Lessons from India


I’m doing fieldwork in Tiruchirappalli – Trichy – a southern Indian, tier-2 city in the state of Tamil Nadu.  It boasts almost one million inhabitants, the world’s largest active temple complex, a university and several colleges specialising in agriculture and management science.

But tradition thrives. Women still practise the art of kolam, drawing skilful, colourful geometrical designs with rice flour and chalk powder outside their front doors each morning. The poor continue to wash in the river.

The retail and restaurant scenes remain in their infancy. While you can find the odd air-conditioned coffee shop – Café Coffee Day – and a few upmarket stores, the bazaar, not the supermarket, is the place to food shop. The best eatery in town serves delicious vegetarian fare in an open air setting just out of reach of the fumes of Trichy’s central bus station. 

Plus there’s traffic. Lots of it. The streets are tough going for pedestrians, with few pavements and almost no safe crossings. In cabs, I get stuck in jams often. I look out on an almost clichéd scene. A chaos of buses, cars, motorcycles and bullock carts.

And yet, getting those taxis reveals another side of India. One that’s high-tech and that operates smoothly. A secret, tightly organised underbelly of a country whose physical infrastructure seems a perennial problem.

Just like in any major Western city, I get out my smartphone, launch an app, get my location in seconds, type in my destination and within minutes Vijay or Thala pull up in a Maruti Alto to pick me up. The app isn’t Uber, which is also up and running in India, but homegrown rival Ola. And the Indian middle class rely on this ride-sharing service to get around places like Trichy, and across the country too as Ola also operates city-to-city. 

It’s no real surprise. Over the past 15 years, 450 million Indians have gone from having no phone at all to relying heavily on their smartphones. And scores of companies from India’s strong tech sector have sprung up to cater to various needs, from banking to online payment through to retail and education.

Plus, India does have a history of highly-organised networks. Right now it is successfully managing democratic elections for a daunting 900 million voters. And it has long had an impressive system distributing tiffin lunches to offices across cities, a hugely complex operation which works as seamlessly as if it had been programmed by a clever coder.

And contemporary tiffin operations are also in motion. While Trichy has few eating-out options, I do see lots of ads for Uber Eats food delivery, as well as for local rival Swiggy.

That’s because though the country still has a huge amount of catching up to do in terms of 3D infrastructure, digital provision for Indians is very much geared towards the 21st century. The state’s multimillion-dollar Digital India development strategy aims to provide all citizens with digital infrastructure as a core utility, deliver governance on-demand, and boost digital literacy with universally accessible resources. The country can also boast the world’s largest biometric ID system in the world – Aadhaar, ‘foundation’ in Hindi – to help streamline the civil service, distribute welfare payments, and clean up electoral rolls.

The private tech sector is no slouch, with the city of Bangalore known as the Silicon Valley of India thanks to its fast-growing start-up ecosystem. And a few innovative companies are ahead of the West and may able to export their expertise. In fact, some already have…

Food-delivery service Zomato rolled out operations in the UK back in 2013, while Oyo recently unveiled ambitious plans to shake up the British budget accommodation sector. And one Indian car-sharing service launched in South Wales and Manchester just last year. Ola says it is looking to help the UK “meet its ever-demanding mobility needs”.

Sabine Stork is a founding partner of Thinktank International Research