Ravi Venkatesan, Chairman, Microsoft India is responsible for Microsoft’s marketing, operational and business development efforts in the country. In partnership with the leaders of Microsoft’s other business units, Venkatesan provides a single point of leadership for the company, playing an integral role in defining Microsoft’s relationship with policy makers, customers and business partners across Microsoft’s six distinct business units in India.
How important do you think e-Governance is for India?
The role of technology in helping governments achieve necessary policy outcomes of improved service delivery, help drive increase in tax revenues base, reduce the incidence and impact of the informal economy in emerging markets, while at the same time strengthening transparency, is well established and documented now. For developing economies like India, technology integration in government gains even more relevance since this is the most effective way to reach out to individuals in remote areas, at the grass roots, or even those residing at the bottom of the economic pyramid. With IT integrated in the governance process, it is possible to achieve greater transparency and overall efficiency in the administrative process.
I believe that a connected infrastructure is a critical foundation to address policy challenges. Technology has evolved beyond being a a ‘factor of production’ to being one of the most powerful policy levers available to government. It is a critical tool for India to avail in order to achieve her potential as a superpower.
How is Microsoft helping this concept grow? How are you helping this idea propagate in the country?
Microsoft is a serious and long-term partner for India with a strong India focus and commitment. We continue collaborating with the Indian Government to provide innovative e-Governance solutions that help take IT to the grass root level and enable affordable access to the technology by the vast majority in rural India and ultimately help eliminate the digital divide.
We have a vision for e-Governance wherein we are working towards enabling the public sector and governments to lead the information society by leveraging information technology for delivering effective citizen centric services and ushering in a more participative and transparent form of governance. The Microsoft Connected Government Framework (CGF) illustrates the value of interoperability in the delivery of Government e-Services: Government-to-Government, Business-to-Government and Citizen- to-Government. This framework helps describe the many issues involved in achieving successful interoperability programmes – together with the tools, technologies and standards that help make this possible. It also provides a core model for interoperability, expressed across six distinct levels – Infrastructure and Networking, Data Access, Service and Component, Service and Process Integration, Security and Identity Management.
Having been the pioneers in the Indian e-Governance space with a long standing relationship with both central and State governments, the Microsoft platform currently supports over 300 e-Governance applications across 14 states in India. We are committed to extending the reach of IT and making it all pervasive by ensuring availability of affordable, relevant and local language based technology solutions that are easy to adopt. Look at Project Bhasha, for instance: realising the language diversity needs across various states in India, we are working together with Indian governments for local language application development and promoting computing in the local language.
Or take the ‘Microsoft e-Governance Awards’. These awards recognize the most successful e-Governance applications designed on the Windows platform that have significantly enhanced delivery of citizen services and have ushered in a more participative and transparent form of governance. Our focus for the last 17 years continues to guide us: to work with the Government to leverage technology as an ally in a conscious movement for ushering in economic, social and rural-urban equity.
What are the key barriers for increased usage of IT in the government? What are the key drivers for the same?
The primary issue around e-Governance has not been technology related, but capacity building. The consensus that is emerging is clear: e-Governance is not so much about the ‘e’ but more about the ‘governance’. More and more governments are now focused on capacity building initiatives and also training the grassroots government staff to enable the adoption of IT. We believe this is a common issue across all developing countries.
A close alignment with the government’s IT policies and ensuring adherence to the criteria of total cost of ownership of any IT deployment, security and interoperability while bringing in overall transparency in the administrative process will lead to a successful e-Governance in India. It is equally important that the e-Governance IT applications are affordable, accessible and relevant to the citizen needs and are available in the local language.
Governments are now starting to get concerned about OSS v/ s Proprietary software. Also standards and interoperability issues are gaining importance. How is Microsoft addressing this aspect?
The best policy, in my opinion, is for governments and all public sector organisations to pursue neutral software procurement policies that rank technology on its merits, providing all available technologies an equal playing ground. Since 1999, some individuals and organisations in the OSS and ‘Free Software’ community have lobbied governments to change public sector procurement policies to create barriers for the purchase of proprietary software. Recently, these barriers have included ‘preferences’ for OSS over proprietary software. Other policy changes or proposed legislation are even more subtle in that they purport to rely on objective criteria for software selection, but in actuality they do not. For example, they may establish a preference for software whose immediate acquisition costs are the lowest, rather than focus more properly on Total Cost of Ownership.
Such procurement mandates or preferences for specific technology solutions are best avoided since they impede competition and slow the pace of innovation. Such preferences also unfairly favor one vendor or IT business and/or licensing model over another, impose unnecessary micro-management that prevents a government body from securing the best technical solution available, hurt local IT companies, and may be inconsistent with international trade rules on government procurement.
“The National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) mission directly correlates with the Microsoft vision. The Microsoft global vision is to reach the benefi ts of Information technology to the fi ve billion people currently untouched or underserved by it. In India, out of a population of over one billion, access to Information Technology is available to only a 100 million people and Microsoft India is committed to bridge this divide”
As far as interoperability goes, Microsoft’s approach is to help customers focus on the issues most important to their business and operational needs – increasing productivity, improving business processes, connecting with customers, collaborating with other organisations, and reducing costs. Microsoft delivers interoperability by building it directly into its products, engaging with the broader IT community, providing access to its technologies, and supporting technology standards.
We also actively engage with standards-setting organisations and support thousands of technical and industry standards that encourage interoperability between Microsoft and non- Microsoft technologies. The Microsoft ‘Interoperable by Design’ initiative shows that interoperability can be dealt with effectively only by using a multi-pronged approach. For instance, to add to the library of standards available, the document standard Open XML – developed as part of a cross-industry collaboration that included Apple, Barclays Capital, BP, The British Library, Intel, Microsoft, Novell, Toshiba, and the U.S. Library of Congress, among others – is currently undergoing the standardisation process with the International standards body ISO. Multiple standards essentially ensure choice for the industry and customers; as well as the government being able to pick the technology options that best meet its needs.
The government has come up with the National e-Governance plan. How is Microsoft planning to play a role in the same?
The National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) mission directly correlates with the Microsoft vision. The Microsoft global vision is to reach the benefits of Information technology to the five billion people currently untouched or undeserved by it. In India, out of a population of over one billion, access to IT is available to only a 100 million people and Microsoft India is committed to bridge this divide.
The NeGP seeks to make all government services accessible to the common man in his locality, through common service delivery outlets and ensure efficiency, transparency and reliability of such services at affordable costs to realize the basic needs of common man. Microsoft is committed to build on the foundation laid by NeGP to provide the impetus for long term growth of e-Governance within the country.
We believe utilising our core competencies and providing the necessary training and tools will help create social and economic opportunities that can transform communities and enable millions of Indians to realize their potential. Government is a key facilitator and one of the most important constituents for ensuring a nation-wide impact of any development programme.
Do you really believe that technology can help India’s poor? If yes, how?
Every single day, Information Technology continues to transform business, communications, education and entertainment around us. But for the millions who subsist on less than a dollar a day, access to technology is obviously not the most pressing need – clean water, health care, food and shelter are so much more urgent. However, there is compelling evidence that access to information is critical to expanding social and economic opportunities, and alleviating poverty. Broadening information access is central to development; and the wide deployment of cell phones, telecommunications, PCs and software solutions is important for boosting productivity, reducing transaction costs, improving transparency and giving people access to education, public services and markets. Ironically, in many ways, information access may be even more critical to poor people and it is therefore essential to bridge the digital divide.
Take the eight Millennium Development Goals that define the collective challenges the world faces and must deal with: poverty eradication, universal education, gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating diseases and ensuring environmental sustainability. Each of these to be scalable and successful will need to harness the power of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). We can contribute to every one of these goals, either directly – through extending access to information, training and providing opportunity and voice, or indirectly – through creating new economic opportunities that lift individuals, communities and nations out of poverty.
“We believe utilizing our core competencies and providing the necessary training and tools will help create social and economic opportunities that can transform communities and enable millions of Indians to realize their potential”
In India, the larger part of our population still remains on the other side of the digital divide – untouched by the IT revolution that is changing so many lives. The vote is unanimous – the government, public and private non profit organisations, and businesses today realize that something fundamentally different needs to be done. If more than a billion Indians are to realize the benefits of technology, new thinking around making IT relevant, affordable, and accessible is imperative. Microsoft, for instance, is in sync with India’s unique environment. To increase relevance we are working with governments and local partners to create rich local applications and content – in areas such as agriculture, governance, rural education and for creating services based new revenue streams. Affordability and access are issues that are largely addressed through partnerships with the government, and innovation around form factors such as rural kiosks.
Today, we have several successful India specific programmes like Project Shiksha for accelerating IT literacy; Project Bhasha for promoting local language computing; Project Jyoti for empowerment of women and marginalized communities, Saksham for enabling the rural ecosystem; and Project Vikas for IT empowerment of Small and medium businesses in manufacturing vertical. These initiatives are not only corporate social responsibility initiatives, but fundamentally sustainable and replicable models for effecting overall growth leveraging the power of IT to add value to the lives of more and more people.