Fear of jobless future?
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
The World Bank has recently released a report which underscores the threat awaiting India and other emerging economies from the onslaught of automation. It says that 69 per cent of jobs in India and 77 per cent in China are under threat. Bangladesh, Malaysia, Nepal, and Thailand are also reported to be in the same boat. The biggest risk is faced by routine jobs like those of clerks, in which humans can be replaced easily by computer software.
India’s unemployment, according to the Census of 2011 increased from 6.8 per cent in 2001 to 9.6 per cent in 2011. The causes were manifold and not just replacement of men by machines.
There are normally three levels of workforce – high-skilled, middle-skilled, and low-skilled. The first requires higher education, problem solving and analytical ability, and original and critical thinking; the second requires not very high but some amount of judgement in handling the process; and the third does not require high educational qualification, but ability to do repetitive work.
Automation is presently impacting heavily the middle level probably leading to polarisation of the workforce as high-skilled and low-skilled. It means that highly paid skilled workers like managers, higher level bureaucrats, and creative talent at one end, and low-paid and menial job workers on the other end may survive the attack of automation on jobs falling heavily on middle jobs comprising semi-skilled but routine work not requiring creative talent or physical labour.
Automation, however, has become the strategy for development all over the world replacing the traditional economic path for which India is no exception. It cannot be killed and the world has to find ways to mitigate its harmful effects. It is in this context, the Digital India Programme (DIP) launched in 2015 – a programme that depends essentially on automation – is receiving accelerated thrust from the Prime Minister. It is an umbrella programme that covers many ministries and departments.
The DIP is intended to provide the much needed thrust on nine pillars of growth areas: net and mobile access and connectivity, e-governance, electronic delivery, information for all, electronics manufacturing , IT for jobs, and early harvest programme to be immediately implemented.
DIP started as the National E-governance Plan (NeGP) launched in 2006. Its emphasis was on citizen-centric services and it commenced computerisation of records and services. It aims at transforming the entire system of public services through the use of information technology in order to bring about “knowledge economy”.
The programme consists of three core components – creation of digital infrastructure; delivery of services digitally; and promotion of digital literacy. Investment of Rs.4.5 lakh crore and jobs for 18 lakh people are among the advantages expected in the short run. The vision is inclusive growth in electronic services, products, manufacturing, and job opportunities.
DIP is centred on three key areas – digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen, governance and services on demand, and digital empowerment of citizens. Digital literacy mission is expected to cover 6 crore people.
Fear of job loss on account of entry of machines to do human work started in the days of Industrial Revolution. But, the 19th century witnessed tremendous economic progress with employment creation. In 1920, it was said that machines made idle hands in the West. Lord Keynes coined the term ‘technological unemployment” in the 1930s. Even some American presidents were said to be worried over the challenge posed by automation replacing men. But, these fears were largely belied and technology led to creation of more jobs than it destroyed.
Today, once again, the bogey of job loss under the impact of automation is being spread. Automation is self-controlling unlike mechanisation which requires human aid. The new wave of digital revolution is said to be threatening skilled workers also. Contradictory findings are circulated.
The World Economic Forum looks upon this as the Fourth Industrial Revolution which will affect millions of jobs over the next 5-10 years. Based on a study in seven cities in India, it found that over 60 per cent of this is caused by the impact of “automation, artificial intelligence, and digital technologies ; nearly 50 per cent due to globalization and changing consumer perceptions”.
Findings of HfS Research, a US based firm, warns that IT sector is likely to lose 6.4 lakh “low-skilled” jobs to automation by 2021 while the loss in the world would be around 1.4 million jobs! The Philippines, UK and US, according to this study, would benefit from the growth of medium and high-skilled jobs by 2021. However, loss of jobs on the whole seems to be higher than the gain, the process affecting the poor more than the better off.
Some scholars picture this as a “jobless future” as most jobs can be broken into a series of routine tasks, more and more of which could be done by machines and anticipate an era of technological unemployment. However, this is dismissed by some scholars as “Luddite fallacy” – a fallacy of failing to take into account compensation effects committed by textile workers during the Industrial Revolution who protested against mechanisation under the leadership of Ned Ludd.
Industrialisation including automation has so far helped developing countries to narrow down the gap with developed countries. But in the computer age, automation is likely to impact negatively as the rate of advancement of different countries widely varies. According to some economists, developing countries gain in employment prospects more than on economic growth.
Similar development is unavoidable within our country. Digital India Programme will not produce equal effect all over the country. Digital divide – a problem of economic and social inequality with regard to access to, use of, or impact of information and communication – is already a real and felt problem and it is likely to increase with progressive automation. The divide will be multidimensional – between rural and urban India, rich and poor, men and women, educated and uneducated, young and old and so on. It will widen gaps between different sectors and enterprises and cut across different demographic groups.
Unless drastic steps are taken to bridge the gap, we may witness ridiculous scenes like self-propelling cars running on roads where manual scavenging work also goes on. As part of reaching UN Sustainable Goals which includes equality, the government has to strive for universal and affordable access to internet.
The number of internet users and mobile subscribers are no doubt increasing minute by minute. Statistics on net connectivity varies. The World Bank data for 2014 gives the figure of internet users in India as 18 per cent of the population. Mobile phone has become an essential household article and an indispensable tool for all kinds of workers everywhere. However, the use to which these sophisticated instruments are put needs some examination and control.
In the present digital world, there is no choice but to go ahead with determination and strong political will to raise human and material resources, and introduce policies and programmes necessary to end digital divide and march towards Digital India. The road must lead to progress and not division. Needless to mention, that all basic services – education and health in particular – must first reach every citizen.—INFA