Covid an opportunity: Complete digital makeover can improve education and health outcomes

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August 6, 2020 5:40 AM

A complete digital makeover can dramatically improve education and health outcomes, and in other areas as well

Chandrasekaran has given us the blueprint for resurgence, the starting points of which are investments in health and education.Chandrasekaran has given us the blueprint for resurgence, the starting points of which are investments in health and education. (File image)

Natarajan Chandrasekaran believes the effective use of digital technology can help India tackle its twin challenges of access and jobs. Speaking at the Lalit Doshi Memorial Lecture on Tuesday, the perspicacious chairman of Tata Sons said digitisation could positively impact 30 million jobs but would call for a lot more than digital imitations; it would mean rethinking and re-designing the economy to suits the country’s needs.

Chandrasekaran has given us the blueprint for resurgence, the starting points of which are investments in health and education. As he said, it is probably the investments in these two spheres that helped Asian economies capitalise on the world’s need for manufactured products. In India, the gains from such digitisation would spill over to agriculture, financial services, retail and the justice system as well, placing India at the vanguard of a fourth industrial revolution. As the Tata Sons chief observed, digitisation will count for little unless it can transform healthcare services and education.

In healthcare, scarce resources can be better used. For instance, pre-diagnosis activities currently undertaken by doctors can be turned into a checklist programmed onto a kiosk, a handheld tablet, or even a smartphone. These could be used by someone without a clinical background, but who has received three to four months’ training on the technology. This would increase coverage, result in better health outcomes and provide employment for less-qualified workers; as many as 1 million new jobs for low-skilled workers could be created, and a million more would be suddenly more productive.

Again, an outdated education system is hobbling progress. A resilient economy calls for a freshly-designed education architecture that is based on new-age digital skills and apprenticeships, lifelong learning and entrepreneurial thinking. Indeed, it is imperative India creates a “scaffolding” for skills required by future workforces that allow for learning, unlearning and relearning at every age and every stage of their professional lives.

It is the culture of entrepreneurism, especially among SMEs, that Chandrasekaran identifies as critical to India’s development. As he says, these small enterprises—restaurants, health clinics and salons that fill our neighbourhoods—are the lifeblood of our community and as important as big business, if not more so. However, unlike the US, where the economy draws its strength from small and mid-sized enterprises, the millions of micro-enterprises in India are neither job-creating nor resilient. They employ smaller numbers—just 10% of the workforce compared with 40% in the US. Importantly, the pandemic has proved to be catastrophic and could see many units perish as they operate outside formal procedures of protection. Unlocking the growth in the small-scale sector, the Tata Sons chief believes, is needed to boost the stability and resilience of the labour market; there is the potential to shift 45 million workers to more productive employment.

The pandemic has hit small businesses the most, and while the government has moved to support them with credit lines, it may not be enough. Chandrasekaran suggests a national digital platform that aggregates and localises business services—financial and technological knowledge—that can be accessed by SMEs. Indeed, a major SME initiative, so that units can survive without being strangled by red tape or starved for finance; the government must try and save as many enterprises as it can. Chandrasekaran has come up with a brilliant, cost-effective and well-thought-out strategy to pull India out of stagnation. His ideas deserve immediate attention and action.

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