“I’m present amidst you not as the Prime Minister, but as the Prime Servant (Pradhan Sewak),” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first Independence Day speech (in 2014). That statement, in many ways, marked the beginning of a ‘Shift’ in the approach to ‘Governance’ in India, and that small shift paved the way to transforming the country’s overall approach to technology too.
Today from a robust digital payment ecosystem to record-breaking UPI transactions to advancement in the Space, Geospatial, Biotech, Drones, and other advanced tech-related sectors, the success stories from Bharat are making global headlines, and the world is becoming more curious to know how such a transformative Shift, in such a short time span is possible?
From Sense of ‘Governance’ to Sense of ‘Service’
Once India used to hold a sense of pride in continuing the legacy of the British era, not just in its governance structure but in the psyche of the governance too! The idea of ‘Governance,’ for over 70 years since Independence, was more centered around a ‘Govern’ and ‘Control’ mindset, and that frame of mind, at times, allowed a handful of elite people (including the Union Ministers) to doubt, subdue, question and mock the potential of India’s common people and their abilities to adopt ‘Digital’ skills. Everyone recalls the former finance minister’s audacious comments in the parliament (with a mocking tone) on the possible challenges in introducing technology-based payment systems among the poor and marginal sections of society.
Driven by such a mindset in the policy/decision-making process, the state of technology adoption in India was at its lowest mark. Till 2014, the country was forced to import 100 percent of mobile phones from abroad, as there were only two mobile manufacturing units in the whole country. There were some 25 crore internet connections, and the reach of optical fiber in rural India was limited to only 100-gram panchayats (out of 238054 panchayats), and even in the Urban parts of India, the cost of data in a month was close to half the monthly earnings of low-income families (cost of 14 GB data in a month was around 4500). That was the era of imported mobile phones and low-grade internet connectivity, where 2Gs/3Gs used to make headlines only for some scams or Big corruption-related issues.
From 2014, that scenario completely changed, and the change in numbers from 2014 to 2022 is simply staggering! From 2 mobile manufacturing units to 200 units, and from largest mobile phones importer to largest exporter, from 6 crore broadband users to over 80 crore users, from 25 crore internet connections to 85 crore internet connections, and even in rural areas, from optical fiber’s reach to only 100-gram panchayats to over 1 lakh 70 thousand gram panchayats, along with a remarkable drop in the price of internet, across the country. And this transformation helped India not only to survive but to bounce back strongly in the worst pandemic crisis of history.
The big surprise is- how India’s tech sector has not only recovered from that but made technology-based infra an effective medium for last-mile delivery of governance. And how did India turn out to be a model for technology-driven Governance among other developing/aspiring societies of the world?
When we look back we found that things gradually started changing with the change in the leadership approach of the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who proudly calls himself ‘Pradhan Sewak,’ and who belongs to a political culture where ‘Integral Humanism’ is at the core of its guiding philosophy, re-defined the idea of ‘Governance’ in India and re-introduced the Bhartiya perspective of ‘Sewa’ and ‘Manav Sewa’ in the system.
The idea of ‘Sewa’ (Service) in Bharat
सेवापरमोधर्म: (Sewa Parmo Dharma) – India which lives on this principle, and which has thousands of years old value system of considering ‘Sense of Service,’ as the highest duty for mankind, reflected its true spirit in the middle of corona pandemic, when despite having limited resources and high demand at home, it contributed greatly to the manufacturing and distribution of vaccine, for other parts of the world.
India’s idea of ‘Service’ is not limited to serving the needs of individuals, it goes beyond that, as the emphasis here is not on enabling but empowering, not on catering to needs alone but on strengthening too, and not for merely making the people survive but to make them thrive as well! And history tells us that these ideas of Bharat are not limited to its physical boundaries alone, they are for the whole world and the entire humanity. The ideas of ‘Manav Sewa’ and ‘Vishv Kalyan,’ are the ultimate timeless principles for every individual born in Bharat.
Now the question is what relation does the idea of ‘Sewa’ and our age-old traditions related to the sense of service have with Technology? How the two are related to each other?
To see that, we need to first take a look at where and in what direction the trajectory of current debates on technology is going in the world.
Global Debates on Technology
How to ensure that advanced technology improvisations such as AI, work for the good of humanity in the future, not against it, is one of the most talked about issues of our time. At times, it seems that from big corporations to governments to think tanks to billionaires to multilateral forums to spiritual figures to social influencers, almost everyone on the planet is talking about AI and its potential dangers to the human race in the future (the signs of which are already becoming visible here and there) but despite too much talk around AI, controlling the possible future catastrophe, does not seem in the hands of anyone, as if everyone is sitting on the audience seat in this great ‘Game’ show of AI!
Sense of Control vs. Sense of ‘Service’
Articles with titles such as “How AI Could Accidentally Extinguish Humankind,” are floating in all major western journals. Discussions that started from “Man and Machine” have now included ‘God’ as well. Speaking on one such forum “Man, Machine and God,” at Washington National Cathedral, a few weeks ago (on November 16, 2022), Henry Kissinger described AI as the new frontier of arms control, and he raised the urgency that if the world’s two leading powers (namely US and China), don’t find ways to limit AI’s reach, then in his views, “it is simply a mad race for some catastrophe.”
These days, on almost every forum, Kissinger is found advocating for a high-security dialogue between the US and China that in his views, should begin with a basic principle that the two “will not fight a high-tech war against each other.” And he often says that an ideal conversation might begin, with US President Biden telling Chinese President Xi Jinping that “we both have a lot of problems to discuss, but there’s one overriding problem, namely that you and I uniquely in history can destroy the world by our decisions on this [AI-driven warfare], and it is impossible to achieve a unilateral advantage in this.”
Can conversations with such a tone and intent, ever shape the future of AI or any other high-tech advancement, in a direction, that is right for humanity? Is an insecure, pessimistic, and narrowed perspective, capable to chart the path for the future, of any kind? Does any such reference exist in history where dialogues are driven with a Sense of ‘Entitlement’ and ‘Control,’ ever worked for the Global Good or Humanity?
Comparing the above conversation, with the views of the world’s largest democracy (which forms approx 17-18 percent of humanity too), brings some fresh perspectives.
Contrary to the above discussions happening in one part of the world, when India’s white-haired people discuss the future of Technology and Mankind, one can sense an air of optimism, and an intention for the good of humanity, in the room. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi often says that “The road ahead for Artificial Intelligence depends on and will be driven by Human Intentions.”
Speaking at the inauguration of the Wadhwani Institute of Artificial Intelligence, Mumbai (in 2018) PM Modi said that: “Human ingenuity has always prevailed and it will continue to do so in the future” and he said:” This optimism stems from my firm faith in Ancient Indian Thinking that blended science and spirituality and found Harmony between the two/ for the greater good of mankind.”
India, one of the fastest growing economies of the world, has a leadership that believes that “at the intersection of Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Human understanding is the solution of many problems we are facing,” and under his leadership, India is leveraging the power of 21st-century technology to eradicate poverty and disease, while ensuring that it remained aligned with the country’s development philosophy of “Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas.”
In the last 8 years of its Transformation, Bharat has not only made the same Technologies a ‘Partner’ but also presented an example before the world that leveraging Technology with a “Sense of Service” for Humanity is possible!
And to the scientific community and technology professionals of Bharat, PM Modi often asks: “Can we take the global lead on creating Artificial Intelligence that is less about making humans redundant and more about enhancing human abilities and expanding human capacities.” And “can we make the future less about machines displacing humans to a future about humans becoming better humans by converting their weaknesses into their strengths for the greater good of mankind.”