Bridgital Nation: A book that reads like a pitch for a Tata product

The book’s attempts to juxtapose both human and economic development reflect a technology-centric view of the world

Bridgital Nation: A book that reads like a pitch for a Tata product


The copyright page of Bridgital Nation informs the reader that “BridgitalTM is a registered trademark of Tata Sons Private Limited”. This is useful to know, as the book often reads like a pitch for a Tata product. Bridgital Nation, for the undiscerning reader, might seem to be — in today’s brook-no-dissent political climate — risky in its detailing of social issues and illustrating the failures of governance and civic administration in India. However, like a well-produced Bollywood action flick (which Tata does not yet produce), the authors pull their punches ensuring that no fingers are pointed anywhere. For instance, when the book talks about the mobile money revolution in Kenya – easily recognisable as the M-Pesa story; the missing detail is that M-Pesa itself has ceased operations in India on the back of regulatory limitations and sectoral stress.

Bridgital Nation is subtitled “Solving Technology’s People Problem”, which —considering India is the second most populous nation on the planet — is rather unfortunately worded. As the book itself argues, “Applied in isolation, technological solutions can end up wasting time and money”. The premise that the problem is purely one of “human resources” — of finding people skilled enough and possessing adequate expertise to utilise technology efficiently in reasonable time (“the country simply cannot wait for new doctors to turn up”). Removing the obstacles in accessing primary care, the authors suggest, will lead to reductions in healthcare expenditure and “the benefits will trickle up”.

Writing about rural health in Everybody Loves a Good Drought (Penguin Books India, 1996), the journalist P. Sainath compared the 43 per cent cut in public spending on malaria eradication with the INR 4,800 crore-worth tax concessions for the top 10 per cent of India’s population, concluding “what trickled up was money, what trickled down was malaria”. Sainath also highlighted the “export” of doctors from India to more lucrative shores overseas. Arguably, we have waited over 20 years for the doctors to stay home — the “country simply cannot afford to wait for new doctors to turn up and fill up its vacancies”, as Bridgital Nation puts it.

However, in saying that “increasing public financing” of healthcare in India “isn’t enough”, that healthcare “needs to be transformed” and suggesting “electronic medical records could be made available anytime and anywhere to patients and their doctors” — evidenced in the discussion about the Digital Nerve Centre (DiNC, developed by Tata Consultancy Services) brings into sharp focus the “foundation of any Bridgital approach”: data privacy.

India has already witnessed patients dropping out of AIDS treatment programmes due to the government mandating linking Aadhaar numbers which raised fears of their condition, hitherto a secret even from their families, becoming public knowledge through data leaks. The data protection Bill presented in the last session to a Joint Parliamentary Committee has already been criticised as having the potential to turn India into “an Orwellian state”.

The book’s discussion on gender roles pays mere lip service to patriarchy’s impact on keeping women away from the workforce. There may be “no simple playbook to ease the tall, invisible barriers that keep women from work”, but there needs to be discussion of how their spouses do little to nothing in either take up the care burden or helping them defy traditional and familial expectations. India ranked 122nd of 162 countries as per the UNDP’s 2018 Gender Inequality Index, with both men and women attesting to biased gender norms – a fact Bridgital Nation does not seem to quite comprehend, the anecdote regarding a protest against wage parity among construction workers notwithstanding. Yes, there is the “stigma of outsourcing care”, but a larger problem is widespread social acceptance that the care burden should be shared.

Bridgital Nation’s attempts to juxtapose both human development and economic development reflect a technology-centric view of the world — one that is not adequately tempered by an economist being the co-writer (which is a stated ambition). The debate is framed not as the authors’ words but that of the teenage protagonist in one of the book’s many anecdotes, who is quoted as saying “everyone in class says human development is more important, but a country like ours needs economic development — they both go hand in hand.”

Arguably, Indian policymaking is currently skewed towards the latter although the rapidly declining GDP growth has raised critical questions on the validity of the development model.

Empowering women to become entrepreneurs is not a novel — India’s Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship has partnered on at least one programme in this direction which seeks to create an “enabling ecosystem”. Place this against the deep distress extant in India’s Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSME) sector, which has been successively ravaged by demonetisation and issues of compliance regarding the Goods and Service Tax (GST), and the question once again becomes one of governmental intent and execution that cannot possible be addressed by technological initiatives. The July 2018 Economic Survey also speaks of the “need to unshackle MSMEs”.

The Bridgital prescription for SMEs is discussed in the context of “Goldilocks entrepreneurs”. GST issues are discussed here anecdotally as a formalisation-related issue, while the authors envision that “deliberately pushing digital adoption” to an MSME sector that is 68 per cent offline will “provide a quantum leap”. The digital route to formalisation prescribed through an illustration suggests a series of investments which in themselves can be deal breakers for some entrepreneurs.

The suggestion that we see the kiranawala or paanwala as an entrepreneur is a case in point — do the authors expect that even 1 in 20 kiranawalas would have the means and the willingness to undertake such a digital transformation? The adoption of digital payment systems in India, for instance, has tapered after the initial, demonetisation-driven uptake.

In India’s largely jobless growth landscape, “be job creators not job seekers” has been a long-time mantra, with skilling often mentioned in the same breath. Bridgital adds a digital dimension to this line, and reemphasises the need to nurture digital skills in addition to “creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking”. The onus for ensuring these are promoted is clearly on the government, which in reality has itself consistently lacked creativity in designing skilling programmes.

Again, the educational revolution that is currently planned for India has been described as imparting the values of ancient India, not modern India. The most aggressive kind of digital skilling seen in recent years has been setting up of “IT Cells” which supposedly help propagate the government’s “achievements” on social media.

Arguably there is no room anywhere for critical thinking in these times. Bridgital Nation’s broader prescriptions may appear optimistic even five years from now, although the success of this Tata product can be anticipated in some ways given that technosolutionism is very much the flavour of the day in India. It would be interesting to see to what extent the Indian government takes up the Bridgital challenge, considering the Tata Group’s long-term proximity to the current Prime Minister.

The book, unsurprisingly, comes with advance praise from a range of international personalities (not to say technology giants), including the likes of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Nandan Nilekani, who is introduced also as “founding chairman, UIDAI (Aadhaar)”. Nilekani, surely, would have shared his experiences with the Aadhaar project, whose original promise remains unfulfilled and the legal challenges to which had, as a side-effect, the affirmation of the right to privacy in India. The evolution of
the Aadhaar number, described as a remedy in search of a disease, hopefully, is a cautionary tale embedded in the thinking behind Bridgital India.

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