As the country now implements its ‘Digital India’, ‘Re-skilling India’ and ‘Make in India’ programmes, it is easy to be lulled into believing that India is well on its way to becoming a digital powerhouse.
Why not, you may ask.
India today can boast of 500 million feature phones, nearly 350 million smartphones and 425 million Internet users—a majority of whom surf the Net on their mobiles. In terms of broadband infrastructure, India has approved the second phase of its ambitious project, BharatNet.
The country has successful e-governance services across sectors such as healthcare, education and banking. It also has a robust Electronic System Design and Manufacturing (ESDM) sector, and a Smart Cities Mission—all part of the Rs1.3 trillion Digital India programme. Moreover, India has seen a steady rise in digital payments and fourth-generation (4G) mobile services—prerequisites to becoming a digital force to reckon with.
Yet, there remain quite a few challenges that India needs to address and overcome.
Indians, for one, can boast about digital technologies such as mobile wallets, mobile peer-to-peer payments, bitcoins and blockchain, payment banks and architectures such as the unified payments interface (UPI) and the recently-launched Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) app. Yet, India does not have a comprehensive policy on data protection or online security—the Indian Information Technology Act (2008) will not suffice. Moreover, India desperately needs a Privacy Act, what with the unique identity number, Aadhaar, becoming mandatory for every conceivable service.
Second, as India strives to achieve inclusive growth, policymakers want technologies to benefit all citizens but also simultaneously help in creating jobs.
The boom in smartphones, for instance, may provide an avenue for additional job creation. A 21 November 2016 report by Counterpoint Research and the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore says that mobile manufacturing companies are likely to create more than 150,000 jobs by 2020 and more than a million indirect jobs as part of the ‘Make in India’ programme.
Moreover, if India does succeed in setting up semiconductor fabs, it may not only help in reducing the country’s dependence on electronic imports—that may surpass its oil import bill by 2030—but also help in creating jobs. The National Electronics Policy calls for $100 billion investments in this sector, which will result in 28 million jobs. But between 2000 and 2014-15, India has had only $1.53 billion flowing into this sector, despite allowing 100% foreign direct investment (FDI).
But technology can make workers redundant, too—automation being a case in point.
Consider the example of driverless cars. Infosys Ltd’s ‘driverless’ cart was developed at the Indian information technology (IT) services provider’s Mysuru centre in southern India. “... Who says we can’t build transformative technologies," Infosys chief executive officer Vishal Sikka tweeted on 14 July.
Hardly a month later, on 8 August, minister for road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari ruled out the possibility of ever having driverless cars on Indian roads. The ostensible reason: the government will not “promote any technology or policy that will make people jobless". According to Gadkari, India has a shortage of 2.2 million drivers, and driving skills can provide employment to around five million people.
To be sure, labour unions in developed countries like the US, too, are urging a slowdown as lawmakers fast-track legislation to allow self-driving vehicles on the road. Driverless cars and tracks hold out the promise of ending traffic jams and accidents, a majority of which occur due to human error and fatigue when driving for long periods of time. Proponents also tout benefits like improved mobility for seniors and the disabled, but commercial drivers could find themselves unemployed.
The International Transport Forum (ITF) at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has coined the terms “TaxiBots" for self-driving cars that can be shared simultaneously by several passengers, and “AutoVots" for those that pick up and drop off single passengers sequentially. In a recent report (http://bit.ly/2frYA2I), it points out that TaxiBots can replace eight out of 10 cars in a mid-sized European city. Shared self-driving car fleets can directly compete with urban taxis and public transport services. To be sure, while some drivers may lose their jobs, consumers would get access to reasonably priced transport options.
It’s another matter that driverless cars may find Indian roads too chaotic. Regardless, if one were to go by Gadkari’s logic, we should have never allowed smart robots and collaborative robots (cobots) on shopfloors in India.
There is no stopping automation. Period. Companies will continue to use artificial intelligence (AI) software bots and AI-powered robots to maintain their global competitive edge. Besides, if you want to export ‘Made in India’ products successfully, you will need a cost advantage that only automation can provide. However, India alone will account for around 23% of jobs that will be lost to automation globally by 2021, according to research by human resources (HR) solutions firm PeopleStrong.
Will our policymakers, then, only adopt technologies that create jobs and shun those whose impact we do not fully understand as yet? If such was the case, we would have missed the benefits of the Industrial Revolution and would still be living in the Smokestack era.
Rather, India should focus on entrepreneurship, which it is doing with its focus on start-ups. It should simultaneously overhaul educational institutions that routinely churn out unemployable graduates and engineers. It should encourage online education and set an example by recruiting people who have acquired online certification or done relevant online courses from reputed local and foreign institutes (Coursera, Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and so on).
Some workers would need re-skilling to be re-absorbed in the workforce. For instance, those losing their jobs to self-driving cars can be trained to supervise the control and command centres with all the money that governments save from building additional parking lots. Moreover, many more jobs can be created if the little over 50 million small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) get access to funding and the right technologies that will help them cater to local and export markets.
Technology advancements in AI, 3D printing, augmented reality, virtual reality, genomics, and robots, to name a few, are rapidly changing the world we live in. Burying our heads in the sand will only set us back. In the words of American writer Stewart Brand: “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road."