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Why India needs to be reimagined as a digital nation

Written by two senior Tata group executives, ‘Bridgital Nation’ offers a road map for prosperity that must be pursued by policy makers in 2020

If anything should be free, it should be quality school education.istockphoto
If anything should be free, it should be quality school education.istockphoto

Books about economic policy suffer a perpetual tragedy. Those written by professors are often impractical—they don’t recognize that life is second best at best, where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit, and the most dangerous and persistent lies are the lies we tell ourselves. Books by practitioners often aren’t rigorous—they confuse correlation with causation, get trapped in the dangers of a single story, and mistake passing showers for climate change. But every few years comes a book that catalyses change by synthesizing the desirable and doable.

Bridgital Nation— Solving Technology’s People Problem: By N.Chandrasekaran and Roopa Purushothaman, Penguin, 344 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
Bridgital Nation— Solving Technology’s People Problem: By N.Chandrasekaran and Roopa Purushothaman, Penguin, 344 pages, 799.

Aadhaar was imagined 12 years ago in Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani. Bridgital Nation by N. Chandrasekaran and Roopa Purushothaman (chairman and chief economist of the Tata group, respectively) is another such book; it offers a road map and thought-world for creating a more inclusive, creative, productive, formalized and prosperous India.

Progress depends on the debate Nobel laureate Robert Solow framed as more cooks in the kitchen (the status quo getting more resources) versus a new recipe (trying something different). Bridgital Nation believes India’s status quo offers two challenges (access to public services and low-productivity jobs) that need a new recipe (what they define as Bridgital, Talent, and Everywhere Entrepreneurship). It wasn’t God’s will that 1.3 billion Indians should take 72 years to cross the GDP of 66 million Britishers; our labour is handicapped without capital, our capital is handicapped without labour, our rights as consumers are higher than our rights as citizens, and our labour markets are hostile to women. And our enterprises are rarely babies (that will grow) but mostly dwarfs (that will stay small) that don’t have the productivity to create jobs that can pay the wage premium and end employed poverty.

Bridgital Nation is worth reading for many reasons. It challenges conventional wisdom (our problem is not jobs but wages). It recognizes the Indian context (there is a wonderful re-imagination of a simplistic McKinsey model for the impact of automation and Artificial Intelligence on jobs). It recognizes that overcoming capacity constraints by throwing capacity at the problem in India is a learning disability (the detailed case study of para-skilling, process re-engineering, and technology to re-imagine healthcare easily migrates to education, agriculture, logistics, financial services and judiciary). It offers new thinking about women’s labour force participation (lower returns from work arise from a gender wage gap, childcare costs, expenditure related to women-only work, and higher safety-driven commute costs). It thoughtfully unpacks symptoms from underlying causes (suboptimal system design versus inadequate physical resources). Finally, and surprisingly for an engineer and an economist, the book doesn’t view employment solely through quantitative economic criteria but—as Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps has argued—takes a human-centric view by including stories of ordinary people like Nikhil, Dr. Das, Jasleen, Manbir and Bhoomi to highlight the dignity, community and purpose created by jobs that numbers don’t capture.

The book details three strategies. The first is Bridgital—the deliberate use of AI and advanced technology to amplify India’s existing resources and extend them to many more Indians in four ways. First, using technology to demystify work by breaking down delivery of a service into discrete tasks, including the tasks of an expert to see what exactly they are doing. Second, shifting work away from specialists; doctors or teachers, for instance, can be helped by workers who are augmented by technology, freeing up these specialists to focus on what they do best. Many pre-diagnosis activities, for instance, can be turned into a checklist programmed on to a device and used by nurses, or even someone without clinical training. This would create some additional jobs even though some tasks, such as scheduling appointments, can be entirely automated. The authors estimate that a combination of automation and task-shifting to technology-augmented lower-skill workers can free up 25-30% of the time of a doctor.

Third, this new capacity can be deployed remotely using technology—mediated by digitally augmented workers in the last mile—to cater to the needs of underserved sectors, like the healthcare examples the book highlights. Fourth, the first three combine to create productive, formal jobs at multiple locations—close to the specialist and local jobs in remote, underserved areas.

The second strategy of talent transformation has two drivers; one raises the returns to work for women and the second reimagines our education system via apprenticeships, digital skills, 21st century skills, lifelong learning and entrepreneurial thinking. I wish they had called out fixing government schools; the fact that 50% of our children are in private schools is not something we should be proud of. If anything should be free, it should be quality school education.

The third strategy of Everywhere entrepreneurship imagines clusters with ease of doing business. Here I wish they had called out Civil Service reform (employers confront regulatory cholesterol of 58,000 compliances, 3,100 filings and 5,000 changes a year) and decentralization (200 real mayors and 29 chief ministers matter more than one prime minister for ease of doing business).

Jawaharlal Nehru, who would become India’s first prime minister, wrote from Ahmadnagar jail in 1942: “Whether we are successful or not, historians of the future will judge. But we aimed high and looked far." India’s economy currently faces short-term pain for long-term gain and Bridgital Nation reaffirms that formalization, urbanization, industrialization, financialization and human capital are policies worth pursuing. But it also offers new solutions for policymakers because it aims high and looks far.

Manish Sabharwal is with Teamlease Services.

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