India offers some of the world's cheapest tablets, aimed at university students for digital learning Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

The disruptive economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been far reaching and all encompassing. This is not just true for India but for the entire world. However, there maybe a silver lining, at least when it comes to India. And that silver lining is the deep-rooting of the digital revolution all across the length and the breadth of the country. Several strands of the revolution, some of which totally unplanned, are panning out.

First, the education sector has adapted rather well, given the context, to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Physical classes have been suspended but schools have found a way to keep functioning, using digital means. While this would have been expected in the metros and the urban centers, but the spread of mobile internet has changed the game in even the remote hinterlands. The fact that for the first time the penetration of mobile internet is more in rural India than urban India has meant that even the B and C-towns and the semiurban clusters have not been left behind as may have happened even a few years ago.

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This real-life pilot, at a country scale, of Ed-tech offers immense opportunities for companies to perfect their models for distance learning, professional tutorials and regular class modules. Some of the early movers in this field have already witnessed their valuations multiply while others have attracted renewed global investor community interest. The pioneer in the Ed-tech sector in India has seen its valuation cross the $10 billion mark in a short span of time. The opportunities in this sector are reflected in even the hiring numbers, with September 2020 registering 41% jump in hiring in the education/teaching sector and IT sector registering 32% jump over the previous month according to Naukri’s JobSpeak index.

Second, a parallel but related strand playing along with the explosion of online classes is the coding revolution taking place in India. “Coding revolution’ may sound oxymoronic, for India is already synonymous with coders and its prowess in the Silicon Valley. However, there is a significant difference between what is happening currently, albeit still below the radar, as compared to started decades ago during the Y2K opportunity. The present generation of professional software coders are those who have all learnt this art as professionals, after joining their jobs. Computer education at the school level did introduce children to basics of coding, but neither the curriculum requirement nor the overall school environment placed any premium on proficiency in this field.

Rigours of professional coding

All that has changed rather dramatically in the last year or so. There is a new pan India wave of introducing kids to the rigours of professional coding and it begins at the age of 12-14 itself — when kids are in grade 7th- 8th (India follows a pattern of schooling till grade 12, which ideally completes at age 18).

This introduction to the thrill of conceptualising, exploring, conceiving and then executing complex software applications and solutions, at such young and fresh minds, is likely to have the same impact that catching the grooming the young has, for example, in the fields of sports. The kids who are part of this new wave, will get into college in the next 4-6 years and into the job market in the next 7-10 years.

Looking at how such organic movements have panned out elsewhere, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this is also the maximum timeline that we are looking at when the new big technical products will start coming out from India. The new generation of coders emerging from India, in the next 5-8 years, would not be only the customised solution providers but the creators of original products, apps and services and the innovators of the next big tech and digital ideas. The coding world has caught on to the concept of “catching them young” and this is going to have profound impact in the next few years.

Third, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently set a target of 1,000 days before which every village in India would be connected by broad band fibre. India has seen an explosion in internet penetration in the last five years. From just about 250 million users in 2015, the number of users by 2020 end are expected to be close to 700 million.

Globally cheapest data

However, affordable smartphones and the globally cheapest data pricing meant that much of the penetration was mobile internet with broadband penetration lagging far behind. The COVID-19 pandemic and enforced work-from-home routine have seen a demand boost in the urban centers for fibre broadband. With Modi setting a target of connecting more than 600,000 villages by fibre broadband before 15 August 2023, India is going to witness not just an expansion in internet penetration but more importantly and explosion in number of users on high speed internet.

Fourth, India has taken a major lead in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) landscape. Stanford AI vibrancy index already ranks India the second in the global ratings, primarily on account of its large AI trained workforce. India’s leading technology institutes like the IITs, IIITs and NITs are becoming the cradle of AI researchers and start-ups with solutions being developed using AI across education, health, financial services and other domains to solve societal problems. Recently India hosted the RAISE 2020 virtual conference — among the largest ever such global conferences in AI and which saw a participation of more than 72,000 people from 145 countries.

Digital payments a way of life

Finally, the adoption of digital payments has become a way of life in India, much faster than would have been predicted by experts a couple of years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic saw the government being able to reach out almost instantaneously to millions of people with direct cash deposits in their bank accounts.

Just yesterday, on 12th October, the Finance Minister of India announced a potentially $14-billion demand revival package, which is predicated on using digital payment means to be eligible for the government incentive. The UPI architecture, on which much of India’s digital payments platforms function, is already billed as the best in the world. With more than 500 million people predicted to join the internet world in the next 2-3 years, the digital payments sector is primed for continuing booster growth and innovation.

When, a few years down the line, we look back at the year 2020 then India’s digital take-off may be the overarching positive story of the year. The difference between the year 2020 and what happened during the Y2K boom would be that this time the digital revolution would be much more widespread and that India would significantly move up the value chain. In that sense, the year 2020 may yet redeem itself with one positive and lasting legacy.