SOCIO-ECONOMIC VOICES

"Streamline Regulations, Enhance Tax Benefits and Promote In-house Innovations for Thriving Global SaaS Trade with India"
-Nilesh Ukey,Founder & Director Nickelfox Technologies
"Empower India's Socio-Economic Future by Bridging Divides, Fostering Innovation, and Championing Inclusivity through Technology and AI"

Intro: Artificial intelligence is changing international trade conversations. As emerging technologies reshapes the economic fabric of the nations, one question resonates: How can India harness these transformative forces to foster an inclusive, prosperous future? Join us in an in-depth conversation with Nilesh Ukey, Founder and Director of Nickelfox Technologies, as he answers this and more. Delve into an exclusive conversation on Socio-Economic Voices, with senior journalist Mahima Sharma, as Nilesh unravels India's socio-economic trajectory - from responsible AI to gender diversity and sustainable entrepreneurship, and explores the keys to propelling India towards an inclusive and futuristic economy.

MS: How will AI technology and emerging tech integration impact India's socio-economic environment in the next decade? Which industries will see the most significant transformations?

NU: India’s scope for growth in terms of the socio-economic fabric is vast, and emerging technologies can definitely play a transformational role. However, the question is – in which area do we want to clock growth? Do we want to grow in terms of our average GDP or per capita GDP of India? In terms of GDP, India is the 5th largest economy in the world, but our per capita GDP rank is 139th worldwide, ranging from INR 164,000 (or $2,000) to INR 205,000 (or $2,500). This is significantly lower than the international standard ($13,000 or INR 1,067,196) which elucidates a huge income gap - the rich getting richer, while the poor getting poorer. A considerable part of our population has limited purchasing power.

The Economic Advisory Council's report for 2022 revealed that by earning INR 25,000 per month, one can rank among the top 10% of wage earners in India. The remaining 90% of the population barely earns enough to survive and lacks the funds to indulge or invest in diverse interests. Consequently, bootstrapped businesses are also few in India and those that exist face difficulties in growth. Only companies that seek investor money report growth, albeit for as long as the investment lasts. This is why cash-rich companies like Amazon are able to gain a stronghold in the Indian market.

The moot point is that we have to address this disparity for socioeconomic growth in our country. The people at the lowest end of the pay scale have to be fostered and promoted. We have to direct our attention towards sectors that are most problematic – quality education, healthcare, a good environment for children, and lower cost of commodities.

With a better quality of life and higher purchasing power, people will spend more, leading to economic growth. If the focus is on improving the per capita GDP of the country, the sectors in which emerging technologies will prove their mettle are healthcare, agriculture, connectivity, climate change, education, infrastructure, and food inflation. Paying attention to these areas will empower Indian citizens and assist the nation in achieving sustainable economic growth. Improving the per capita GDP should be India's priority rather than solely focusing on becoming the world's top economy.

MS: How can AI technology in India be regulated ensure both economic growth and job retention, especially in rural areas? What strategies and resources are needed for this?

NU: Regulating AI technology in India is imperative for economic growth, especially considering the cyber security threats and potential job losses stemming from this technology. Just doing an Artificial intelligence course is not enough; there is a need for a special emphasis on the ethical use of AI for new innovations and data regulation on the models in which AI is trained. Having said that, I believe we cannot stop or oversee innovation in AI, which might prove a deterrent to its growth. European Union and many other countries are already working on AI regulations and India also needs regulations on the ethical use of AI.

For instance, AI should not be used to hack into systems, embezzle money, spread fake news, or boost the sales of any products at a higher cost. These are unethical use of AI, which needs regulation. When it comes to tapping manpower and avoiding potential unemployment, upskilling is a necessity. Technological advancements in the past, such as calculators and Excel, have also threatened jobs. But, when people adapted to the advancement, it resulted in improved productivity and new opportunities. However, adaptation to new tech requires certain acumen, and skill sets, for which people have to invest in education.

The rise of AI necessitates educational investment and skills enhancement in rural and urban areas. Not just urban, but most importantly the rural education in India today, should emphasise honing creative thinking and problem-solving abilities rather than focusing on rote learning, memorising and scoring in exams.

We need a comprehensive approach where people’s capabilities can match technological advancement. This involves implementing regulations for ethical practices in AI and creating more programs to upskill, where people can learn to harness AI and not remain in fear of losing their jobs.

MS: What kind of global tech partnerships should India focus on from 2025 to 2035 to boost the national economy?

NU: Indian economy can experience a significant boost by focusing on global tech partnerships that prioritise the export of intellectual property and services. India's forte is in offering solutions and services, rather than relying solely on the export of goods and raw materials. Therefore, India should capitalise in providing innovative solutions and services.

To encourage companies to retain their intellectual property in India, there must be policies that provide tax benefits and streamlined processes for such initiatives. Additionally, India should pursue partnerships with countries that facilitate the seamless transfer and transaction of services and intellectual property. By focusing on these areas and taking measures to retain our intellectual property, India can benefit its economy over the next decade.

MS: What policy upgrades are needed for free-flow SaaS trade between India and abroad, considering the projected $35 billion ARR and 8% global market share for Indian SaaS companies in the next five years?

NU: Over the past five years, the Indian SaaS sector has achieved remarkable growth, with the total annual recurring revenue (ARR) of its firms expanding fourfold to $12–$13 billion in 2022, and investments into the industry increasing sixfold to $5 billion. The government could consider policies that facilitate ease of doing business, such as simplifying regulations, reducing bureaucratic hurdles and offering tax incentives. Subsidies to SaaS startups could also encourage growth and innovation in the industry.

My contrarian view is that the SaaS industry is not dependent on government policies and policies alone may not be enough to ensure success for SaaS startups. If the solution is good, the product will scale or get adopted quickly in businesses. The problem is that in recent times, most capable young minds move abroad for higher education and eventually take up jobs in foreign countries. To build robust SaaS solutions, we need innovators with deep knowledge of design thinking and the technology domain. Since most of the high-potential talent settle abroad, all SaaS ideas from India get registered abroad.

India needs knowledge hubs or universities where the focus is on innovation or technology, instead of just getting a job. In a nurturing, innovative environment, people with a tech bent of mind could create more SaaS products within India. And the more successful SaaS solutions could enter the global market and enable a positive cash flow into the country.

I believe that India needs a knowledge revolution. We need more world-class universities like Stanford and Oxford in India. Only by creating world-class education and technology institutes, can there be growth in the SaaS ecosystem, which can then lead development of strong products and international trade agreements with global tech giants and countries.

MS: What are the key challenges and opportunities for India in using technology to address socio-economic disparities and promote inclusive growth by 2040?

NU: The key challenge that India will face in harnessing the true potential of technology is its socioeconomic inequalities. For instance, even in the US there has been growing concern about discrimination based on caste and a bill is now pending in the California State Senate to outlaw caste-based discrimination. The same is the case in India. Despite tech advancement, we will not be able to deploy our best resources if we don't tap into the complete potential of the existing talent pool because of their ethnicity or cultural background.

The second is a dearth of critical thinking and problem-solving mindset. I think economic inequalities and the proliferation of gaming and entertainment apps in India see parallel growth. There is also a rise in the popularity of entertainment content among the young population – movies, standups, reels etc. The percentage of people who consume content for entertainment purposes is higher than those who consume educational content. This is a major challenge that needs to be tackled – that is harnessing technology for productive pursuits.

The key to unlocking the full potential of youth is through building critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Technology has to be put to this particular use. Alternatively, these abilities can only be realized if everyone has access to technology and knows how to use it. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to education or these tech tools and devices. It's crucial that we broaden the scope and influence of technology so that everyone can benefit from it while also honing their critical thinking capabilities.

The role of education in closing socio-economic envoronment’s gaps cannot be overstated. The COVID-19 pandemic has widened this gap, leaving many children without adequate resources and nutritional value, and disadvantage in terms of knowledge. It's important to provide such children with proper access to education, supportive frameworks, and mental health resources.

Socio-economic inequalities can worsen due to costly education and shortages of teachers and mentors. To promote inclusive growth, investing in educators and the educational system is necessary. India has the potential to create a more just society with technology-driven solutions that bridge gaps and promote equal growth.

MS: How can the tech industry create a more inclusive environment to prevent the loss of women workforce in India, (as exemplified by say TCS) shifting from remote work to office mode, ensuring equal opportunities and representation for all?

NU: So, the idea behind this is to promote gender diversity across the workforce. For a more inclusive environment, companies require a hybrid work culture that accommodates the needs of men and women alike. Offering remote work options is essential to attract and retain women who cannot commute daily. To ensure productivity, it is important that companies invest and develop efficient processes and systems that address potential obstacles.

Additionally, urban infrastructure development in India should be planned in a way that it integrates residential and commercial areas, reducing travel distances and ensuring safety. Policy-level changes that prioritize inclusivity and integrated planning will have a direct impact on women's participation in technology. In short, women workforce in India has a great potential, but they playing a dual role at home and work, must also be taken into account and a work model needs to be developed where they can be the changemakers and assets to an organisation and the nation.

For instance, we took careful measures in promoting inclusiveness in our organisation. Our work model is hybrid, we never ask female employees to stay back and work late. Every organisation must focus at the core value of Respect that includes respecting people’s time, which is a key instrument of inclusion. Most women folk have to manage their households along with office work. Reducing the number and time of meetings enables early completion of tasks, which is useful for female colleagues.

MS: Anticipating the next decade, how will India's startup scene evolve, considering its recent growth? What contribution will emerging technologies make in nurturing innovation and entrepreneurship?

NU: India's startup ecosystem has unquestionably grown and evolved in the last few years. There was a funding boom in the last 7 years, which enabled startups to flourish. The government’s Economic Survey Report 2022-23 states that the number of startups in India which were merely 452 in 2016 grew to 84,012 in 2022, a significant jump. Government initiatives such as ‘Startup India’ and ‘Digital India’ could have created an encouraging environment for startups to thrive.

In the post-Covid era with the economic slowdown, many startups are not making profits. By 2022, out of 100 unicorns in India, only 23 startups were profitable. In the coming times, and with a recession looming on the horizon, even investor money is running dry.

So, in the current times, entrepreneurs need to have some strategy for making sustainable profits in order to garner investments. Founders would have to use emerging tech – be it cloud computing, AI, ML etc – to create and provide innovative solutions, to sustain in the fast-moving technological landscape.

MS: How crucial is a model policy on Education Technology in India for fostering effective and efficient learning, especially considering the lack of basic digital literacy in rural areas? What steps should be taken to address this necessity?

NU: While technology continues to empower education in India, the setback caused by digital illiteracy among rural populations cannot be ignored. Rural education in India via better and far reaching digital Infrastructure in India has to our top priority.

On the positive side, India has seen a surge in digital technology education startups in recent years - these education startups are effectively responding to the increasing demand for digital skills. Digital infrastructure in India abd related education tools are equipping individuals with the necessary knowledge to thrive in the digital age. But the benefits of these tools are limited to the urban population. The urban infrastructure development in India towards digital world is better than rural, but that needs to be balanced and harmonised towards better rural population education in the field.

Despite consuming a lot of digital content on various video content platforms and OTT it continues to elude the majority. The reason again boils down to low per capita GDP of India and purchasing power.

India needs to make technologies – both hardware and software – more cost-effective. Provide technology at a subsidized rate at least in educational institutes. It should not be left to individual households, wherein the earning members shoulder the responsibility to buying hardware and data for their families. Schools, particularly the ones run by the government, must have adequate digital infrastructure in India to support their students. And these schools may also develop into the hub of digital reach for rural India.

I cannot emphasise enough the need to expand high-speed internet coverage and allocate funds to schools for technology equipment in rural areas. The government must prioritize the improvement of digital infrastructure and literacy programs that will enable rural communities to develop familiarity and confidence in using technology. And technology must be used to ensure that the right kind of digital literacy spreads – for instance, financial literacy, problem-solving, creativity, growth mindset, and attitude building.

MS: What kind of measures young entrepreneurs like you can take to ensure that Green Tech not just stays a vision but become a ground reality in daily life?

NU: While it’s about embracing a sustainable mindset to tackle the climate crisis, my belief is that in our daily lives we have to be more vocal and conscious about sustainability. We need to have more conversations and create more awareness about eco-friendly approaches, especially with the youth. Make them question the wrong and help them correct the wrong - that is the right way. We can encourage the youth to take action in their own way. Perhaps, by taking up higher environmental studies they can innovate a solution. A solution will naturally come up when there are more people thinking of this matter.

As an entrepreneur, I think we need to actively support green startups. This will encourage entrepreneurs who are developing innovative solutions in the field of green technology. I would say that by nurturing our creativity and channelling it towards green technology, we can bring new ideas and approaches to ensure that Green Tech doesn’t merely stay a vision but becomes a ground reality. At a personal level, I believe in walking the talk. So we make conscious eco-friendly choices in my daily life around our team so that they develop the same. Entrepreneurs needed to take the lead for the same be mindful of the energy consumption at home, try their best to recycle and reuse products, reduce food wastage and more. Each step will go a long way because people learn more by watching than by preaching.

MS: For our student readers, what advice do you have for the youth of India who will play a crucial role in shaping the country's socio-economic environment’s future amidst the advancements of technology and AI?

NU: More important than technology are the people who run them. Their lives are more precious. If people are not in harmony, society will not be at peace and the country will not grow. Young people need to become ambassadors of peace and social harmony. And to be this, youth will have to develop a critical mindset and ask the right questions, rather than believing everything they read or hear. There is a lot of false information floating around us. Unless youth develop a critical mindset, they will continue consuming what comes to them.

I would say - Be curious, keep exploring, and challenge assumptions. Do not settle, keep looking for new possibilities. Most importantly, keep questioning till you get clarity.

Secondly, one can have goals of being wealthy and famous. But it’s more important to be inspiring. The world is full of rich and successful people. Now, our world needs more inspiring people. But becoming inspiring is not up to us alone. We can only take action. Whether we are inspiring others depends on how they perceive us.

Technology is an enabler. AI technology in India and all other emerging technologies are made to make our lives better. You are not limited by them. Technology will grow at its own pace. As a youth, you have the capacity to adopt and use these technologies for your personal and country’s growth. Be the ambassador of peace, harmony and use your skillsets and knowledge to become inspiring.

About Nilesh Ukey

An IIT-Roorkee Alumnus, Nilesh Ukey is the Founder and Director of Nickelfox Technologies, an IT/ITeS company specializing in rapid time-to-market solutions for startups and Fortune 500 companies. With a diverse background in leadership and client service, Nilesh has worked with renowned organisations like the United Nations, The NY Times, GE, ITC, MyGov and others. He has successfully led the expansion of a US-based firm in India, personally training the workforce.

About the Interviewer

Mahima Sharma is a Senior Journalist based in Delhi NCR. She has been in the field of TV, Print & Online Journalism since 2005 and previously an additional three years in the allied media. In her span of work she has been associated with CNN-News18, ANI - Asian News International,Voice of India, Hindustan Times and various other top media brands of their times. Mahima can be reached at media@indiastat.com

Disclaimer : The opinions expressed within this interview are the personal opinions of the interviewed protagonist. The facts & statistics, the work profile details of the protagonist and the opinions appearing in the answers do not reflect the views of Indiastat or the Journalist. Indiastat or the Journalist do not hold any responsibility or liability for the same.

indiastat.comAugust, 2023
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