A Letter to All My Fellow Indian Citizens

Dear Fellow Citizen of India,

I am writing this letter to you because the time is here for us to arise from our slumber and recognize that our very existence is in some measure under grave threat.

What is at stake is your future, my future, the future of our children and our country.

The threat I am speaking from is not from Hindutva, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism or any other religion.

No, we are in danger from entirely other forces that are rapidly gaining in strength and will soon be on our shores.

Are we even aware of the lurking danger?

I doubt it. Not judging by the fact that all the news that is streamed at me is primarily only about what we eat and drink or who we should marry and which God we should pray to.

If this goes on, we have a hopeless future.

By writing this letter, I pray that my fellow countrymen and women of India can awake enough to demand that our elected leaders, the Indian media and self-appointed religious leaders focus on securing the future of India.

That means the nature of the discourse and debate on the air waves, in social media, on every street in every Indian city and town must change to asking the questions that matter.

What do we need to live on and prosper?

We need food on the table, safe water to drink, a shelter over our heads, progressive education, affordable health care and a job to make all of that happen for our families and ourselves.  We need the liberty to go about our lives secure in the knowledge that we will not be harmed. And, most of all, a framework of opportunity to put that much vaunted Indian brain and ingenuity to work for India and not some other country to prosper.

These are the things, my dear fellow Indian citizen, that are in danger of never coming to fruition for most Indians.

Allow me to explain. Please stay with me here. It’s important and I hope at the end of this post, I have been able to, at the least, provoke some thought and debate.

Where will the jobs come from? Will your job be under threat? 

According to the Ministry of Labour and Employment in India, the unemployment rate in India was 4.9% in 2013*. That figure might seem low but not if you consider the 1.2 billion population of our country. When you do that, the figure of unemployed people stands at approximately 59 million people.

That is a hell of a lot of people who may never find gainful employment if the increasing automation of manufacturing continues apace in the globe and India. Worse, the currently employed work force may soon join the ranks of the unemployed.

Why?

Because, my dear countrymen and women, the robots are coming!

I am serious. I am not painting a gloomy science fiction picture here. In more developed economies, robots are increasingly being deployed to replace manual labour. What’s more even white collar jobs may come under threat with the development of Artificial Intelligence.

Have I worried you? Good….because that was my aim. If I have succeeded in that aim, I would urge you to read an article in Harvard Business Review by William H. Davidow and Michael S. Malone titled What Happens to Society When Robots Replace Workers

Wait. Please don’t go away yet. You may think this doesn’t concern India. But it does; very much does.

Already Royal Enfield motorcycles being manufactured in India are being painted and lacquered by giant robot arms. If you, like me, worry about the future of India, take a minute and read Robot Invasion Undercuts Modi’s Quest to Put Indians to Work.

In times past, governments resorted to building public infrastructure to generate jobs. Now, even that recourse might be under threat. I recently came across this article on how 3D printing technologies are being adapted for use by the construction industry to create building and other structures like bridges. You can read about that in The Economist issue dated September 5, 2015. The article is A bridge to the future.

If this technology comes to India, ask yourself what will happen to the millions of construction workers already struggling to just survive for one day more?

Are we talking about these things? No!

Is the government, the opposition, the general news media highlighting these issues? No!

If at all it is being debated, it is only in business media. That’s not good enough. Such issues need to be out there in general public discourse.

Education to face a world of artificial intelligence

Carrying on with the questions….Is anyone in India talking about intelligent policies and strategies for continued employment generation in the face of armies of robots? No!

The Western world is! See, that is why the West will continue to stay ahead of Asia. They actively plan for the future. We can borrow a leaf from thinkers such as Sebastian Thrun, the brain behind self-driving cars and Google’s Street View project.  Listen to what he says, “Mr Thrun now believes that education is the best way to tackle the big upheavals that are likely to spring from the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence and robotics. But not education as you might know it. “We are still living with an educational system that was developed in the 1800s and 1900s,” he says. “Needs have shifted in the modern age and what’s also shifted is our ability to use digital media. We can now deliver a top-notch education at home in a way that was never possible before.” 

Go on, read the full article about Sebastian Thrun and his Udacity, a startup dedicated to reinventing education for the 21st century. The article is called Teaching tomorrow and is available in The Economist issue dated September 5, 2015. By the way, I really wish that Indian media would see The Economist as the benchmark to beat in exploring all issues of life as we know it and in a balanced manner.

Ask yourself…..is India planning to teach tomorrow? At least, not that I hear of.

This is yet another question we need to ask our elected leaders. What is their plan to teach tomorrow? Do they even have one? My impression is that they are only engaged in changing our history books.

I wish Mr. Modi had brought people like Sebastian Thrun to the table in Silicon valley and asked him to prepare Indian youth for a world run by artificial intelligence.

Water, water everywhere. Nor any drop to drink.

Water, water everywhere. Nor any drop to drink is an oft quoted line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a famous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These days I am often reminded of those lines because India has an immense water resource management problem.

All Indians know it. On a daily basis, we find the need to ration water. This problem is likely to worsen in the future with climate change and an increase to our population (projected to be 1.6 billion by 2050).

Are we asking our government how it plans to secure our water resources? Are our elected leaders even talking to us about it? Not nearly enough.

The only bright spot I can think of here is the recent linking of the Godavari to the Krishna in Andhra Pradesh. Finally, concrete action on the endless talk that has happened for some 5 decades plus on India linking its rivers. Yes, that’s how long it takes our country to get something off the ground.

Jai Kissan, Jai Kissan

I have taken some creative license with the once popular Indian slogan of Jai Jawan, Jai Kissan. It means hail the soldier, hail the farmer – both national figures working towards the nation’s border and food security.

Leaving aside the question of border security, are we hailing the Indian farmer today? Afraid not!

It’s a known fact that Indian agriculture needs scale and modernising. So, why hasn’t it happened? I don’t know enough to pontificate on this issue but my impression is that the exploitative system of zamindari (an Indian term for landed gentry) still continues, albeit in a different avatar of middlemen and mandis (farmer markets known for depriving farmers of their rightful prices).

If you want to put food on your table at affordable prices, you need to be asking the government what it plans to do to protect our farmers and interest the young generation in Indian agriculture. You need to ask why the successful Amul experiment in dairy farming has not been replicated in other agricultural sectors.

You, we, I need to ask the government, the opposition, the media why such issues are not in the public discourse?

Each time a farmer commits suicide, we dramatise the fact. But I see no intelligent or reasoned debate on how the problem of farmer suicides can be resolved or how food prices can be kept profitable for the farmer and yet affordable for the average Indian household.

All I see is finger pointing or people trying to drown out other voices. A clever way of deflecting much-needed questions.

Such tamashas* will continue as long as people in power continue to believe that the Indian citizen is gullible and can be kept entertained by endless drama.

It’s time that the drama stopped. It’s time that we showed our elected leaders that there are serious questions, which we would like to see intelligently answered and then followed through by action.

Your future, my future, India’s future depends on it.

So, the next time your TV news channel gets hysterical on the issue of who is eating what, send in an SMS or tweet telling the channel to stop. Better still, send in tweets asking serious questions that need to be answered instead.

Here are a few:

If Indian citizens across the nation’s cities, towns and villages start asking such hard questions, it might just send a message to the Indian government and bureaucracy that they have to focus on India’s future and not India’s glorious ancient past.

God knows, the present is anything but glorious.

If you agree with me, do share this post and also add to the list of questions that need to be asked. I would also welcome this post being translated into all Indian languages if anyone will step forward and help me there. That is important because these questions need to be asked at the grass roots and not just in book lined libraries.

Will you help me in that? Of course, that is always providing you agree with me that India will benefit if the nature of our public discourse is changed to the issues that matter.

Maybe for starters, the Narendra Modi government can make the same presentations it made to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to the Indian public on national television. How about it, Mr. Modi? It would be transparency of the highest order, right?

Some decades ago there was a hugely popular television serial called Rajni on Doordarshan. Rajni asked the government and her fellow country people some hard questions.

We need several millions of Rajnis to step forward now more than ever.

Here, listen to the title song of Rajni and let’s bring her back.

Author’s Note: Other related posts you might like to read on Lata Wonders are The Robotics Emperor and Intelligence Upped and Offed


Featured Cover Image Credit: India – A Multitude of People and Cultures (Mosaic). Image by Dinesh Cyanam (Flickr.com CC By-SA 2.0).

References: 

India Unemployment Rate

*Tamasha is a word in several Indian languages, which originally stood for a grand show, performance or any form of entertainment. Over time, however, the word has taken on slightly negative connotations implying a grand farce.

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