Image Courtesy: CNBC TV18
The oft-repeated term “tech-giant”, typically used to describe a number of Fourth Industrial Revolution establishments, bears closer inspection. Are these corporate organisations giants in the sense of a) their ubiquitous presence? b)their ability to proliferate rapidly? c) their permanence or d) their significant socio-economic and environmental footprint?
Nandan Nilekani, the head of Infosys, and the creative mind behind the Aadhar and the UPI services has taken up a new enterprise namely the Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC) [1,3] with the specific goal of providing an alternative to the increasingly predatory practices of online shopping portals such as Amazon and Walmart owned Flipkart.
The vast range of products and enormous discounts offered at these sites is a great hit among the customers. However, the downside, motivating Nilekani’s latest venture, is the steady elimination of small businesses around the country, from the Kirana to the “Kaka Angadi” (a cross cultural marriage of the Keralite Kaka and the Karnataka Angadi), from the fabric seller to the local darzi, to the ubiquitous repair-walas who support environment friendly long term usage and play a key role in helping the country meet its Sustainable Development Goals.
What is perhaps even more egregious is the recent finding by Reuters, that Amazon, a portal intended to support online businesses, has been applying its significant storage and energy resources to identify, duplicate and sell at a lower price, the most successful products of these businesses under its name, while rigging search results to direct customers to its own products.
Amazon is currently under investigation in the United States, member states of the European Union and India for the misuse of such proprietary data, referred to in Amazon’s internal documents, as “Tribal Knowledge”. Antitrust lawsuits (e.g. in the UK) and fines (e.g., by Italy), are welcome regulatory responses. However, given Amazon’s economic clout this could easily turn into an indefinitely drawn-out battle without a satisfactory end in sight.
Enter truly smart and genuinely big ideas, such as the ONDC, India’s alternative to Amazon. Sidestepping the vastly more challenging issue of legal culpability, Nilekani has forged ahead with a constructive solution in the form of an Indian online shopping portal to support a business economy across all grades, from micro to small, medium and large enterprises. In collaboration with the Government of India and backed by ICICI Bank, Punjab National Bank and State Bank of India, Nilekani’s attempt at an indigenous response to Amazon is a lighthouse in the murky brume of a monopolistic and ultimately unsustainable western tech industry (refer to earlier articles for a rundown on the staggering energy footprint of modern tech). Incidentally, it appears that Amazon is now seeking to understand how it might fit into the ONDC landscape.
Seeking conscientious autonomy from new age tech colonizers will help India secure its sovereignty. And if there exists a relative paucity of power and manufacturing resources, well that simply ought to push academia and industries alike towards smarter innovation. Next stop: An Indian answer to Facebook-Meta?
Monika Krishan, Senior Fellow
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.