Mr. Uday Varma belongs to the elite administrative service of India and has served in the federal government of India as Secretary in two key Ministries of Information and Broadcasting; and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises. As Secretary, Information and Broadcasting he was instrumental in effecting the transition of Indian TV to a Digitised Access regime leading to a much diversified and expanded entertainment Sector in India. He strongly believes in technology led growth and development but advocates equity in opportunities of such growth.
Here he examines post-pandemic prospects of the world.
by Uday Kumar Varma
Few cross-roads in the history of human kind have offered her such compelling but clear a choice as the one of Corona pandemic. Not only within a time span of less than a year it has transformed our lives in a profoundly fundamental way but more significantly it has inexorably and relentlessly led us up a path that seem to be having no road signs or mile stones. How deep and irreversible is this transformation? Does it signal formally our entry into a new age- an age so very different from the one we have been part of and have got used to, and what we call as the Age of Industrialization? What do we call this new age? The Age of Internet? And have we irreversibly entered this age never to be able to go back to our old familiar ways?
Many of us have recently been using a term Industrial Revolution 4.1 for the all-encompassing influence Internet has been making to our day to day lives since it was invented a few decades ago. I intend to argue, however, that what is ahead of us is not merely Industrial Revolution 4.1 and thereby an extension of the Industrial Age but an altogether new Age – so different from the previous one and so distinctly and uniquely characterized that describing it as Industrial Revolution 4.1 will be both inaccurate and inadequate. In fact, the way we live, work and relax is going to be so fundamentally changed that such tectonic shift can only be described as the beginning of a new Age.
Over six centuries ago, when we invented steam power and locomotion, a new era of industrialization began. It radically and completely changed the way we used to live, survive and grow. The advent of factories leading to mass production, the birth of human conglomerates to be known as cities and towns mostly where the factories were located, the phenomenon of migration from villages to the new cities and towns, emergence of a new class to be known as ‘labor’ or ‘proletariat’ are some of the high points of this era. We called it a Revolution because its extent and scope were nothing less than a revolution. The ideas of Socialism and Capitalism emerged, spread, took countries after countries by storm, bloody wars were fought, older regimes toppled often violently, and a new balance of power emerged. The landed aristocracy was replaced by a new class of industrialists and business tycoons. The world got divided on the lines of political philosophies and systems. Two world wars were fought and a new world order was sought to be created. Then came the cold war and then détente. In less than 50 years since the second world war, socialism as a political system and philosophy got out of fashion and largely dysfunctional. Globalization became the new buzz word and integrating the economy of the globe as the only viable option for growth and development. And then came Corona that has seriously challenged our wisdom and understanding of the prevailing world social and economic order.
In over 600 years of its existence, the Industrial Age led to changes so huge and irreversible that to go back to a period before its advent was beyond the pale of imagination. Every vital indicator of our social, economic and cultural life altered in a permanent way. Even the poor of the earlier era were replaced by a new poor- the determinants of poverty getting altogether new definitions and contours.
We seem to be facing another moment of history. Our claim that human race is now infallible to any epidemic stands belied and mocks us with shame and pity. Human hubris, however, seldom gets subdued and justifies every failure. This beside, the corona period has not only been deeply affecting our personal lives, it has also affected several institutions. Most evidently it has affected, inter alia, our educational institutions, our health systems, our work place and our manufacturing process. They stand today fundamentally altered and has replaced the old ways with a new culture and a new approach. The on line teaching, the on line work and a manufacturing that is increasingly driven by Artificial intelligence, Machine Language, Iota and Robotics. Once the Corona goes away which surely it will, the life is not getting back to pre-corona days. It’s going to be a new normal. And the new normal will have incorporated within itself the beginning of a New age. Educational Institutions at all levels are going to continue with on line teaching. The work place will not be the typical office located in big buildings, and the manufacturing is not going to restore the primacy of human beings as the principal instrument of manufacturing process.
Implications of the new normal are going to be stunning. First, imagine the resources that are going to get conserved as we realize the futility of building huge buildings and office for our school, colleges and universities. Imagine how the transport scenario in the cities is going to change drastically as only half the work force is required in the offices. Imagine the decongestion on the roads and the consequent impact on environmental and the consumption of hydro-carbons. The impact on the global environment during Corona and following it will compel fresh assessment as many fixed boundaries have been breached and the new boundaries look blurred and uncertain. The positive aspects are likely to lead to huge saving of resources and the resultant windfall for the economy will make many of the challenges of development less severe.
The manufacturing process will see processes free of human interferences and therefore error. Products will be better and defect free. The process will be faster and the scope for innovation and experimentation limitless, because human considerations that cloud the judgment would have vanished.
What about employment then?
Employment will suffer huge losses. The number of unemployed will swell. The impact will be dramatic in developing countries. India would be one of the worst affected. And it will come sooner than later. 122 million people, three fourths of them small traders and laborers lost their jobs in April, 2020 alone, informs CMIE. Part of but not entire jobs so lost will be replaced by new jobs required in the new era. But there will be substantial shortfall. The state will be forced to look after a huge unemployed population by giving a liberal unemployment allowance or devise some such mechanism. The resources for such a program will have to come from surpluses generated as the new technologies and new way of life come into full play. Over a period of time, even this short fall of jobs will get addressed as the old generation will fade out and a new younger, energetic and better equipped generation takes over.
Who will be the new rich?
The new rich and emerging aristocrats will not be big industrialist or business magnates any more. The rich and powerful in this new Age will be the big owners of domains. The bigger and valuable your domain, greater will be your influence and control. The state will continue but will be a puppet manipulated by some or a conglomerate of domain owners. They will decide what is good for society and how society should think and react. The prospect is scary but real. We already have a fairly good idea of the kind of influence these domain owners exercise in the affairs of the state. They can win or lose elections for you. They can derail, even destroy your economic trajectory. They can foment strife and war. If even a fraction of big domain owners turns megalomaniacs, the world can come to an end. But it is highly unlikely. The history of mankind has one clear and unequivocal lesson for us, humans like nature always bring back the balance. How such a balance will unfold, we can, at this point of time, only speculate and more wisely simply wait and watch.
There is a looming fear, though, that may completely overtake everything else. The social fabric may get so stretched and stressed that something like a class war may erupt, a war between endowed and not so endowed, between skilled and unskilled with latter outnumbering the former. It’s too scary and intimidating a prospect but possibly the governments may be just able to contain it. Once this possibility or eventuality is over, and a natural order of checks and balances emerge and stabilize, the world would have settled in a new age, era and order.