NEW DELHI/MUMBAI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday urged more companies to make electronic and digital goods, reviving his campaign promise to bridge India's digital divide backed by over $70 billion in investment pledges.
Launching a "Digital India Week" aimed at popularizing the government's push to connect 250,000 villages by 2019, Modi spoke of the need to boost local manufacturing of electronics — the country's largest import after oil.
"Why can't we make quality electronic goods that are globally competitive?" Modi said in a speech to a packed 14,000-seat indoor stadium, highlighting his goal of ending net technology and electronics imports by 2020.
India's first cyber premier, Modi has used social media — particularly Twitter, where he has 13 million followers — to style himself as a leader in touch with technology.
The government's tech push, which plans to provide mobile governance and universal phone connectivity to all Indians, aims to empower rural India and ramp up investments in manufacturing — critical for a government that badly needs to create more jobs, at a faster rate.
But apart from a handful of headline-grabbing initiatives — free Wi-Fi at the Taj Mahal, for example — the push to connect India and drive a national fiber-optic network, first approved by the last government in 2011, has made slow progress.
Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani and Bharti Enterprises head Sunil Bharti Mittal led a roll call of industrialists sharing the dais with Modi, promising investments of over 4.5 trillion rupees ($71 billion) to back the government's initiative.
Whether all of those investments will actually happen remains to be seen. India's dynamic tech startup community was not represented on a stage packed with business process outsourcing veterans and old-school tycoons.
'All Will Be Connected'
Metals and resources billionaire Anil Agarwal said Sterlite Technologies would invest in manufacturing LCD panels in India, while Japan's Nidec, a maker of energy-saving motors, said it would build five factories.
With a growing economy and falling handset prices, India is one of the fastest-growing smartphone markets in the world, and Modi is looking to harness India's potential for development in fields such as education and health.
"All will be connected — this will be the way to eradicate poverty, create a lot of jobs, create a lot of industry," Agarwal told Reuters on the sidelines of the event. "This is the one thing that can be done really quickly."
But despite Modi's promotional film showing Indians wielding smartphones and grouped around laptops, the challenge is great.
India's average Internet speed was ranked 115th globally in the first quarter of the year, among countries studied by services provider Akamai Technologies.
India had just a little over 100 million broadband subscribers at the end of April, out of a population of close to 1.3 billion, according to the sector regulator, which considers Internet connections with minimum download speeds of 512 kbps.
A telecom ministry panel, by comparison, said in March that it wanted the digital push to establish affordable broadband connectivity of 2 Mbps to 20 Mbps "for all households" by 2017.
"For the initiative to succeed, you need an entire ecosystem to develop," said Vishal Tripathi, a Gartner analyst in Mumbai. "There has to be last-mile connectivity from devices to software, to languages, to people, and there has to be education."
($1 = 63.6012 Indian rupees)