Page last updated at 15:14 GMT, Tuesday, 9 May 2006 16:14 UK

India aims to be hi-tech heaven

By Gareth Mitchell
BBC World Service Digital Planet presenter, in Delhi

Gareth Mitchell's feet plus recording equipment, Bill Thompson
This week Digital Planet is in Delhi
As BBC World Service technology radio programme Digital Planet visits the Indian capital Delhi, presenter Gareth Mitchell sends a postcard back home with tales of computers, congestion and cows in the road.

From the moment I saw my first cow in the road being dutifully avoided by Delhi's otherwise mad drivers, I knew this was going to be an unusual, even surreal, trip.

I had never been to India but had heard plenty of tales about the legendary steamy heat of downtown Delhi.

As the door of the plane opened soon after touchdown in the middle of night, the coolness of the air conditioned cabin was forced out by the arid heat that I'll always associate with this place. Even the locals are describing the temperatures of around 45C (113F) as a heatwave. I'll never moan about oven-like conditions on the Victoria Line again.

We've all heard about the call centres and software firms in Bangalore and Hyderabad, but we were keen to check out the technology making the Indian capital tick.

We timed our trip to coincide with elections to India's state assemblies. Famously, with around 600 million voters, India is the world's largest democracy. What's more, it's one of the few countries to use electronic voting.

The contrast between the information rich and the information poor here is as stark as that between the posers parading along Connaught Place in the centre of town and the poorest of the poor living on the streets just around the corner
Gareth Mitchell
At the Election Commission in Delhi, Rajesh Aggarwal is the technology director responsible for the electronic voting system. He obligingly set up one of the terminals that voters use in the polling booths. It's all very simple: decide who you're going to vote for and press the corresponding button. A loud beep announces that your vote's been registered and that's that.

But surely voters could fiddle the election by repeatedly pressing the same button? No, says Rajesh, the machines just register the first press and then lock until the next voter goes in.

Can the machines be hacked by more sophisticated vote riggers? No, the machines are sealed and all the votes stored on the chip inside. The terminals are then physically moved to counting stations where the candidates themselves inspect the process of registering the results as they're read from the machines.

Twenty of the machines were smashed to bits by extremists in one election. Officials gathered up the pieces and flew them to Delhi where they successfully extracted the results from the chips inside what was left of the machines.

Gadget gurus

Later on, we found ourselves at Cybermedia, India's biggest publisher of technology magazines.

Our taxi had negotiated its way through the five lanes of traffic that somehow squeezes itself into what should be three. A few traffic bottlenecks, lots of tooting of horns and one or two cows later, we arrived in the up and coming south Delhi suburb that is home to Cybermedia and a growing number of technology companies.

Downstairs, a team of tech heads has the joy of testing all kinds of gadgetry to destruction for reviewing in the magazines.

Billboards in Nehru Place, Delhi (Bill Thompson)
Technology in all its forms is big in India
Half way through an interview, all the lights went out. I let out an involuntary exclamation but everyone just kept working without batting an eyelid. The uninterruptible power supply made sure that all the essential equipment - like the computers - kept going until the generator in the basement rumbled into action a few seconds later.

This, we were told, happens all the time. The local electricity suppliers can't keep up with the increasing demand for power in this rapidly expanding part of town.

A little way up the road, is a shabby looking shopping centre complete with a couple of cows grazing through some bags of rubbish on the street corner. It's the unlikely location for the studios of one of India's most popular television stations, NDTV.

We went along to find out how the network is making the most of India's addiction to mobile phones and text messaging. With some of the cheapest mobile tariffs in the world, phone users in India need little excuse for sending SMS messages.

So NDTV presenters frequently invite viewers to text in their thoughts on the issues of the day. Much of it is the idle chit-chat of everyday life but uniquely, the TV station has also tied such interactivity in with its campaigning journalism.

TV stars

The authorities in India were accused of covering up the details of a high profile murder a few years ago. Outraged NDTV viewers voted with their mobile phones and out came a several hundred thousand strong SMS petition that did its bit to force the authorities to reopen the case.

Executive producer - and star presenter on the network - Vikram Chandra proudly told us the story as he led us into the studio gallery where the production team was directing a programme on NDTV's business channel. Our producer Julian Siddle asked if the presenter was likely to give out the SMS number on air. It would be great to record that and edit it into our programme to illustrate the story.

Before we knew it, Vikram was on the talkback to the presenter. "There's some folks here recording for the BBC," he said, "give out the SMS number for them will you?" The presenter duly ad-libbed away from the stock market information she was giving out and urged viewers to text in with their opinions.

Briefly, the power of directing the station's output just for the purposes of our recording went to our heads. Or maybe it was just the heat.

But the sweltering temperatures are not the only thing that takes your breath away in this remarkable country.

Cows in Delhi streets, Bill Thompson
Some aspects of the country remain timeless, however
Amongst the techno elite in Delhi, there's a real feeling that the city - and India as a whole - is taking the world on. The technology industry is the country's biggest export and India knows that there are hundreds of millions of people within its very borders who will be demanding mobile phones and computers in the coming decades.

A massive domestic market that India's hi-tech industry fully intends to exploit, without giving the whole opportunity away to rivals in the west or elsewhere in Asia.

But it's sobering to remember that despite such optimism, less than 5% of India's population is currently online and many don't even have electricity in their homes, let alone broadband. It's a reality that's all too easy to forget as I write this on a fast connection in the business centre of our hotel.

Digital Planet technology expert Bill Thompson is travelling with us and he's downstairs tapping away on his wireless laptop over a capuccino in the lobby.

Just around the block is the nearest station on Delhi's shiny new Metro system. Earlier, I travelled five stops north to Delhi's old city.

The escalator transported me up from the air conditioned station and into another world. It was early in the morning and people were still sleeping on the side of the busy road. Others were taking their early morning wash under communal standpipes whilst queues formed for sloppy looking dal that was being ladled out to the homeless.

The contrast between the information rich and the information poor here is as stark as that between the posers parading along Connaught Place in the centre of town and the poorest of the poor living on the streets just around the corner.

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