From farms to firms, the Net casts its Web on India

New Delhi's decision this week to allow private e-mail carriers is another a step in the 'internetization' of India.

The walk to the Ganges River in Benares is the oldest in India - a crisscross over cracked tiles, past dusty sweetmeat shops, flower stalls, monkeys, shrouded women, ancient temples and mosques, and hawkers selling yoga lessons cheap. Yet as pilgrims near this most sacred Hindu river, a banner across a narrow alley confronts them: "Data Byte Computers - Internet lessons."

India's many cultures and castes are entering the cyber age with an evangelical fervor. No part of the billion-member nation - family, jobs, education, marriage, politics, the stock market - is untouched by the dotcom zeal. Delhi bureaucrats complain the country's civil structures are in a shambles. Lawyers say the criminal and legal system isn't delivering. But everyone agrees the cyber age approacheth.

Every day, it seems, another breakthrough, another way the average Indian can access the cyber world is announced. This week, for example, the Indian Postal Service offered free e-mail accounts to anyone who wants one.

And this week again, India took another cyber leap as well: The government has decided to finally allow Net access and e-mail through private carriers, in addition to the state-run "gateway." Until now, all Net traffic in India passed through a single Bombay cable; e-mail has been slow and unsteady. On Monday, a federal license to Dishnet of Madras became the first to allow servers to use private satellite uplinks with greatly enhanced capacity. Seven other licenses are pending.

"We are moving from an information super-footpath to a superhighway," says Dewang Mehta, head of the National Association of Software and Computer Companies in Delhi.

Consider as well: Farmers are learning to use "the magic box" to check the market prices of vegetables in cities to avoid being cheated. Chat rooms are a rage among young Indians. Grandparents are learning to keep in touch with family - often living abroad - via the Net. On Valentines Day, Feb. 14, a Delhi couple will conduct the first cyber wedding in India - an arranged "I do" virtually witnessed by cousins in Pittsburgh and Toronto. Last week, the Bombay stock exchange announced that customers could begin trading online.

"The Net has opened everything up - not in my imagination, but really," says Amrit, a student from Chandigargh in the northwest state of Punjab. Amrit hired a US placement agency to find him a visa-bearing job in the US. "I have a friend in New York and one in Chicago who got six-month visas. You pay the agent half a month's salary. If you work hard and behave yourself, you get a five-year visa."

Renuka DeSilva of New Delhi, met her non-Indian fianc from Canada over the Internet. "We talked for four months every day, and finally he came here and proposed," Ms. DeSilva says. "My family was pretty nervous, but he fit right in. We'll have a wedding here and one in Canada this summer."

Trying to tap the massive talent pool, the consultancy firm of McKinsey and Co. started an "entrepreneurial ideas" contest that is taking place entirely on the net. As of Jan. 15, any Indian with a bright and marketable idea can submit to a McKinsey Web site. The winning 500 ideas will be provided with venture capital, legal advice, and some marketing strategy.

The push to more broadly "connect" ordinary people is still emerging in the West. Ford Motor Co. last week, for example, agreed to spend $300 million to equip each of its employees with a personal computer and $5 a month internet access. The move, part of a push by Ford to familiarize its 350,000 employees with "e-commerce," came through an unusual union bargain struck last year.

By comparison, a developing nation like India is still far behind. Despite its cyber-promise, and a population that has a demonstrated talent for software development, India still has only 500,000 internet server connections. When the new satellite uplinks go into effect, that number is expected to double.

India has the potential to make $1 trillion every year from information-technology services, said Michael Dertuzos, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lab for Computer Science at a New Delhi seminar on Wednesday.

Most of the early computer innovation is in the south - in India's version of the Silicon Valley - the cities of Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Madras.

Yet rural villages are a new frontier. Milkmaids in Rajasthan, for example, women who singlehandedly brought a "white revolution" of high-quality milk in that state, have formed a successful cooperative whose output has increased from several thousand quarts a day in the early '90s, to 300,000 today. The women, some with only two years of school, are being trained on computers that test milk fat levels, and run comparative data.

"Not only can I run the machines, I can also feed the data into the computer machine," says Premlate Gupta, secretary of the Vinobapuri cooperative near Jaipur.

Farmers and traders use the Web for finding buyers, and for staying abreast of trends. Dinesh, a jeweler in Ahmedabad, sells white gold to a New Zealand buyer he met on the Internet. At a recent expo in New Delhi, farmers from north India showed that by surfing agricultural Web sites they found new types of high-end products to cultivate for sale abroad. Some are raising Japanese quails, along with chickens - and new strains of asparagus and broccoli, along with the staple onion.

Misgivings about the cyber phenomena abound in India - worries about its effects on culture and tradition. Yet at least one leading Bombay columnist points out that Indian computer whiz-kids offer the youth a better kind of role model of success - the hardworking and modest innovator. Amritah Shah notes that in the past, Indians have been wowed by movie and sports heroes.

But the successful laptop and software whiz-kids are earning new respect, she points out: "As role models, these are very different from the pretty boys and girls of the past ... and their presence might lead to ... a reendorsement of some of the old values we shed in the last decade."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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