If governments — our government in particular but all governments in general — were to pick the most important priority areas for investments in order to build a better future for their people, what would those areas be?
Going by what the government is currently doing, the priority seems to be on building infrastructure. The next year’s Budget which will be presented to Parliament in a couple of weeks is likely to be no different in its priorities than the ones which have preceded it the last few years. It is likely to be devoted to basically delivering minimum social welfare to the widest possible target group, while a lot of what is left will be used for building physical infrastructure like roads, railways and power networks.
There will be a lot of noise about other critical areas — notably healthcare, education and research and development — but the real spend will be about enough to keep the show going, without creating appreciable change.
But is this what we should be doing? Business leaders, who know a thing or two about how their own businesses and markets are going to shape up in the future, don’t think so. Recently, the World Economic Forum, arguably the most influential global collection of business leaders, doesn’t think so. Although its ongoing summit at Davos is attracting attention for all the wrong reasons at the moment, two reports — on the separate but interlinked topics of “Markets of Tomorrow” and “Jobs of Tomorrow” — which it released to coincide with the start of deliberations this week, throw up surprisingly different priorities and needs.
In the “Markets of Tomorrow”, the WEF surveyed 12,000 business leaders spread across 120 economies, and posed a basic question: “Which technologies are of strategic importance for your country in the next 10 years?” The answers were quite different from what government spending priorities would appear to indicate.
According to the business leaders, the one sector which is likely to be strategically the most important, and likely to yield the highest dividends in terms of development, turned out to be agriculture. Globally, across developed, developing and low-income economies, agricultural technologies were viewed as the most important strategic priority, This was followed by education and workforce development technologies, and then power storage and generation.
When asked which sectors where technological innovation might create new markets, the CEOs picked information technology and services first. Agriculture was the second pick, followed by energy, particularly green and renewable energy generation and storage technologies.
Noting that the backdrop for agriculture is particularly challenging, given that global hunger reached record levels in 2021 in the wake of the Covid pandemic, the report notes that achieving the UN’s SDG-2 objective of zero hunger while also meeting the Paris Agreement emissions targets would require an estimated increase of 28 per cent in global agricultural productivity over the next decade. This is more than triple the productivity increase the world actually managed over the past decade.
Similarly, on the jobs front, WEF looked at 10 major economies — Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, South Africa, Spain, the UK and the US — to look at the kind — and quantum — of jobs which need to be created in order to deliver inclusive, equitable and sustainable development.
Classifying these needed jobs into two broad categories of “social” jobs (from education to healthcare and the like) and “green” jobs (agriculture, forestry, fisheries, environmental management and the like), the report concluded that these 10 economies alone will have to create more than 68 million jobs in these sectors over the next decade.
In India, for instance, the ‘unmet need’ over the next decade in ‘forestry and agricultural professionals and advisers, and life science technicians’ would be 162 per cent of current actual employment in these areas. Even in basic agriculture work — agricultural, forestry and fishery workers and labourers — the current level of employment will have to increase by 52 per cent over the next decade. During the same period, India would need 68 per cent more ‘production managers in agriculture, forestry and fisheries’ than it has at the moment.
This might sound counter-intuitive in a country like India where nearly two-thirds of the population is dependent on agriculture and the principal challenge (according to our policymakers at least) would be to create enough jobs in manufacturing and services to move a large portion of this agriculture-dependent population into more “productive” and remunerative occupations.
But the reality is that while we have this huge pool which is, on paper, living off agriculture, it lacks the skills, as well as the technological support, to actually be both productive and efficient at this. India is witnessing a boom in agri-tech innovation at the moment, which is both private sector driven — witness the mushrooming agri-tech start-ups — as well as government driven, with the government working on building an “agri-stack” of digital technologies to drive innovation as well as funding advance technologies like “Krishi drones” and the like.
But at the user end — where these innovations will have to be implemented and used — we lack the skills to make this happen. This, in fact, dovetails with the gaps in our education investment as well. It is all very well to talk of using technology to transform Indian agriculture, but first the Indian farmer needs to transform herself too, through acquiring a much higher order of skills and education than what our underfunded and under-equipped basic education infrastructure is capable of delivering.
The writer is a senior journalist