Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

28th January 2001

India riding high on hi-tech wave

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NEW YORK- The science fiction writers of a bygone era were right in the United States humans are being progressively replaced by machines and robots.

In virtually every office in the US, including the United Nations, the human voice is being gradually substituted with "voice mail".

And even some of the high-ranking UN officials are hiding behind "caller IDs" (which display the name and number of the caller), so that they can figure out who is calling them on their direct lines before they pick up their phones.

The late Mervyn de Silva, a journalist with a riveting sense of humour, once related a story of how a pussy-footing Sri Lankan ambassador in a Western capital was being relentlessly pursued by a local newspaperman for comments about human rights abuses.

The ambassador, who lived in the days before the advent of caller IDs, was so mortally scared of journalists he kept his phone permanently hidden in his drawer.

And, on occasions, when he did pluck up courage to answer the phone, he picked it up, and without waiting to hear the voice at the other end, shouted "Wrong number," and slammed it.

And, according to Mervyn, it was probably a scene straight out of a 1950s Humphrey Bogart crime melodrama with Sydney Greenstreet and Claude Rains.

The world has dramatically changed since the days of Bogart and leapfrogged into high-technology.

Every single phone call to an office in New York is now answered by an electronic voice which provides you with a series of options at the touch of a push button.

As one of the world's most technologically-advanced countries, the United States is moving at breakneck speed.

Last week, the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation (ILO) admitted that nearly 90 percent of all Internet users are in industrialised countries, with the US and Canada accounting for about 57 percent of the total.

In contrast, Internet users in Africa and the Middle East, together account for only one percent of global Internet users. Only some countries in East Asia appear to be keeping up with industrial nations in the diffusion of technological progress.

The ILO also points out that China, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and others, have been able to make rapid progress in high-tech areas and were able to capture a significant share of the world market for semi conductors and other data-processing equipment.

Given the different speed of diffusion in rich and poor countries, the information and communications technology revolution (ICT) is resulting in a widening global "digital divide," the ILO said in its latest "World Employment Report 2001: Life at Work in the Information Economy" released last week.

Unless this is addressed urgently, the ILO says the employment aspirations and productivity potential of millions of workers in scores of developing countries cannot be realized.

"The ICT revolution offers genuine potential, but also raises the risk that a significant portion of the world will lose out," warns ILO Director-General Juan Somavia of Chile.

At a conference in Africa last week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan plugged the same theme, but singled out India for its phenomenal success in the field of information technology (IT) and the giant strides the country has made in high-tech exports.

India's software exports, he said, exceeded four billion dollars last year, and are projected to reach a staggering $50 billion by 2008.

With over a billion people, India's per capita income has remained at a little over $2,000. But its international reserves have risen more than threefold over the last six years: from about $10.2 billion in 1993 to $32.6 billion last year.

Arguing that "our future depends on technolgy especially new information technology," Annan said that unlike earlier technologies, this one does not require vast amounts of hardware, financial capital or even energy.

"What it does require is brain power the one commodity that is equally distributed among the world's peoples."

"So, for a relatively small investment mainly investment in basic education, for girls and boys alike we can bring all kinds of knowledge within reach of poor people, and enable poor countries to 'leapfrog' some of the long and painful stages of development that others had to go through," he added.

In the World Economic and Social Survey 2000 released last month, the United Nations said that the Indian software industry, like its pharmaceutical industry, owes its success largely to human capital.

India had built up the critical mass of educated people necessary to take advantage of new developments in information techology.

In 1996/1997, over six million students were enrolled in India's tertiary education sector, the largest number among any developing country.

The Indian educational system produced graduates of a very high standard, with many of them being sought by both Indian and foreign information technology companies.

The report also said that the example of software exports by India highlights the fact that support to all levels of education, including the highest, is essential to the development of high-technology industries.

Largely because of their connections with Silicon Valley in the United States, some highly motivated and qualified Indian entrepreneurs were able to exploit the advantages that came from the existence of this highly trained labour force, the study said.

Indian entrepreneurs built up a software exporting industry of nearly 900 firms, employing about 280,000 engineers, the second largest group of software engineers in the world, after the United States.

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