India had 200 million internet users in 2013, and that number is predicted to grow to over 500 million by 2017. Many of these next several hundred million people will be from cities, but many will also come from small towns and villages. They will be farmers, local merchants, daily wage workers, teachers, people involved in local government, housewives, children (many of whom can’t go to school), and people in remote and inaccessible areas. They will access the internet through a low-end smartphone, on a slow and intermittent 2G network, in a local language. It’s easy for us to think that the internet has been around forever, but for them it will be a completely new, almost magical experience. They will look to this technology to empower them, enchant them and surprise them in unexpected ways by enabling them to do things they could never imagine were possible.

With the Digital India initiative, the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are taking a giant leap in the right direction. But the government can only do so much. The best it can do is to help lay the infrastructure to get people online, and build an open platform which others can build on top of. It’s great to see Silicon Valley tech companies supporting the initiative, but what they can do is limited too. India presents a unique set of challenges, a combination of social, economic and cultural factors, that many of these companies have never faced or addressed before. It’s quite difficult for them to even relate to many of these challenges (friends in the valley, do you agree?). Off the top of my head, some of the challenges I can think of are : poor public infrastructure, slow internet, low literacy, low incomes, the role of society, community and religion in personal and family life.

The people best qualified to understand, appreciate and overcome these challenges are we, young Indians (yes, you, I and the person next to you), because we’ve grown up right here in these very cities and villages, faced and overcome many of these challenges over and over in our own little ways. To quote Bane (from The Dark Knight Rises), “I was born in it, moulded by it. I didn’t see the light until I was already a man.” And hidden among these challenges are many immense opportunities that only we can see, for we have seen both ends of the road. Building for the next billion internet users will require a whole new level of innovation, and I’m confident we’re capable of doing it. It is up to us to take what we know and dream is possible through technology, and make it reality. I cannot imagine a greater opportunity to affect hundreds of millions of lives and quite literally shape the future.

I look forward to the day the President of the United States visits our finest tech companies out of admiration and awe for what we’ve achieved, and to learn how we connected and empowered 1.2 billion people. And I sense it’s not too far. Call me selfish, but when that day arrives, I want to be able to look back and see I had a part to play in it.

Source for the internet users statistic :

I originally posted this note on Facebook, during Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley.

Founder, Jovian

Founder, Jovian