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Daniele Navarra

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Home > Daniele Navarra > Notes from the Road: India between farming biotechnology and computer services

Notes from the Road: India between farming biotechnology and computer services

by Redazione FGB [1], 6 January 2004

This short piece is just an overview of your correspondent's long observation and research of the Indian's science and technology sector. After a month or so of pilgrimage from the fields of Haryana, across the desert of Rajastan, then through the tea leave plantations of Kerala and the catholic state of Goa, there have been many thoughts and reflections along the way, some worth being shared. Not only India is a mind-bogging country for travelers that at least since the 1960s ad 1970s have come searching the 'Sadhu' (spiritual) in its 4000 plus years long culture, but it is one of the largest markets for agricultural products in the world but an even faster growing hub for Information and Communication Technologies related services. Yet, it seems that growth across the country has been oddly unbalanced over the past few decades, and both social and organisational dynamics are still far from its real potential.


Today India is strong in the area of software development for financial and industrial operations, which foresees rosy prospects also for financial analysis, industrial engineering and pharmaceutical research. Most of this trend at the moment depends on the increasing costs that large multinationals corporations (such as Microsoft or Monsanto) face in industrialised countries. As a result, they are migrating some of their operations to India to take advantage of the cheaper costs of labor joined with the presence of core competencies and skills in hubs like the city of Bangalore in the state of Karnataka.

Indian universities produce an average of 400,000 engineers every year from the many Indian Institutes if Technologies spread around the country. Nevertheless, poverty and hunger are still a serious problem and there are little exceptions also among best examples of development. For instance, Banaglore works as a magnet to attract the best caliber graduates from these various institutions and is consolidated by a Silicon Valley like cluster-organization. According to M. Paniyil of the Third World Network, Karnataka accounts for 30% of software exports from India and about 90% of software from Karnataka - produced mainly in the state's city and global information technology hub of Bangalore - is exported to the United States.

Unfortunately, as the economist John Macmillan says 'no man is an island', therefore we could say also that 'no island is a country'. Bangalore after all is an oasis, not even an island. We should not forget that a too rapid transformation could produce many side effects as well. The 'diseases' associated with such phenomena span from unregulated urbanisation and slums, to poor hygienic conditions and mounting poverty levels. It is very hard to come across a visible reduction of poverty levels when wealth and misery exist elbow to elbow in cities like Delhi or, especially, Bombay where literally half of the city is still a slum.

Thus, India can be a rough place for small farmers, land laborers and the many that live below the poverty line. To have an idea, consider waking up one day in another hemisphere of the world. Put it simply; find there is neither water until the sun rises nor immediately available electricity. You would be in one of the thousands of Indian villages, which host nearly half of the Indian population. Probably in these conditions you might not care about the effectiveness of your means of production, unless you are lucky enough to be a farmer who owns a plot of land.

In most other circumstances the most pressing need would be to feed yourself and your family, no matter how that is going to happen. Consider also that in the North it can also be very cold at night, even during the summer, and that if you are in the desert the supply of firewood is very limited. This means that most part of the day would be spent looking for firewood to keep warm at night. These issues become even more relevant if the subject happens to be a woman. Women do much of the house works, plus farm the land, feed the animals (if any) and sell the products in the market. What do men do then? Sometimes they coordinate the women, otherwise they can be found in mocks at major road junctions happy to provide you with precise road information. Very little men can be seen either farming or working with the women.

However, there are also other, probably less noticed to date, impressive examples of local development, which can have a positive impact on poverty reduction and can potentially transform the rural landscape in some locations. Such an example has been the swift metamorphosis that has given rise to a cottage service industry based on Information and Communication Technologies, but radically different from the Bangalorean case. The local population of the Indian State of Goa has developed such industry, and something similar to 'One Stop Shops' can be found in many of the towns along the coast. Working locally, entrepreneurs have understood the potential of providing Internet related services to the tourists, which then function also for a number of other services, from foreign exchange to timetabling information and booking services. Such a trend not only can help to establish a local ICT industry in the first place but also to move investment and resources to sectors with high innovation rates and lower costs relative to revenues. Interestingly, this model allows at the same time small entrepreneurs to capture most of the benefits from the investment by 'selling' Internet time just by having two or three computers in a small reception area in their home.

Thus, despite the impressive high-tech hub of Bangalore where productivity, knowledge produced and average income can be as high, if not superior, to European levels the rest of the country simply has not undergone any major change over the past few decades excluding some exceptions. To try to solve this issue the Indian government has invested heavily in modern farming methods ad agrochemistry and has crafted alliances with major biotech companies such as Monsanto, which has established Mahyco, a local subsidiary, and Du Pont's leading pesticide brand 'Avaunt'. Results are still far to come, but the potential synergy between ICT related services and biotechnology in farming couldn't go unnoticed. However, the outcomes will be heavily dependent on how such innovations will be governed by local as well as international players.

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