The after-effects of Covid-19 make for an interesting case study of India’s use of technology. On one end, social distancing, self-isolation, clean hands and face masks are time-tested and low-tech ways to help mitigate the viral spread. On the other end, rapid diagnostic tests, mobile-first telehealth and computational simulation systems for drug development are complex use-cases of tech that have strengthened our pandemic response.
India has always presented fascinating data in the study of contrasts. For example, it is no stranger to infectious diseases like tuberculosis and malaria; it is also a leading example of the largest-ever collective erasure of diseases like polio and smallpox. Covid-19 has drawn several such contrasts into the spotlight as different regions have embraced technology in different ways.Work-home rebalanced: WFH (Work From Home) is no longer something only used by start-ups—mainstream industry has embraced the concept as it is forced to find a new normal for millions of employees across the spectrum.
From early in the lockdown, sudden spikes in purchases of smartphone and laptop accessories, home-office furniture and broadband upgrades were observed. Since most Indian IT revenues are generated from global enterprise, productivity and security were concerns as WFH was adopted. Announcements since May 3 are increasingly positive about this shift and it wouldn’t be surprising if IT companies continued a segmented WFH policy on a rotating basis.
WFH will re-architect the daily routines of millions in India’s urban clusters. Business travel and daily commutes may sharply fall, with teams having realised that they are more productive over video calls and would rather avoid the overhead and health risks of travel. WFH may lead to dramatic second- and third-order effects in the way we live and work.
Urban mobility: Mass transit options are being re-framed as “super spreaders” of the virus. Local and national mobility may have to prepare for a dramatic response to travellers’ calls for safer and more accountable transit options. In our largest cities, mass transit options are already at peak overflow capacity. It is challenging to guarantee sanitation and cleansing after every loop of a bus, train, or metro carriage, not to mention the impossibility of enforcing social distancing inside them. Road capacities are also at overflow levels already; more private vehicles are not a viable alternative.
This crisis may be the “iPhone moment” for single-passenger on-demand electric vehicle fleets. With every local government encouraging the installation and operation of EV two-wheeler docks in every major cluster in their cities, citizens will have instant access to affordable and sustainable mobility for a significant portion of their daily commutes. What would have taken a decade for cities to adopt may now become an immediate possibility.Contactless compliance: With industry and government both grinding to a halt due to the lockdown, the country was exposed to the lack of alternatives to the paper-reliant approvals systems at both the state and Union level.
Most industrial participants are familiar with disaster recovery routines and business data redundancy planning. But not many were prepared for the government approval processes to shut down. Local and national mobility may have to prepare for a dramatic response to travellers’ calls for safer and more accountable transit options This is a clear demonstration of why industry must work with the administration to design and launch Compliance 2.0. A digital, contactless and distributed system will radically improve the ease of doing business and also help us evolve to a new paradigm of enhanced trust between the administration and its citizens.
The administration has proven its ability to emerge more future-ready from situations like this in the past. Ideas like Aadhaar and online GST are already functional today. A more intentional and permanent shift of compliance and approval routines, digitally signed contracts, securely authenticated approvals, digital KYC and on-demand retrieval of documents instead of paper storage will lead to cost and time savings, increased productivity and deeper resilience against such future shocks.
Cloud infrastructure: There has never been a stronger case for every country’s economy to be ready to move business functions to cloud-based systems. It is time for India also to focus on building a native cloud ecosystem. Cloud is classified as an industry of national importance in most countries and deeply tied with national security. The US now requires companies like Amazon and Microsoft to provide exclusive cloud infrastructure to host sensitive data and regulated workloads that adhere to the strictest government security requirements.
India must now aim to become the third large global cloud ecosystem. There is enough local demand, with the country being host to some of the largest IT industries and start-up ecosystems globally. Enterprise-grade cloud investments must be given SEZ status, similar to how the UP government has incentivised the entry of manufacturing companies into the state. This move will also lend unchallenged support to the call for data residency—the requirement for Indian citizens’ data on global platforms to be hosted locally and regulated by Indian law. The local agglomeration of cloud infrastructure will strengthen India’s digital future and become a comparative advantage as data becomes the new oil globally.
As Indians become more comfortable with the improved convenience and efficiencies from technology, we can expect further functional advancements in the trajectory of digitalisation across the country. The right support from policy will help us assert long-term adoption of technology solutions that can help make the country more resilient in a rapidly changing world order.
TV Mohandas Pai
Chairman of Aarin Capital
Founding Partner of 3one4 Capital
(Tweets @TVMohandasPai and @Pai_dPiper)