 in China and 45 in the US. With growth slipping, education faltering and health and nutrition indices still among the world’s worst, this dividend is in danger of becoming a disaster.
There simply aren’t enough jobs, and those on offer cannot find adequately trained candidates. After fiercely contesting its own data, the UPA government now accepts that between 2005 and 2010, a period when the economy grew at 9% annually, no more than a million jobs were added over five years. India needs to create roughly 10 million jobs every year. With the right skills unavailable and archaic labour laws untouched, manufacturing companies — the main source of these new jobs — turn to temporary workers, and worse, to machines. The average number of workers per factory dropped from 70 in 2009-10 to 64 in 2010-11, according to government data.
China’s case is well-known, but even our poorer eastern neighbour, Bangladesh, shows us how industry (in this case the much criticised garment industry) can employ millions, raise wages, make them productive and lift them out of poverty. “It may be time we learned something from Bangladesh,” my colleague Manas Chakravarty wrote in Mint earlier this week. Combined with social development — Bangladesh’s children and women now have less chance of dying or being malnourished than their Indian counterparts — manufacturing and the jobs it creates is a powerful tool against endemic poverty.
India’s poverty has receded only in terms of percentage, from 60% in 1981 to 33% in 2010. As the website indiaspend.com reported last week, about 400 million Indians are poor, as opposed to 429 million in 1981. In that period China’s poor went from 835 million to 156 million.
In its effort to make growth inclusive, India gives away many things to the poor, including rural jobs, electricity, fertiliser, food, pensions and healthcare. There is much debate about what works. Will the free PC work? We can only hope students do not echo the tablet’s creator, Osborne, who said: “This is the ultimate con game — I’m having fun and people pay me to do it.”
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal