For­get Trump, dis­cover world

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - OPINION - THOMAS FRIED­MAN

MUMBAI, In­dia — In a re­cent MSNBC in­ter­view I de­scribed Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump as a “brain-eat­ing dis­ease.”

I did so be­cause his in­de­cent be­hav­ior, and non­stop out­ra­geous tweets and ac­tions, force you as a com­men­ta­tor into a ter­ri­ble choice: ei­ther ig­nore it all and risk nor­mal­iz­ing Trump’s ex­cesses or write about him con­stantly and risk not hav­ing the time to learn and re­port about the big trends now re­shap­ing the world — trends that one day will sur­prise your read­ers and leave them ask­ing, “Why didn’t I know this?”

To in­oc­u­late my­self against Trump eat­ing my brain, I oc­ca­sion­ally get as far away as I can. This time it was to In­dia, where I learned a ton that I didn’t know: I found In­dia try­ing to leapfrog out of poverty and catch up to China by en­gag­ing in a rapid dig­i­ti­za­tion of its en­tire econ­omy and power grid.

Yes, while our pres­i­dent has been busy play­ing golf, tweet­ing about LaVar Ball and push­ing an any­thing-that-will-pass tax plan, China has been busy cre­at­ing a cash­less so­ci­ety, where peo­ple can pay for so many things now with just a swipe of their cell­phones — in­clud­ing do­na­tions to beg­gars — or even buy stuff at vend­ing ma­chines with just fa­cial recog­ni­tion, and In­dia is try­ing to fol­low suit.

Th­ese are big trends, and in a world where data is the new oil, China and In­dia are each cre­at­ing gi­ant pools of dig­i­tized data that their in­no­va­tors are us­ing to write all kinds of in­ter­op­er­a­ble ap­pli­ca­tions — for cheap new forms of ed­u­ca­tion, med­i­cal in­sur­ance, en­ter­tain­ment, bank­ing and fi­nance.

I was blown away by one big change in In­dia in par­tic­u­lar. In 2009, my friend Nan­dan Nilekani, the tech en­tre­pre­neur, led a team of ex­perts that helped the then-Congress Party-led govern­ment launch a na­tional dig­i­tal iden­tity sys­tem, known as Aad­haar (Hindi for “base”).

Ev­ery In­dian, rich or poor, goes into a field of­fice, has fin­ger­prints and irises scanned into a bio­met­ric database and then linked to the in­di­vid­ual’s 12-digit ID num­ber with ba­sic iden­ti­fiers: name, ad­dress, date of birth and sex. When the Congress Party left of­fice in 2014, and Naren­dra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party took over, Modi con­tin­ued and im­pres­sively en­er­gized the Aad­haar project, bring­ing it to­day to 1.18 bil­lion users, out of a pop­u­la­tion of about 1.3 bil­lion.

In a coun­try where many poor peo­ple lacked any form of ID, like a birth cer­tifi­cate or a driver’s li­cense, this has been a rev­o­lu­tion, be­cause they can now open a bank ac­count and get govern­ment aid sent di­rectly to them — rather than hav­ing bu­reau­crats, bankers or postal work­ers skim off 30 per­cent each year through the mail — and then link their bank ac­count to their mo­bile phones, from which they can buy, sell, trans­fer money and re­ceive pay­ments digitally any­time any­where.

The dig­i­tal net­work plat­forms that have bro­ken the 1-bil­lion-plus user mark — like Face­book, Google and What­sApp — all came out of the pri­vate sec­tor. Aad­haar, noted the Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view, is the only non-U.S. plat­form “to have bro­ken the 1-bil­lion-user thresh­old and the only such sys­tem to have been de­vel­oped by the pub­lic sec­tor.” It also has the dis­tinc­tion of “hav­ing reached 1 bil­lion users the fastest.”

Now any In­dian farmer can just go to one of 250,000 govern­ment com­mu­nity cen­ters — each with a com­puter, Wi-Fi and a lo­cal en­tre­pre­neur who man­ages it — log into a govern­ment dig­i­tal ser­vices web­site with the farmer’s unique ID and in­stantly print out a birth cer­tifi­cate or land records needed for trans­ac­tions.

Nilekani and his wife, Ro­hini, have built a foun­da­tion, EkStep, to cre­ate mo­bile ed­u­ca­tion apps to help par­ents, teach­ers and stu­dents — armed only with cell­phones — to learn faster, us­ing th­ese new dig­i­tal net­works. As Shankar Maruwada, an EkStep co-founder and its CEO, ex­plained: Un­like, say Face­book, whose busi­ness model is to “re­tain your at­ten­tion,” EkStep, Aad­haar and other such “so­ci­etal plat­forms” are de­signed to “re­store your agency,” par­tic­u­larly to the poor.

Sim­i­lar in­no­va­tions are go­ing on in en­ergy, ex­plained Ma­hesh Kolli, pres­i­dent of Greenko, In­dia’s largest re­new­able power provider. Theft of elec­tric­ity from state-owned dis­tri­bu­tion com­pa­nies amounted to some 20 per­cent of their out­put, as peo­ple strung wires to siphon from the grid, or the com­pa­nies could not iden­tify users.

Now the govern­ment “can link my unique ID to my elec­tric­ity bill” and then di­rectly and digitally con­nect my govern­ment sub­sidy, if I am poor, to that elec­tric bill, said Kolli. Greenko just built the largest so­lar project in the world — a 3,000-acre field of Chi­nese-made so­lar pan­els gen­er­at­ing 800 megawatts pow­er­ing more than 600,000 homes in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Two more such fields are on the way up, all con­nect­ing to the na­tional grid.

So while we’ve been fol­low­ing Trump’s tweets about bring­ing back “beau­ti­ful coal,” In­dia built a 1-bil­lion-user ID net­work big­ger than Twit­ter and gi­ant so­lar power plants cheaper than coal.

That’s what you missed — and that’s just one coun­try. Are you tired of win­ning yet? THOMAS FRIED­MAN is a colum­nist with The New York Times.

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