The book should have been written in the 1980s, and read by India’s risk-averse bureaucrats who could have then helped India blend man and machine.
New Delhi: I have an American friend, Franz Gastler, a trained manager, who has spent almost a decade training tribal girls as classy footballers in the backyard of Ranchi. The Indian government has not given him any award, no Arjuna or Dronacharya trophies but that has not deterred Gastler from doing what I feel is phenomenal work for the girls in Hatup, a nondescript village in India. Every time I speak to him, he talks about bridging gaps in a billion-plus nation through technology, which he said was the only way forward.
Last week, as I read through some of Gastler’s achievements on Facebook as to how the girls he trained were travelling across the world and using technology to the soccer, two interesting things emerged from Bombay House, a historic privately owned building in Mumbai that serves as the head office of the Tata Group. The first was a wonderful incident, Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of the Tata Group announcing he is finally on instagram. His first image, jacket, tie and everything, triggered immense love and happiness. The second was a tome written by Natarajan Chandrasekaran, the genial executive chairman of Tata Sons. The book also had a co-author, Rupa Purushothaman, head of policy advocacy at the Tata Group. And there was a foreword by Ratan Tata. It’s almost like saying you are in the executive box to watch a La Liga Classico between Real Madrid and Barcelona and that there will be enough excitement for the next 90 minutes—the actual time I took to read through Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology’s People Problem.
Bridgital Nation is a great buy for those who wish to understand and re-imagine automation, something which the Marxists objected to in the late 1970s in Bengal and said pencil was mightier than the computer. The move boomeranged like a backfiring truck. The Red Brigade eventually agreed to computerisation. But to prove Writers Building was White House the Marxists banned English till Class IV, arguing that the language didn’t actually matter for the masses. I was a witness to those dual disasters, and saw how the state slowly went into a rigor mortis mode (one of the most recognisable signs of death). Bridgital Nation should have been written in the 1980s, and read by India’s risk-averse bureaucrats who could have then helped India blend man and machine without the mandatory uproars.
The book is peppered with examples—many, sorry, all of them were products of brilliant research. For example, the informal survey in 2017 of patients living on the footpath outside Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai that showed how on average a patient lost Rs 55,000 in foregone wages during the course of their treatment. Worse, an estimated 49 million are pushed into poverty when a catastrophic health event occurs. Write the authors: “Their standard of living fails, opportunities vanish, and a vicious cycle that may span generations sets in.” Of an estimated 75,000 patients who reached the Tata Memorial, over half travelled for over a 1,000 kilometre. The book reminded me—brutally and honestly—how in India there is the most basic healthcare of the large hospitals. “Between these, there is nowhere else to go.” Only technology can help bridge the great Indian medical imbalance, argue the writers, who say why a programme like Ayushman Bharat could be a game-changer only if it explores the potential of digitally-enabled systems to create new resources across the length and breadth of India.
The book explained beautifully how Jasleen Kaur, a female cop in Bhatinda in Punjab faced challenges at home to square up life and qualify for the job of a cop in male-dominated Punjab and how the entire village celebrated at her success. The chapter reads like a novel, for me Jasleen is the proverbial Nita in Ritwick Ghatak’s classic, Meghe Dhaka Tara (Cloud Capped Star), who gives her today for her family’s tomorrow.
As the head of one of India’s largest conglomerates, Chandrasekaran knows what technology can do when blended with human resources. He has been talking about it in great detail. At the home of the Tata Steel plant in sleepy Jamshedpur, Chandrasekaran—he was there to accept the 25th Michael John Memorial Lecture Gold Medal—said the same: “Corporations must address environmental issues and sustainability while acknowledging the role of digital and artificial intelligence in co-existence with the human mind, and build additional skills around creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.”
The example of one Rajappa Biyali, who lives in a village on the borders of Karnataka and Maharashtra is a great one to explain why and how people who are talented, driven and industrious are often locked out of the nation’s economy and why formal training—both vocational and skills—are of paramount importance. Like a lucid novel, the writers explain why Rajappa, a waterproof worker, saw his business crumbling because of lack of rains. We do not need a cover because there are no rains, his clients told Rajappa. And here, argues the author, comes the need of skill-intensive technology.
Chandrasekaran and Purushothaman are not lone dream merchants. The nation’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who launched the book at his residence recently—is pushing technology in governance to realise the objectives of development. “Technology is a bridge and not a divider. Technology is the bridge between aspirations and achievement,” Modi said during the book launch.
The Prime Minister knows. In a faraway village in Bharat that is different from India, Aminah Sheikh is taking notes on her tablet about women in her village and screens them for non-communicable diseases that include diabetes, heart disease and cancer. What I loved was the way Aminah blended technology in her work: she would shake the tablet every now and then if it snapped. And the sight of the tablet, claimed Aminah, encouraged many women to open up because they had never seen something like that.
So what is Aminah doing actually? Buy a copy of the book from the nearest store and read it.
It would be great if the writers could call all the protagonists to Mumbai, offer them Starbucks coffee and made them sit on the floor and ask the Tata executives to hear the stories. I would call it Summit Of The Powerless.
Thank you Penguin.