The world is going through unprecedented technological transformation amid rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). On one hand, this new technology is making life easier, while on the other, it is also creating new challenges to deal with. Against this backdrop, Organiser representative Deepti Verma recently spoke to Dr Rajiv Kumar, an economist, author and former Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog, who recently resumed his role as Chairman of Pahle India Foundation (PIF), a not-for-profit policy think tank, established by him in 2013. He talked about the new initiative Bharat@100 and the challenges that lay ahead of us, especially in the fields of education, agriculture, and AI
Please elaborate what Pahle India Foundation does?
We were established in 2013 and the reason for us to start was the Vision Document for BJP for the 2014 elections, for which the committee was chaired by Nitin Gadkari –which later turned into a book called ‘Resurgent India’. After that we decided we will work on areas that are less worked upon, for example, one of the things was defence economy. Defence had become kind of a blackbox, there was less transparency, and no talk of how it can become one of the drivers of the economy. We got great support in the late Mohan Parrikar. Then we got involved in the financial sector, and then the agricultural sector –where we are looking at a transition from a chemical-based system to a natural agriculture. Now two big areas are in focus—one a rather ambitious project, which is Bharat@100, which wants to establish what is it that we aspire for India to be at the centenary of its Independence –our aspirations, our challenges. We have identified 13 such challenges so far, for each of which we will create living labs with domain experts or work with people who might already be working in the field.
Can you share the top three of these 13 identified challenges?
One, the rise of Artificial Intelligence and Chat GPT and its impact on Indian employment. Two, of course, is agriculture as I mentioned, especially if we shift to natural farming from chemical-based farming. It can be the answer to India’s multiple problems—soil health, water conservation, environment, plus health as all the cancer strains that go from Bhatinda to Bikaner can be fixed. Then combine that with precision agriculture. So, if you can do that along with using natural methods, that’s where the technology comes in. So, the very big challenge overall is technology—how does it affect our productivity in different sectors? The third is employment in the sense that we have the issue of generating employment where people are, because we can’t keep going through these mass migrations. You know, the recent estimates are about 40 million people migrate to cities—we need to change that. We need to make villages, districts, and tier-two cities into employment centres.
As someone who was the economic advisor in the 1990s, you have really seen this trajectory. So, when you say India’s moment is right now, economically, what does that mean?
Interaction with the world is essential, because now we may not be in the flat, flat world, but we are still in a flat world with some bridges. So, you have to interact, you have to become a better, bigger part of the global economy. Like when the Brits came to India, our share of the global economy was 18 per cent. When they left, it was two and a half. And now in 2047, you know, we can aspire that our share can go back to 18 per cent. Now, China is already on its way. But the other big thing was that if you don’t seize the moment, the downside risks are almost existential, you know, for the country.
The moment that’s now is the next five, 10 years. And for that, we need to make development into a public moment.
Is this groundwork being laid? Or the change has started according to you?
We have been doing this for six eight months now. We just started working with the States. You know, because in our country, each State is a different machine, different climate. Amazingly different from the other. Our diversity is actually bigger than that of Europe –from London to Moscow. We are far more diverse than that. So therefore, each State needs its own development blueprint, needs its own way of tackling problems. We also want to make districts as their decision-making point. That’s our thought. That if they become that, then some of our districts, you know are larger than countries like Estonia. So, they can, you know, they can become a good economic unit. PIF is conducting extensive research on Chat Gpt and AI …and one of the recent papers said how we need to have a unique approach to AI as a country which prides itself on its young population and manpower. Please take us through the findings and concerns of developing sophisticated AI … especially for India.
Let me start off by saying that there is no point or purpose in thinking about stopping AI or banning it … the genie is well out of the bottle. So that cannot happen. And there’s nowhere on earth that the Governments can stop it. Therefore, what we need to do is to create a conscious policy or a conscious position vis-a-vis AI as to how do we make it in some sense, responsive to our needs. Now, the three of us wrote an open letter together. And the idea was to work towards developing a pathway for harnessing AI and for answering the challenges that we talked about. Yeah. I think that’s the way forward. So therefore, we don’t want it to completely recklessly destroy jobs. But we want to actually use it. Let me give you an example. Education now, you know, AI can be used, in some sense to create a much richer curriculum for our students. And also, to effectively give one-on-one tutors. So rather than all this coaching and coaching shops that you have, you can actually use AI to bring that whole learning to the child’s home. As AI develops more and more, we can actually respond to the child’s name and different learning abilities. Yeah. Similarly for health, you can use AI for better diagnostics, where we are able to prevent illness rather cure it.
Whether it was the industrial, steam, electrical revolution or when the internet first came –the first fear was always that jobs would be taken away, but each time the opposite happened. But this time it can happen. So, we need a very concerted joint effort between the Government, the business, the academia, and the domain experts to create a conscious plan of action for the utilisation of AI in meeting our challenges. AI is to be harnessed and not to be refused.
Talking of technology and Digital India that was launched in 2015—they have led to a boom of smart phone consumption in India. One of the areas of interest is online gaming, and again your foundation has done research on how a new sector like online gaming requires a “light touch regulatory approach”. Can you take us through that?
It requires intervention. Sensitive intervention. Again, if you ban it, it will only go underground. It’s not going away. And it requires a very conscious, large effort at making the children aware of what is good and what is not good for them. That’s the key because gaming games can be huge, can generate huge learning, but at the same time, games can also generate a huge sort of addictions to some extent. Gaming should be discussed at the school’s level. It should have a light touch regulation, but it has to be combined with a kind of a public awareness campaign.
“Whether it was the industrial, steam, electrical revolution or when the internet first came –the first fear was always that jobs would be taken away, but each time the opposite happened. But this time it can happen. So, we need a very concerted joint effort between the Government, the business, the academia, and the domain experts”