The Computer Revolution Comes to India - Sort Of

ATUL KHOSLA had not even seen computers when he started marketing them three years ago. ``Today there is a tremendous awareness,'' says the former television marketing executive. ``Three years ago, you had to educate a customer about what a computer is and what it can do. Now even a layman can tell the difference between hardware and software.''

The computer revolution has come to India - well, sort of.

After Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rose to power in 1984, the computer became the emblem of his ambitious plan to modernize this backward, poverty-stricken country. The youthful leader and computer buff issued a clarion call to lift India into the 21st century with the help of Western technology.

Production and import of computers and other electronics were liberalized. A new breed of government technocrats exerted influence in the corridors of power.

Now there are more than 100,000 computers in factories, offices, schools, and homes, triple the number of a few years ago. The hardware industry has jumped to more than $300 million in sales from just $50 million in 1985. India exports $100 million in software, some of it via satellite, and hopes the value will approach $300 million by the early 1990s.

Yet despite the fillip from Rajiv Gandhi, computer culture is merely a patina on this tradition-bound, agricultural country of 800 million people, industry observers say. The benefits of computerization, limited largely to major cities, have yet to percolate down, critics say, and even pose dangers to a country of high unemployment and widening gaps between rich and poor.

Indeed, the initial flush that followed Mr. Gandhi's call to modernize is giving way to a more realistic view of the computer's potential. Many Indians scoff at the government's pledge to put a computer in every village.

Facing a tough reelection campaign this year amid charges of corruption and elitism, the prime minister has traded his high-tech rhetoric, initially aimed at the urban middle class, for an appeal for rural development.

``Computers do have a place here,'' says J. Srihari Raju, editor of Computers Today, a major trade journal. ``But they are not not a panacea for this country.''

``We have to strike a balance,'' says Shameek Konar, an economics major who is studying computers. ``We can talk about computer efficiency, but there are social aspects to this, too. What do you do about the poor man who is illiterate and can't earn his daily bread?''

Even in scientifically sophisticated urban pockets, roadblocks to computerization remain.

India's erratic power supply and notoriously bad telephones are major constraints on computer use, particularly for national networks, industry analysts say.

Despite government pressure to lower prices, a personal computer costs about $2,000. Add the purchase of an air conditioner and backup power equipment, and the cost is far out of reach of most middle-class Indians.

Plans to introduce computer courses in schools nationwide have been slowed by inadequate teacher training and curriculum development. Ambitions to computerize India's archaic banking system met stiff resistance from labor unions fearing loss of jobs. Even referring to computers as ``advanced-ledger-posting machines'' has not eased workers' apprehensions.

The lackadaisical sab chalta hai (``anything's OK'') attitude of many Indian managers and workers also blocks computer innovation, experts here say. Others are reticent to explore a computer's potential.

Still, industry observers say that computers hold significant potential for a country like India, which despite its poverty, is technologically advanced in certain areas.

A supercomputer, which the United States agreed to sell to India after overriding fears that the technology could leak to India's ally the Soviet Union, is being readied here for use in forecasting crucial summer monsoon rains. Sale of a second supercomputer is in the offing. India now boasts technical linkups with many major Western computer manufacturers.

Gearing its industry to the growing US software market, India hopes to capitalize on low labor costs and its vast pool of English-speaking computer experts.

The Indian government is studying a plan to establish a technology park where software designed by Indian firms will be transmitted via satellite to users in the United States. The initial venture would link Boston and Pune in Maharashtra state.

The concept was pioneered by Texas Instruments Inc., which set up a subsidiary in the southern city of Bangalore and exports software via satellite to its Dallas headquarters for internal use.

``In 1982, when I went with the first software industry delegation to the United States, the reaction there was `You've got to be joking. India is a land of elephants and tigers and snake charmers,''' says Ashok Bhojwani, who heads a New Delhi software consulting firm. ``We've come a long way since then.''

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