Conspicuously absent at the event though were foreign tech companies like Uber and Amazon. The event was strictly for Indian companies. Only. Some of these foreign companies, commented one of the attendees, “interact regularly with the government, and have already managed to establish a relationship there.” If the government didn’t invite the foreign companies fearing they would extend a wish list to the government, the Indian startups made up for it.
But in the end, it turned to be a John F Kennedy-moment when the US President famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
“I was not very clear what the event was for, but when we got there we realised it was about what startups can do for the country, and not the other way around,” says the founder of a Bengaluru-based startup. In fact, the Niti Aayog officials intervened multiple times during the group discussions as a lot of entrepreneurs kept asking for tax breaks, subsidies, and incentives for their sectors, said another founder. Also, many entrepreneurs could not come up with specific suggestions for the government to implement; instead they asked for general benefits for their sector or their own companies.
In all fairness, startups are hardwired to not just pitch but pitch hard. So it is unlikely to find startups who would have passed up on this opportunity to make the most of the uninterrupted face time with the who’s who of the government
An eclectic mix of startups was invited to attend the event on 16 and 17 August—it included some of the biggest names as well as those still in seed stages—to meet with PM Modi and a retinue of secretaries and cabinet ministers. Another 200 young CEOs of more mature companies were invited on 21 and 22 August.
The Niti Aayog had a crew of 20-25 young professionals, with subject knowledge, managing the event. The startups were shepherded into six groups of 25-30 people each to come up with solutions on themes like education and skilling, digital India, health and nutrition, sustainability, including one on soft power.
What followed was one full day of discussions among the six groups who deliberated for more than 24 hours to come up with suggestions. And a democratically elected representative from each group presented suggestions to the prime minister the following day over a three-hour session. The PM made notes.
A look at the wish-list of startups shows how far policy changes can take their businesses. So at The Ken we’ve tried to glean some of the ideas mooted and have put them in context. To piece this story together, The Ken has spoken with several entrepreneurs who were part of the various sessions and deliberations.
‘Set up a Bhasha Mission’
Arvind Pani, CEO of Reverie Inc, a startup that helps localise language for consumer internet companies
Setting up a ‘mission’ is the kind of language, the government understands. And Pani spoke in a tongue that was bound to have resonated with the government.
There are over 1,200 citizen-facing services like income tax filing, passport application and many other central government services where information is offered only in English and Hindi. Pani pitched for a Bhasha Mission, as part of which at least 1,000 services will be made available in the 22 official Indian languages.
“You can make internet equal if you are able to deliver all services in the language that people understand,” says Pani.
He says the easiest way of doing this is through Aadhaar, the identity card that 1.12 billion Indians have. “The government anyway has details of Aadhaar, it could also ask citizens additional information on language preference,” he said. With that level of detail, the government could send out relevant information in the language of choice to the person. Also, he said, most private companies like banks and insurance companies’ communication is primarily in English. If businesses can use the Aadhaar data and find out which language is preferred by their customers, they too could disseminate information based on the user’s preferred language.
While a move like this could democratise information-access, Reverie too stands to benefit. It has already created local language versions of consumer internet companies like Ola, Ixigo and it has also worked on various government projects including translating Unified Payments Interface-app BHIM into eight languages.