Friedman: Forget Trump and discover the world

  • Thomas L. Friedman
  • New York Times
Nov 30, 2017

In a recent MSNBC interview I described President Donald Trump as a “brain-eating disease.”

I did so because his indecent behavior, and nonstop outrageous tweets and actions, force you as a commentator into a terrible choice: either ignore it and risk normalizing Trump’s excesses or write about him constantly and risk not having the time to learn and report about the big trends now reshaping the world — trends that one day will surprise your readers and leave them asking, “Why didn’t I know this?”

I occasionally get as far away as I can. This time it was to India, where I found India trying to leapfrog out of poverty and catch up to China by engaging in a rapid digitization of its entire economy and power grid.

Yes, while our president has been busy playing golf, tweeting about LaVar Ball and pushing an anything-that-will-pass tax plan, China has been busy creating a cashless society, and India is trying to follow suit.

I was blown away by one big change in particular. In 2009, my friend Nandan Nilekani, the tech entrepreneur, led a team of experts that helped the then-Congress Party-led government launch a national digital identity system, known as Aadhaar (Hindi for “base”).

Every Indian, rich or poor, goes into a field office, has fingerprints and irises scanned into a biometric database and then linked to the individual’s 12-digit ID number with basic identifiers: name, address, date of birth and sex. When Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party took over, Modi continued and impressively energized the project, bringing it to 1.18 billion users, out of a population of about 1.3 billion.

The digital network platforms that have broken the 1-billion-plus user mark — like Facebook, Google and WhatsApp — all came out of the private sector. Aadhaar, noted the Harvard Business Review, is the only non-U.S. platform “to have broken the 1-billion-user threshold and the only such system to have been developed by the public sector.” It also has the distinction of “having reached 1 billion users the fastest.”

Now any Indian farmer can go to one of 250,000 government community centers — each with a computer, Wi-Fi and a local entrepreneur who manages it — log into a government digital services website with his unique ID and instantly print out a birth certificate or land records needed for transactions.

Nilekani and his wife, Rohini, have built a foundation, EkStep, to create education apps to help parents, teachers and students — armed only with cellphones — to learn faster, using these new digital networks.

Similar innovations are going on in energy, explained Mahesh Kolli, president of Greenko, India’s largest renewable power provider.

Greenko just built the largest solar project in the world — powering more than 600,000 homes in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Two more such fields are on the way up, all connecting to the national grid.

“No new coal or gas power plants are being built in India today,” he added, “not because of regulations, but because solar, wind, hydro are all now able to compete with coal plants without subsidies.”

So while we’ve been following Trump’s tweets about bringing back “beautiful coal,” India built a 1-billion-user ID network bigger than Twitter and giant solar power plants that are cheaper than coal.

That’s what you missed — and that’s just one country. Are you tired of winning yet?