This article was first published in the Mint on August 18, 2017.
I have often discussed how the key to job creation lies in the utilization of information and digital technologies. While I don’t have a laundry list of the kinds of jobs that should be available, I do have a framework in mind for the kinds of skills we need for future jobs that will be dependent on a connected India. So allow me to elucidate on the kinds of skills needed to create relevant employment opportunities for the future and a scenario that can simultaneously uplift rural communities.
There are about 250,000 panchayats across India. The government envisions that all of them will be connected to the Internet in the near future under its ambitious National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) project. However, is merely connecting them enough? There is a need to have every panchayat that is online to have its own exclusive website, where members can share updates, notifications, roles and responsibilities, and budget allocations in a transparent manner. For this to be possible, there is a need to have at least one person from that panchayat or village who is trained in handling technology and another person who is trained in managing information. Together, at the panchayat level, these two people can manage the website, curate content for the website and disseminate local governance-level information to the public through digital tools. Further, a third person should be trained to manage and troubleshoot in case of basic issues related to network failures, rather than be dependent on a technician who will travel from the nearest town or city. This usually takes days, if not weeks, to solve the problem.
Keeping these numbers in mind, there is an opportunity to create 750,000 new jobs at just the panchayat level. However, even while the NOFN continues to connect more and more panchayats, there is no sign of institutes or training centres coming up at the grassroots level to skill the youth to take on these responsibilities.
Meanwhile, the noise around telemedicine and telehealth is becoming louder and louder in India, but all interventions in this space are technological. The latest devices are being circulated and new software is being installed, but are our human resources trained to deal with information (rather than devices alone)? Does every primary health centre (PHC) or every sub-health centre (SHC) have a skilled individual who can disseminate preventive healthcare information, communicate with district hospitals via e-links or inform relevant departments about depleting medicinal resources? Once again, every health centre has the opportunity to create three jobs for individuals who are trained in creating content, disseminating information, and managing connectivity. There are 184,000 PHCs, SHCs and community health centres, which means 552,000 possible future jobs for which our youth needs to be trained today.
India is home to about 2,000 traditional skill-based clusters. Each cluster, the size of which can vary from 50 households to 5,000 or even more, has the potential to create a minimum of five jobs. These jobs can look into creating self-help groups online, managing and curating social media channels as well as websites as direct linkages to end-consumers, and also looking up information about upcoming trade fairs or exhibitions, new government schemes, understanding supply chains and finding out market prices and trends. That means a minimum of 10,000 jobs are waiting to be taken up in the area.
Then, there are about 1.4 million government schools in the country with over 227 million students enrolled. At the very least, each of these schools should have a computer lab to train students in using digital tools and the Internet. There needs to be a mechanism where at least two individuals in every school can share the responsibilities to manage available connectivity and network; update teachers’ attendance online; facilitate use of information-related educational tools for children’s learning; submit a monthly status report on infrastructure; and have direct electronic communication links with the district administration, among others. With proper planning, the education department can not only usher in a new generation of technology-educated children but also create jobs.
If you take a look at the jobs that I have suggested here, these make up just a small share of the actual number of jobs that can be created in the same sectors if individuals are trained in using information and connectivity for contextual needs rather than simply operating a computer as a device and not as a means to achieve an end. Ideally, the 4.1 million jobs I foresee are not even jobs of the future—these are jobs we should already be creating.
Our government and education system must pause and ask— Are we creating jobs and skills for the sake of it? Will these skills be relevant tomorrow? Should we cater to the youth from rural India by creating quality jobs for them in rural India?
Twenty years hence, education, health, business and governance will still be core sectors. The nature of jobs and the method of operations, however, will change because information (or data) is the future commodity of commerce. If we do not create enough skills among people to understand, curate, control and disseminate information in these sectors, we will face a serious problem.
It is time for India to restructure itself in order to offer skills and jobs of the future—a future where jobs aren’t only a source of income but also to create a peaceful, information-rich society.