This article was first published in the Mint on July 26, 2017.
Early life on the planet was self-sustainable, that is how nature and humans coexisted. If someone needed shelter, they built a home with resources indigenously available to them. If someone was hungry, they hunted for food in their vicinity. Over a period of time and after several economic revolutions, human needs have expanded. Today, jobs are meant to fulfil not just needs but also the desires of mankind. This is an unsustainable model in the long run.
Having said that, this model of chasing desires through a job is not being followed by everyone. Many are struggling to fulfil even basic needs. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, one in every nine persons is suffering from chronic undernourishment. As many as 795 million people are hungry and 836 million are living in extreme poverty. So is the GDP measuring scale of development the right way to calculate a country’s growth?
Since the time of the industrial revolution, the focus has been on creating jobs rather than creating a wholesome society. Even our education system is focused on creating more and more jobs. Our orientation for the last 100 years has been driven by the philosophy of industrial revolution and an industrial society. But is that the future of jobs as well? When we talk about a knowledge-based society or an information-based society, will we continue to think of jobs that exist today and skills that are required today. Will we continue to follow GDP-based economic development?
Let’s imagine we’re in the future of a connected society. Twenty years from now, we will be even more connected than we are today. With everyone connected in a knowledge economy, information (or data) will be the single largest commodity for humans and machines to deal with. For such a future, are we creating enough human skills that are trained in dealing with information as a commodity, a product or a service considering that information, because of its many avatars, cannot be dealt with using a software or application alone? Are our schools, training institutes, universities and vocational organizations training people in such skills?
Let’s go back 20 years now. Most of the jobs that have been created in the last 20 years due to the 1990s IT boom required skills that weren’t immediately available. However, people were hired and trained on the job while education institutes slowly began to update their curriculum or introduce a new curriculum altogether (though the industry still complains that academia is not training people for the current needs). But most IT skills teach human resources to run machines, write code and develop software rather than train them in dealing with information as a commodity to understand its impact on humans or to serve fellow citizens. Take, for example, Common Services Centres (CSCs). In 2007, the Indian government decided to create entrepreneurship-based rural information resource centres. Today, the number of these CSCs stands at 250,000. Most of the individuals hired for this job had basic computer skills—how to turn it on or off and run a few basic applications. If I go back to analyse the successes and failures of the person who ran the CSCs—the village-level entrepreneurs—I’ll find that none of them were trained in entrepreneurship, information and communications technology (ICT) skills or even human behaviour. Hundreds and thousands of CSCs eventually shut down or became ineffective. Firms responsible for setting up and running the CSCs, too, withdrew their support. Even today, there is no institute in the country that trains people to facilitate transfer of information at the grassroots level even as millions of those living below the poverty line in rural parts are exploited by middlemen due to lack of information, especially about government schemes and entitlements.
As I’ve shared many times, we have established 200 Community Information Resource Centres (CIRCs) across 80 districts in the last 10 years. Every individual that we have hired in this last decade to work at these CIRCs has been an untrained person. Some of them knew how to operate computers but none of them knew how to manage information or disseminate information; and so they were trained on the job to curate and facilitate transfer of information to community members about panchayat notifications, government schemes, entitlements, market linkages and prices of crops or other products, among hundreds of other things.
In the next 20 years, we want to set up 3,000 CIRCs in India’s 272 backward districts. We will need at least 9,000 impeccable people to run and manage these centres; people who know how to deal with people and information, to become points of delivery for underserved communities. I have no clue where I’ll get these people or whether I will have to train them on the job.
The reason why the Right to Information Act (RTI) came into existence was to enable the government to proactively facilitate information transfer to citizens. RTI was framed because demand for information existed; and this information was available with the government but was inaccessible to most because the government wasn’t equipped or trained to provide relevant information to the public on a periodic basis. Even today, almost every government website has an RTI section, yet information on the page is not properly curated. In fact, no agency, other than the Kerala government, is proactively working on making information available to its citizens.
In a scenario where the entire country is connected to the Internet, there will be an even greater demand to access information available online and for human resources skilled in digging out relevant information in a timely manner to serve the community. The future of jobs would lie in treating information as a commodity, learning to retrieve required information from the Web or other online platforms like apps, curating the available information for best utilization by local communities, and disseminating the information in a time-bound manner. Skills in information and knowledge processing is the need of a future that is not very far away; and adequate training in understanding this information, in various areas of specialisation, can equip India’s young for jobs of the future. The jobs of the future may also lie in creating ecosystems to study information, artificial intelligence, data science, big data, analytics and algorithms to offer a new paradigm of education, literacy and knowledge.