Speaking at the NASSCOM Product Conclave 2011, Vivek Wadhwa’s message to Indian entrepreneurs was simple: Silicon Valley’s model has holes. So, stop following them, stop making silly social networking applications and innovate for India.
My first reaction was, “What is he talking? Vinod Khosla has got off the stage not even a couple of minutes back. Vinod predicted that India is going to produce a plethora of billion-dollar-global product companies and also that social is still the next big thing. How could he know more than Vinod?”
There were many who were getting uncomfortable of his speech because Silicon Valley has been an inspiration for most of us. Many of them are building social apps. And they are in for the same kind of success and fame that is found in Silicon Valley. Wadhwa’s speech was even worse for me because I was to pitch him about my social media venture later. And there he was on the podium questioning the pillars of everything my start up and many other start ups stand for. Yet, I was interested in his speech because there was a germ of a feeling inside me that he may be right. A few days later I was convinced that he was.
As I spent the next few days thinking deeply about what he said I remembered an argument that once I had with a relative on the Singur trouble. I had argued that neither Mamata Banerjee nor the West Bengal Govt. was right. My argument was that it is utterly stupid to give up fertile land to industrialisation when a state has non-arable land. A few years later more people would agree with me since India’s agro production in 2010-11 was 2% less than the previous year – one of the contributing factors in the inflation in food prices that we faced.
If the government had anticipated that there was going to be a sudden boom in FDI in manufacturing and other sectors, it would have been wise on the part of the government to have the infrastructure built in non-arable locations. The income levels of persons dependent on agriculture in West Bengal is low and is likely to get worse with the increase in population dependent on the same quantum of land. Robbing farmers of little of fertile land they have make the farmers poorer. And if you thought it won’t affect you, if you thought it’s a reason for you to celebrate a rising India, who are you kidding? You are the one who will pay for such mistakes when the food prices go up. Growth, if not inclusive is a trouble. Wouldn’t it have been great if Tata Nano factory could be built in a piece of non arable land that West Bengal has in tens of thousands of hectares and the Singur farmers could be the first ones to buy those cute looking colourful Nanos?
There is a great lesson to be learnt from what happened in Nandigram. If USA is ahead of India, then you can’t reach where USA is unless you have traversed the path USA has to reach where it is now. So you can’t build silicon-valley-build-user base-first-monetize-later start-ups in India, unless the e-commerce eco-system is healthy and earning profits for the latter would buy your ad space. You need a ‘Pay for Online Services’ culture should you opt for a freemium business model for which you need a strong Indian user base online who have the money to splurge. India won’t have a healthy population that is adequately financially strong unless there is good and affordable education. Unless there is a healthy population that is financially strong not many would buy 4G/3G services? If no one buys 4G/3G services or fast broadband connections, there won’t be a strong communication infrastructure. If the communication infrastructure is not healthy and Indians don’t have money, how will anyone buy iPhones and why would Apple sell them? If you don’t have iPhones how will you build the next Instagram?
Hence I agree with Wadhwa’s point. We will build Instagrams, but not now. Right now, our priorities are different. Our challenges are different from the ones faced in Silicon Valley. Hence, the innovations also need to be in a different direction. Like how do we eradicate child labour completely so that we can get our children into the school programs? How do we make electricity cheaper and bring it to every home in India? How do we make more people start businesses in rural areas, so that the rural economy gets vibrant?
We need a special education system in India for the rural areas- ones that ensure placements into nice paying jobs. The challenge is to build these special programs that can create a strong skilled workforce. A combination of skilled workforce and infrastructure is surely going to get the manufacturing industries set up facilities in the remotest areas of India if well connected by roads. This is how you are going to productively use the whole vastness of the land and human resources India has. Folks say that India is a 1 billion strong market. Well it is sure not, not yet. Not until 1 billion of India’s people are educated and well empowered. Once they are, you will have your Silicon Valley. Not one, but many. Yes, within India.