By Natarajan Chandrasekaran, Chairman, Tata Sons, and Roopa Purushothaman, Chief Economist; Head, Policy Advocacy, Tata Sons
It is 2030 and India is among the world’s top three economies. Its citizens live with advanced technology in a mutually beneficial ecosystem. Technology creates opportunity. Its users have access to quality jobs, better healthcare, and skill-based education—all of which were out of reach just ten years before. In this vision of India, digital technology helps people bridge gaps that presently hold them back. This is a Bridgital Nation, and it’s achievable within a decade.
But it is 2020, and we are still on this side of the enormous gap that exists in health, education, justice, and wherever else we look. How will we get to the other side? For India, and developing countries more broadly, the answer lies in the tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The prosperity we envision will become real if we think just a little differently about how we can use the technologies bearing down on us to our advantage.
From digital to bridgital
We see digital technologies changing the world around us on a daily basis. From shopping to travel to work, nothing is untouched by digital advances. And the rate of advancement is only increasing. AI and automation are beginning to make their presence felt in our lives. Such has been their impact that they now come with the standard fear of job losses and worse. However, if we look more closely, this narrative applies to advanced economies. In developing countries, which have distinct characteristics, the advance of technology will play out differently. We believe that if applied properly, it will lead to more jobs and better jobs—an approach we call ‘Bridgital’.
Why do we believe this? Because India is ripe for exactly this kind of intervention. Unlike advanced economies, which possess mature markets and where innovation is focused on efficiency, India lacks markets themselves. For instance, there are 190 million adults still without a bank account. Technology-led approaches can create the new markets needed to meet the demands of the underserved. These new markets will bring new local jobs.
India trails global standards in many sectors. In healthcare, for instance, it has half the doctors and a third of the hospital beds compared to global benchmarks. It has neither the time nor the money to catch up with traditional means. When services are reimagined using technology, an additional layer of jobs emerge in mediating technology and existing resources.
In India, 77% of workers currently participate in the informal economy—working on farms or in low productivity jobs like construction or running small local shops. They earn only about $160 a month on average. For this vast informal pool, a contextual technology intervention could boost productivity and wages, thereby improving livelihoods.
In the coming decade, the largest economies will see reductions in their pool of potential workers. The developed world, with fewer workers available, will be busy innovating technology that can substitute for the workforce it is losing. But in India, 90 million Indians, many of whom will be under-skilled and under-qualified, will be added to the workforce. It needs to develop technology to boost its workers’ skills.
In mature markets, digital transformation is focused on increasing efficiency and automating tasks as a profit-making exercise. But in India, where Indians travel huge distances to see a doctor, or where millions of graduates apply for a few hundred positions, a digital transformation will have to take the form of augmenting human ability.
Opening up access to healthcare
Let’s look at the access gap in healthcare, for instance. Right now, there just aren’t enough skilled workers to meet demand. It will take a further 600,000 doctors and 2.5 million nurses to close the access gap.
The doctors we do have spend a quarter to half of their time on activities that anyone else could accomplish: filling prescriptions, logging appointments, administrative paperwork. With a Bridgital intervention, we could change how doctors work. Many pre-diagnosis activities currently undertaken by doctors could be turned into a checklist programmed on to a kiosk, a handheld tablet, or even a smartphone. These could be used by someone without a clinical background, but who has received three to four months’ training on the technology, freeing up the specialist medical team to treat more patients, while giving jobs to those less skilled.
Technology also gives specialist doctors the ability to conduct virtual consultations with patients well beyond where roads end, providing access to primary care to the 65-70% of Indians who currently struggle for it.
The net effect is to create jobs and increase the supply of medical help: More than 80% of the gap in doctors India will needs by 2030 can be bridged by this approach. It’s a technology-based bridge built using India’s access challenge as an engine of employment.
This isn’t simply theoretical. We have seen this at work in healthcare pilots across India. Doctors, nurses, unskilled workers, outreach health workers, and healthcare coordinators are all at work together in a district near Bangalore. Their work is connected by a common technology platform that allows for coordination between patients and doctors. As a result, patients who would normally have waited too long to see a doctor now turn up at the first sign of trouble. This has meant they can be treated at primary health centres, rather than at hospitals—the last resort. In the few months that the system has been at work, the number of visitors to primary health centres has increased noticeably. We noticed this difference in just one tiny district, and that too only in healthcare.
India is an ‘antarlaapika’
Simply looking across six sectors—including transportation, healthcare, and the judiciary— this sort of Bridgital reimagining could lead to 30 million jobs.
In truth, we already have what it takes to create more and better jobs. We also have the capability to improve and make better use of the existing skill levels of our people, especially once we tailor digital approaches and technologies to our needs. We need to stop thinking of humans and technology as competing for the same work and instead realize that using both together will definitely be more powerful than either alone.
There’s a word in Sanskrit that suits India perfectly: antarlaapika — a puzzle that holds its own answer. India is an antarlaapika that can be solved from within.
The official book launch of Bridigital Nation will take place in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, on Tuesday 21 January.