Recently, I returned from Kolkata as a married man. I was out for lunch with my beautiful wife for lunch on Park Street, the tony shopping and leisure district. It rained intensely for 30 minutes, but that's all it took for the water to rise knee-high on the entire street. My wife and I were misled by the Android phone GPS by 50m and practically swam for 200m to reach the restaurant Veda for a Dhakai murgi and kebab.
The lunch was the silver lining in a rainy afternoon, but the experience preceding it got me thinking about the paucity of city-level public service delivery in India, such as flood control, power access and basic sanitation and clean water. Bangalore has recently been feted as one of the start-up capitals of the world. No doubt it is so. The Indian start up scene regarding e-commerce is damn hot. Yet, the everyday narrative of day to day urban living in India and its challenges seem to be disconnected from the start-up story. These new ventures seem to thrive in India in spite of the government rather than because of the state facilitating an ecosystem such as in Singapore.
Meanwhile, Flipkart, Snapdeal, Urban Ladder are household names, while money bags such as Softbank and Sequoia are known far and wide as well. The people behind these businesses are also finding a place in public consciousness, a case in point being Rahul Yadav, formerly of Housing.com, who is seen as something of a sex symbol for his radical boardroom antics.
"The challenge for start-ups is to move away from the IT locus and move to the real science of renewable energy and clean water..."
This media buzz regarding start-ups, especially IT-driven ones, have reached a frenzy that contributes to the myth of entrepreneurship. I believe that this myth does a disservice to the folks who create products to meet a market need, and are accountable to the board of directors, consumers and the shareholders. Entrepreneurs are not responsible to the general public for anything other than delivering the correct product for the price rendered.
Public Service Delivery involves public goods, which lies exclusively in the domain of the elected representative aka the government who swear by institutional memory rather than disruptive innovation. The United States Digital Service and its precursor comprised tech geeks from Silicon Valley who salvaged the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) whose website crashing every two minutes did not exploit the potential of the revolutionary legislation. This is one illustration of the fact that the internet is the interface between the government and the general public in the 'Internet of Things' paradigm.
Start-ups such as Delhi-based Social Cops bring Technology and Big Data to decision-making in India. Information management is critical to designing and delivering massive protection platforms, and bio-metric identity schemes such as Aadhaar in India add data to the mix; linking bank accounts to these numbers enables governments to channel cash subsidies to the recipient directly, although the marginalised poor would probably prefer a sack of rice.
The challenge for start-ups is to move away from the IT locus and move to the real science of renewable energy and clean water, to create solutions that would seamlessly plug in to augment or enhance the delivery of public goods. What holds them back is that the gestation period is longer, and venture capital investors look for a quick return via a public listing on the bourses. That is in my humble opinion, the central dogma for start-ups looking to innovate alternative business models to ensure better power access in rural India. Softbank of Japan is investing billions of dollars in renewable energy in India according to recent media reports. There is therefore, a sliver of hope.
Can the conversation regarding start-ups move towards building solutions for clean water and sanitation, renewable energy and public governance? That would indeed be a game-changer.