On November 22, Indian Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar stated that India has converted its “soft power” into “software power” while speaking at the UNESCO India-Africa Hackathon. The Hackathon itself was an example of this transformation: the event convened over 600 students from 23 countries to solve social problems using software development. However, despite events like the Hackathon offering hope for India’s burgeoning tech industry, accessibility remains a potent question. While people across India take advantage of new possibilities, high-tech career opportunities remain out of reach for many of the country’s most marginalized populations.
Several Indians face barriers to upward mobility. Youth from marginalized communities, such as women and those from rural towns, lower castes, minority religions, and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, encounter systemic barriers to gaining the skills they need to access tech career pathways and systemic discrimination once there. For India to truly realize its vision of a digital-empowered society, it must attain a systemic solution. Forging an “Indian dream” model, where anyone can succeed regardless of their birth, will ignite economic growth due to a stronger tech workforce and reduce destabilizing political activity by decreasing disillusionment in the government. To address the barriers to upward mobility in the tech sector and realize its digital dream, India must foster a digital entrepreneurial environment, ensure connectivity for everyone, and integrate marginalized tech voices into the mainstream.
Upward Mobility in India
India ranks 76 out of 82 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Social Mobility Index. Upward mobility is so difficult in India that it would take, on average, seven generations for someone born in a low-income family to achieve the mean national income. Factors like unequal education, internet access, unfair wages, and hereditary career mentality contribute significantly to this obstacle and result from substandard social welfare programs to assist marginalized populations. India ranks at 26 on a 0-100 scale for the effectiveness of its social protection programs due to its lack of a guaranteed minimum income and its provision of social protection to only 22 percent of its population (although approximately 85 percent are low-income). In addition, instances of corruption can siphon social plan funding from the most vulnerable.
This underinvestment in India’s marginalized populations is especially concerning because it indicates that the country is not capitalizing on its true advantage: a large youth population excited to participate in its tech sector. Youth (ages 15-29) constitute 27 percent of India’s population and could contribute significantly to the tech industry, given their tech-savviness. Engaging youth in tech fuels economic growth. For example, increasing school connectivity by 10 percent equips youth with better digital skills and workforce readiness, which can increase GDP per capita by over one percent. Beyond the economic benefits, India’s youth also comprise an important political block. The government’s underinvestment in youth leads to widespread political disillusionment that can destabilize Indian democracy in the long term. Growing frustration at the lack of upward mobility has already caused anti-government protests like the Agnipath protests against a policy that worsened certain job opportunities and lower government approval ratings among youth.
The Indian government and private entities have attempted to address these problems by providing technology training and improving technology access in marginalized youth communities. The flagship government initiative, Digital India envisages an India that is “a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.” Digital India includes schemes like digital payment services, online transactions, and e-governance. Furthermore, the initiative supports the National Mission on Education, which utilizes digital technologies to up-skill youth in higher education institutions. Although these schemes do not focus on marginalized populations specifically, they have enabled better connectivity for many vulnerable communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic also inspired several digital education initiatives that engage private sector partners. For example, Amazon launched its Amazon Future Engineer program in 2021 to deliver computer science training to thousands of underprivileged students across seven Indian states. Meanwhile, New Delhi partnered with Intel in 2020 to design a national curriculum on Artificial Intelligence. Beyond the for-profit private sector, there are also numerous nonprofits engaged on digitally up-skilling marginalized youth; many offer success stories of pairing youth with higher education and career positions in tech. However, despite these efforts, equality in access for all youth remains a distant dream; solutions must play out on a larger scale to guarantee a substantial impact.
An “Indian Dream”?
Adopting the “Indian dream” model would prove more effective at guiding digital initiatives in India. This model would derive from “the ideal that every citizen…should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.” India must understand that branding this illusive ideal as its own for upward social mobility is critical for its digital transformation. The concept of the upward mobility dream relies on three factors: an entrepreneurial environment, equality in connectivity, and social integration.
Fostering an entrepreneurial environment for digital startups is key to the “Indian dream.” For those more well-connected, many Indian entrepreneurs look to banks, family funds, or foreign incubators to support their digital ideas. But, for the local entrepreneur, an idea cannot come to fruition without a proper venture capital environment. Creating this environment is critical because it enables less well-connected people to find non-traditional pathways for success to circumvent discrimination in existing tech business structures. To support entrepreneurship, the government should foster a domestic venture capital environment that prioritizes marginalized entrepreneurs by managing fundraising programs and raising publicity that promotes entrepreneurial culture. Not only do entrepreneurs often experience more social mobility, but tech-related entrepreneurship has become fundamental to narratives of mobility because individuals often just need a good digital-driven idea and access to technology for success.
Ensuring equality in connectivity will also enable marginalized populations to access traditional fields. Therefore, the government should increase access to internet infrastructure and online information by launching infrastructure development initiatives, subsidizing internet costs, and creating free digital training programs. Affordable internet access is the most important connectivity method because it equalizes access to knowledge and enables digital training initiatives, breaking down traditional barriers to technical up-skilling.
Meanwhile, social integration likewise plays an important role by guaranteeing that marginalized communities receive more advancement opportunities. To achieve this, the government must engage marginalized stakeholders in public forums, including via relevant events, media releases, and online, to ensure their voices are heard. The integration of marginalized voices into mainstream tech conversations will improve access to both traditional and non-traditional tech careers.
Beyond these strategies, the government should encourage private sector actors to engage further. Government efforts such as positive publicity, subsidies, and better hiring pathways for companies may serve as helpful inducements. Moreover, New Delhi should publicize the “Indian dream” mentality so that individuals are confident in their potential to succeed.
Chasing the Dream
While an “Indian dream” of upward mobility is difficult to achieve, the Indian government must launch more initiatives in this space to keep discussions of this dream active. Although some higher income Indians do not support expanded social welfare programs due to tax ramifications, New Delhi can package these programs with broader development initiatives to persuade naysayers. In addition, the government could preempt competition by supporting tech sector growth and startups alongside training initiatives to ensure demand for digital talent paces with supply. Furthermore, the government should include marginalized communities in conversations about its programs to prevent uneven impacts and promote digital equality.
By addressing potential challenges strategically, New Delhi can improve upward mobility to protect the interests of marginalized populations, foster economic growth, and promote political stability. Building an “Indian dream” model will provide equal opportunities across a truly tech-enabled society. As entrepreneurship, connectivity, and social integration enable diverse Indians to partake in its digital transformation, India’s “soft” power can become “software for all.”
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Image 2: Xavier Galiana/AFP via Getty Images