“The Future is already here; it is just unevenly distributed: William Gibson”

The Future is fleeting ground, as the future tends to prepone itself, as the past recedes into the background. Not all futures envisaged are equal as our present. Technology is the mode, method and medium of actualising progress and it reaches some pioneer communities ahead of others.

The tech industry has been riding the wave of globalisation and collaboration for the last three decades, where India has led the charge in tech outsourcing joined at the hip to Silicon Valley in a wage arbitrage play.

India has been doing remote globally distributed work for decades in the tech space as China in parallel has been the factory floor of the world. As the pandemic linked lockdown hit India along with other parts of the world Infosys overnight took 90 percent of its operations to the cloud, on employee owned devices with minimal interruption and the highest security in 60 countries as per Infosys Chairman Nandan Nilekani. The Indian IT Industry had prepared itself for the pandemic moment for decades, subconsciously. 

This pandemic has been the ultimate stress test for capitalism. In the words of Author Arundhati Roy like an MRI, revealing the bare bones of a system. We have been incredibly resilient, in the face of fear of a humanity level threat.

Knowledge based businesses have implemented ‘Work from Home’ across the board with varied success. Work from Home is contingent upon many prerequisites which cannot be taken for granted in the Indian context. How many of us have stable internet connection at home with a dedicated device, unless it is given by the workplace? Power cuts are routine in most non-metro cities in the country.

A vast majority of knowledge workers are using personal devices and internet connections usually sharing the hotspot from their phones to make work happen during this crisis as a lot of employers were caught off guard. 

Tata Consultancy Services, the Indian IT major has introduced a plan post pandemic to only staff a quarter of its workforce in actual offices while the rest will continue to work from remote locations. The 25/25 Secure Borderless Workplace or SBWS model, will make the company employee lite, but gear towards 25 percent more throughput. 

It does seem that business continuity planning will get better post pandemic, given the pivot companies are making now. The old operating models will die a natural death.The just in time delivery scenario fails miserably in emergencies. We have forgotten the notion of creating a buffer, the very basis for resilience. 

This situation is spurring innovation, to create capacity in response to the reality. There are new hardware start ups such as Resonate who have developed USPs for Internet Routers, which are Made in India, for India. Technological patches such as these helps facilitate the digital economy at the pain point. 

We live in multi-generational households, where person per room ratio in India is 0.4 versus 2.4 in the United States. This space metric cripples the effectiveness of social distancing as well, a central pillar of the set of measures needed to combat the pandemic. In India, social distancing equals physical compression for the poor situated in a dense urban space such as the Mankhurd-Govandi Road Slum Belt or a Dharavi in Mumbai.

The Future of Work has been brought forward due to the global lockdown for the knowledge worker. The medical worker on the disease front line or the informal economy vegetable vendor does not have the ‘Work from Home’ option. 

The other alternative is hunger, which is not an alternative at all.  The digital economy has crumbled, with physical home delivery restricted to only a few cities, that too limited to essential commodities. 

Once again we are excavating the local in our communities, those of us who were always around but never valued. They are the ultimate last mile delivery option, as they comprise the ‘community’. In a crisis, socioeconomic boundaries blur, and thankfully reclaim humanity instead of vanity. 

India unlike Singapore or Canada does not have the generous fiscal bandwidth for unemployment doles as the lockdown has paralysed the economy. A certain quantum of funds has been transferred to ‘Jan Dhan’ accounts to the poorest of families, in a targeted manner. 

We would need to reimagine social protection for the ultra-vulnerable such as interstate migrant workers as we ponder the possibilities of an inclusive Future of Work. 

Online education or EdTech, has been a part of the learning landscape for the past few years albeit as a side dish rather than the main course. The pandemic has dealt the severest of jolts to the formal education ecosystem.

Teachers in India are not used to online pedagogy even in the elitist of International Schools. In my conversations with schoolteachers, leaping on to teach online platforms seem to be struggling with slow data speeds or simply disinterested students.

The best of business schools globally which charge a premium for the on campus educational experience such as INSEAD and Wharton have students who are complaining about being delivered online learning along with asking for a discount on the tuition fees as per a Financial Times Report. Film review platform Film Companion too has joined the Ed Tech bandwagon by offering a film criticism course. 

In India, schools are places which serve mid-day meals for children. A missed school day means leaving them hungry as parents go out to make a living. 

A physical school is more than academic in nature. Key life skills such as socialisation are learnt in a school. Schools serve as creche for young children as well. No online education can subsume the utility of a physical school.

However, post pandemic learning will incorporate more online modules. Teachers will need adapt to technology and figure out an approach to make learning interesting. On the flip side, each teacher becomes a node of breakthrough learning for the world.

India will get access to the best of global lessons, as learning becomes geography agnostic. A gap is the equivalence of an online degree with an on-campus qualification. This discrepancy needs to be bridged and it is the need of the hour as online degrees get mainstreamed. 

The race towards the digital is furious, as the recent 9.99 percent stake sale of Jio Platforms to Facebook shows India is the tech epicentre of the world. The policy space will also need to evolve. 

Digital infrastructure such as internet bandwidth and access to tablets or laptops needs to be reframed as a fundamental human right. 

The hidden transcript of the digital life such as privacy, surveillance, fake news and attention disorders must be addressed at the earliest in a society as a whole manner. India is a global case study in the payments stack arena, which is a true Indian story. We have an opportunity to frame the ‘new normal’ in the ‘Work from Home’ and Education arena for ourselves and the world. 

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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