During a Town Hall Q&A session at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters with Indian Prime Minister Narendrea Modi Sunday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg voiced support for an initiative in India aimed at connecting rural communities to the internet and making more government services available online.
Zuckerberg made a brief reference during the conversation to Modi’s “Digital India” initiative while praising the prime minister for his early adoption of scoial media. The CEO also changed his Facebook profile picture to one that references the initiative.
The prime minister’s visit to Facebook for the roughly 45 minute conversation was part of a whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley over the weekend. Modi was also scheduled for stops at Tesla and Google.
Modi was greeted by a standing ovation and chanting of his name by an audience of roughly a thousand in a courtyard at Facebook, where he spoke with Zuckerberg about the growth potential of the Indian economy and importance of internet connectivity.
Modi said he thought India would need to develop its physical and digital infrastructure simultaneously, and that results of development efforts in the nation with a gross domestic product of $1.8 trillion may not be seen for a long time.
“My dream is to become a $20 trillion economy,” he said.
He likened economic progress in India to a train slowly changing direction, in contrast to a scooter changing direction quickly. With a country of 1.25 billion people “eventually you have a cumulative effect,” he said through a translator at the Town Hall Q&A session, responding to an audience question about his Make in India initiative to increase manufacturing in the country.
Modi said that he would like to connect the nation’s villages with a fiber optic network, likening fiber optic networks to rivers and highways for their ability to spur urban and economic development.
“Civilizations have generally tended to develop, settle along rivers. Times have changed – citizens then shifted to highways, and I think in the future cities are going to be situated along networks of optical fibers,” he said.
Modi said social media has the ability to accelerate the pace of democracy. He is active on Facebook and Twitter, and mentioned using Chinese microblog Weibo.
“We used to have elections after every 5 years but now we have (elections) after every 5 minutes,” he said.
Zuckerberg was effusively positive about Modi’s drive to increase internet connectivity in India, home to more than 100 million of Facebook’s roughly 1 billion users. The CEO said he was impressed with how Modi used social media to connect with constituents, referring to Modi as an early adopter of social media.
Zuckerberg’s support for Digital India complements his efforts to bring internet to rural areas with Facebook’s Internet.org project, but may draw criticism. A month ago, a group of roughly 100 American academics sent a letter to leaders of area tech companies warning them against supporting the initiative, expressing concern that the program may infringe on the privacy of Indian citizens.
“We are concerned that the project’s potential for increased transparency in bureaucratic dealings with people is threatened by its lack of safeguards about privacy of information, and thus its potential for abuse,” such as collection of personal information, the letter cautioned. The letter also accused Modi’s administration of authoritarian practices.
Modi was reportedly greeted at Facebook by protestors concerned about human rights in India and critical of the Hindu politician’s response to religious riots that took place in 2002 in his home state of Gujarat, where he had served as chief minister. Violence stemming from the riots resulted in the deaths of hundreds of victims, most of them Muslim, and critics have accused state authorities of being slow to intervene.