India must be technologically prepared for the post-Covid world

Ashish Kundra | Updated on June 02, 2020 Published on June 02, 2020

Upskilling the jobless, modernising industrial training institutions and polytechnics, and inclusion of cutting-edge technologies in university currcula will be crucial

The leitmotif of World Development Report (WDR) is usually a bellwether of profound change. Last year, World Bank made a prescient choice: ‘The changing nature of work’. This, of course, was in the pre-Covid era. The pandemic has caused a universal human disquiet. People fret about the future as lay-offs and salary cuts become pervasive. The ILO has handed down a grim prognosis. Some 1.6 billion people, mostly at the bottom of the pyramid, are in dire straits. With full-time jobs shrinking, the gig economy is set to expand. Nearly half a billion enterprises are vulnerable. ‘Work from home’ is being encouraged, as ‘social distancing’ becomes the new etiquette. Billions of students on the threshold of employment are staring at a gloomy future. Their minds are clouded by questions about skill sets for survival in the ‘brave new world.’

‘This too shall pass’, stoics proclaim. By the time it does, will years of progress be thrown asunder? Work and workplaces might change forever. This brings us back to the findings of WDR, which dwelt on rising work automation and a declining demand for low-skilled workers. The die has been cast to favour those with strong cognitive and socio-behavioral skills.

Does Covid-19 alter this narrative? Perhaps not. A Brookings study, drawn from pages of American history, concludes that periods of economic recession are followed by ‘bursts’ of automation. This begs the question, are we future-ready? Technology has been an eternal disruptor and people have always adapted. As old jobs wither, newer ones emerge. However, this time around, the rate of technological change is phenomenal and its sweep all encompassing. Burgeoning job-seekers in a market with shrinking demand pose a grim political challenge. Out-of-job older workers would now be forced to compete with better skilled and much younger counterparts. Reskilling the old will be as crucial as right skilling the young.

Digital upskilling

Will Indians be able to cope? In the past, we have demonstrated our ability to assimilate and absorb technology. Over 500 million citizens use smartphones for multiple daily transactions. This can become the instrument of skilling, using self-learning digital applications. Upskilling the jobless will embed them in the digital economy. The onus for this would lie with the States. At the same time, existing industrial training institutions and polytechnics need to be modernised, in sync with transforming industry demands. Vocational education must deep dive into cutting edge technologies — AI, the Internet of Things, machine learning, VFX, gaming, virtual reality.

Nearly four million app developers form the backbone of the Indian tech start-up system, the third-largest in the world. A wave of entrepreneurship can ride on a strong start-up ecosystem, with easy access to concessional financing and incubation hubs. IIM-Calcutta Innovation Park, a not-for-profit company established by the parent institute incubates start-ups in the North East, providing end-to-end solutions — from mentoring, investor linkage and marketing. This model, executed in partnership with the States, is replicable across the country.

Around 120 million people work in micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which contribute to a third of manufacturing output and half of exports. Barely a third of them deploy digital tools for engaging customers and suppliers. States need to develop off the shelf modules in local language, to support a digital drive. The Central government has already announced a series of measures for MSMEs, including revision of definition, infusion of ₹50,000-crore equity and access to collateral-free loans.

Tech-driven syllabus

The spectrum of higher education enrolls 37 million children in colleges and universities annually, leaving out three-fourth of youngsters. The worry is- are even those currently enrolled equipped for new realities? Invariably, there is a gap between teaching on campus and demand outside. Entrepreneurship and job-oriented courses need to be given salience. Course curricula, even for liberal arts, would need a technology dose, to equip future job seekers. India is now the second-largest consumer of massive open online courses. The University Grants Commission launched its online learning portal Swayam, to offer courses to those on the margins. The expansion of digital programmes would help embrace youth outside the fold of campuses. Stanford University, the pivot of Silicon Valley revolution, offers online courses through virtual classrooms.

A large part of offerings is free content. These include advanced courses like robotics and machine learning. A similar model spearheaded by IITs could ignite a second tech boom in the country. Students, even in remote parts of the North East, would be able to listen in to classroom sessions of the finest faculty. Immersive technologies and personalised content have greater relevance for remote learning in post-Covid times.

One thing is certain. Learning will now become a life-long exercise, with constant technology disruptions along the way. Those who shy away, shall do so at their own peril.

The writer is an IAS officer. Views expressed are purely personal

Published on June 02, 2020
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