Infocommunications technology (ICT) has played a significant role to reduce poverty and alleviate inequalities in India, albeit mostly in city areas, according to industry watchers.
One of the goals outlined in India's Eleventh Five Year Plan, spanning 2007 to 2012, focuses on using IT to facilitate gender equality and empower women.
According to the five-year plan, communications technology enables women to overcome barriers to their economic advancement and to engage in e-commerce, distance education and e-government services. In situations where face-to-face contact with men is discouraged, Indian women can find a way to participate in the economy through virtual marketplaces and workplaces.
Sunita Rebecca Cherian, general manager of talent engagement and development at Indian outsourcer Wipro, said women in India have etched a significant mark in all professional fields, and technology is one of the main sectors women choose as a career.
"There is a huge shift in the education system that encourages girls to take up professional courses in large numbers," Cherian said in an e-mail interview. "More and more women opt to work in IT as it provides equal employment opportunities, flexible working and better benefits like maternity leave, extended maternity and childcare at work."
At Wipro, she said, women account for almost 50 percent of its engineering recruits. She added that about 28 percent of the company's workforce are women, and there has been a "consistent increase" in the number of female employees joining Wipro over the past years.
Sunita Rebecca Cherian, general manager of talent engagement and development, Wipro
However, Nikhil Jain, COO of India's Elitecore Technologies, noted that as the major developments in India's IT industry have mainly been in the urban cities, gender equality is restricted primarily to these places. Elitecore provides UTM (unified threat management) appliances, as well as billing and bandwidth management products for telcos and hotels.
"This scenario is slowly changing. As more corporates move to rural India to tap the huge potential there, this has led to socio-economic development of these other cities," Jain said in an e-mail interview.
A major source of growth and employment, he said the IT sector accounts for 35 percent of India's total exports, with the potential to create 2.2 million jobs.
Jain noted: "The salaries paid by IT companies are much higher than India's per capita income of US$2,500 yearly, thereby contributing to reducing poverty and fueling India's economic growth."
Crossroads for change
Prakash Iyer, Wipro's manager of social and community initiatives, said India is currently at a juncture where its population feels significantly more empowered to deal with "developmental" and "societal" issues.
"This is a significant move ahead for the country [and] leading to a heightened awareness of issues, which were earlier thought to be insurmountable," Iyer told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.
The increased use of ICT capabilities--wireless and mobile telephones, computers, radios and the Internet--is encouraging Indians to examine how much ICT can be leveraged to solve societal issues such as poverty, quality education and transparent governance to fight corruption, he said.
"It has reached the extent where some people almost seem to look at ICT as a panacea for all our issues," he added.
Under its Eleventh Five Year Plan, for instance, the government is using IT to provide primary education.
IT is also seen as a means to eradicate illiteracy. With "catch them young" as the motto, the government is encouraging IT learning early in the school curriculum.
Jain added that India's tech corporations are also playing their part in education, contributing to the development of the workforce through knowledge transfers with various teaching centers.
"At Elitecore, we strongly believe in this and have tied up with Gujarat University-based colleges to impart knowledge through special sessions and conferences at these colleges," he said. "Topics covered are next-generation technology, telecom software and network security-based software development."
According to Iyer, as the reach of community radio stations, mobile phones and the Internet extends, this increases the population's awareness of national issues. He noted that a lot of inequity is caused by the lack of information about personal rights, and making information available helps reduce this inequity.
"Now all private and government agencies are expected to have Web pages, leading to a lot of information that are easily available to the population," Iyer said. "Apart from increasing efficiencies, this is also…removing inequities. This in turn has an effect on existing social hierarchies since the Internet or radios don’t make this distinction."
"The culture of demanding information is also becoming more prevalent now, especially with this being supported by the Right to Information Act."
Greater access to information also enables transparency in governance, he added.
The ability of an average citizen to demand explanations and the media's extended reach are slowly making the population aware that "transparency is a right in a democracy and they can demand it", said Iyer.