Tata Sons chairman N Chandrasekaran. Technologies such as cloud, artificial intelligence and machine learning will help fill the gap of India’s “missing middle”, Chandrasekaran writes in his latest book, Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology’s People Problem, co authored by Roopa Purushothaman, chief economist of the Tata Group.
These Bridgital workers will help create 30 million jobs by 2025 if the model is applied successfully, Chandrasekaran and Purushothaman tell ET during a freewheeling conversation that included subjects as diverse as technology and its impact on jobs, the disruption caused by the new economy, and fostering entrepreneurship beyond select geographies.
Your book Bridgital Nation highlights the use of digital to create employment opportunities. How do you see that reaching people across the economic strata in India?
N Chandrasekaran: I feel you cannot fix shortage either by building more capacity or by putting more money because time is not on our side, the demand supply ratio is so huge – like hospital to doctors, or schools to teachers, or the number of judges. It will take a lot of time to build that kind of capital or talent required. We have most of our jobs in the informal sector which is almost 77%. Not all these jobs are secure or high paying and mostly they are invented by individuals themselves.
On the one hand, we have high-end talent and low-end pool of workers and this is what we call the “missing middle”. The solution lies in coming up with a framework that guarantees no resource is wasted and is put to maximum use. Bridging the gap with technology can solve the problem. And that is possible through cloud, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Bridgital is the method to bridge using technology the gaps to access jobs.
How would you implement this model?
NC: We have the methodology, and have even run pilots and tested it in the last five years. This has been done in areas like cancer care, primary care. Take, for example, the passport work. “ Today, the process has been demystified.”
So that has created a new category of professionals empowered with technology. We have to demystify the job like the way passports are processed where specialisation comes in probably at the last stage. And those people who are typically low-skilled and execute most of the work till the last leg form a new category of empowered bridgital workers.
So ordinary workers can be empowered in a processified and digitised world and trained to work in a digital environment. So these are a new set of professionals who are not necessarily technocrats.
Job creation through Bridgital to be in both traditional and service sectors to create the missing middle.
You mention in the book how the startup and entrepreneurial spirit has to move beyond Bangalore. Do you believe that technology innovation has not filtered down to all sections of the society?
NC: If startups are working in technology and IT, why can’t they work in every other environment? We gave an example of the textile worker Amit in the book, which goes back to looking at what entrepreneurship means. How do you create this entrepreneurial zeal in every sector and every part of India and make more entrepreneurs flourish.
Roopa Purushothaman: Traditionally we have focused on getting more land, functions like HR, finance and taxation can be taken up by the need to build a more main street set of workers compared to Bangalore’s IT kind of employees. So how do we take the success seen there and take it to more people. So the textile workers can focus on not just design, but HR, finance and back office operations. It is about creating entrepreneurs in every part of India and increasing the number of employees at these SMEs, which is currently at a dismal two and a half per cent.
Tell us a bit about Tata Digital…
NC: Right now we are not ready to talk about it. It is a new company, like a platform.
While you talk of job creation with the help of technology, we are also seeing a lot of backlash by the incumbents against the internet economy, across e-commerce, food delivery. So how do you deal with disruption that comes along with technology?
NC: Every business is getting reinvented. I call it the importance of ecosystems. What is happening is that companies were set up around products. Now every industry is being controlled by an ecosystem, and it doesn’t come from the product side but from the consumer side.
The ecosystem is serving the customers’ choice; they go back and source products.
The power is shifting from the product creator or owner to the ecosystem. It is my firm belief that every company across industries has to study what their ecosystem is. Either they have to create it or be an anchor or be a significant participant in the ecosystem; otherwise they will lose. You look at restaurants— now when we want to go out and dine, many times we just order in … Whether you like it or not, it’s happening.
The issue is not to avoid the disruption.
And while this ecosystem is getting built at the same time it is not fully successful. Look at Uber, it doesn’t make money, Ola, Oyo, don’t make money. The point is there is traction for these businesses because customers use them, but the business models are not yet proven. It will evolve but the traditional players cannot ignore them.
What about data privacy? You’ve spoken about the US, EU and China models. Are you worried about Big Tech and data? What should India follow?
NC: As you solve problems of scale, data privacy will be the foundation.
Data privacy will need to be embedded in the way we build solutions. It can be done, at the same time privacy is critical.
Security and privacy are two sides of the same coin.
Regulations have to be formed but more importantly, it’s about the enforcement.
So it’s how the terms of reference are put together by technology companies or the Big Tech, and how well documented these terms are for the people.
Coming back to the book, it falls into the techno optimist category…
NC: It is a pragmatic book.
It is similar to whether you are pro or anti ecosystem.
As chairman of Tata Motors, I can say all of this (ride hailing) will eventually fail; so let me have world class service stations and dealers. Or I can take the view, whether I am a part of the ecosystem or not, it (changes) will happen.
I have taken the view that AI and ML will influence all industries, it will impact every market and industry at varying speeds. So how do we embrace it so that they are put to use.
Given India’s low per capita income, why is the percentage of women in the workforce dropping – a central point in the book?
RP: There are largely three reasons, responsibility for unpaid work in India is huge, the safety and mobility concerns and the underlying gender context of preference for males. You don’t see that in all countries as much as India…. Getting women into the workforce can solve half the issue of the missing middle.
In India, we have two major challenges. First, there is an access issue. There is a huge shortage. You can’t fix shortage building more capacity. Look at the doctors-to-patient ratio, teacher-to-student, the number of judges. It takes a lot of time to build capacity. Second is that we have a lot of talented people. There is a huge demand for services…
Who is tasked with the onus of creating these skills? Where does the government come in and how do corporates such as the Tatas pitch in?
NC: The idea of putting out the book with all the details was that it can get debated and adopted so that it solves problems. I definitely want to do a few projects on this scale where digital can be put to use. We are also setting up the Indian Institute of Skills, which the government asked us to do. The approval has come in and we want to design the curriculum about not just vocational skills but also bring in the concept of digital skills for all sectors.