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Thursday, July 09, 2020

Book review: Bridgital Dreams

A timely account of the ways in which harnessing technology can help the disempowered citizenry

Written by Janmejaya Sinha | Updated: November 17, 2019 8:44:17 am
Assamese poems, Assamese poems translation, Assamese poems by Hafiz Ahmed, Assam poets, poets in Assam, Opinion, Columns, Indian Express The book urges us to solve big problems using the resources that India has, supported by the power of technology. (Representational)

Chandrasekaran, chairman of Tata Sons, and Purushothaman, chief economist of Tata Group, have written an important book on how low-skilled people enabled by technology can solve the biggest problems facing India today. They identify access and jobs as the two biggest problems facing India. Access to basic services in healthcare and education (especially to women) and a lack of productive jobs for young Indians entering the job market, prevent India from reaching its full potential. Importantly, they also rue the decline of women’s participation in the workforce and the significant benefits foregone by the nation as a result.

These issues are not new, so why is this book important? In the year that Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo get the Nobel Prize in economics for their work on poverty alleviation using a methodology of randomised trials and field experiments to suggest the best interventions, it is appropriate that Bridigital Nation is written. The book is similarly grounded and shows, in an accessible and poignant manner, how serious the problems of the poor are, and how relatively unqualified people too, enabled by technology, can help address them. In contemporary jargon, the authors illustrate some key “people journeys” in trying to access basic services of healthcare, education and finance. They explore these journeys like ethnographers, rather than by administering a typical customer survey. They talk about real people and how they try and navigate what should, in fact, be basic services. They capture the pain points and show the debilitating costs that are imposed on the poor in getting served. They write with empathy, observing behaviour, understanding its logic and then crafting real solutions combining technology, people and reimagined processes. As we read, the obvious solutions possible today cry out to us. You can sense the opportunity and see that the solutions are within reach.

Bridgital Dreams Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology’s People Problem 
N Chandrasekaran, Roopa Purushothaman 
Penguin/ Allen Lane 
344 pages
Rs 799

The book begins with Nikhil Burman, a driver in Silchar with no medical training, navigating the quagmire of Indian healthcare services for the poor. Parking his truck on the kerb of National Highway 37, with a phone, he obtains doctors’ appointments, fixes affordable lodgings, provides honest expectations around cures, costs and timelines. He is an empathetic middleman who charges modest sums for invaluable services. The lines of people waiting to see him highlight how the poor value his services. But all he does could be done so much better, faster and cheaper if he was aided by changed processes using technology. Chandra and Roopa illustrate this by describing two current TCS experiments — one in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the other in Kolar district. In the Kolar experiment, a sanatorium at one edge of town provided by the state, is converted into a Digital Nerve Centre by TCS. The objective is to redefine certain roles and create a new set of technology-enabled semi-qualified health workers. The responsibilities of doctors are recrafted and many routine tasks are delegated to others. This releases 4,000 extra doctor hours. Locally-recruited ASHAs equipped with iPads make home visits, record symptoms, give advice and make patient records and store them in the cloud. The nerve centre acts also as a local health call centre for both outreach and to answer routine queries, connecting people to doctors remotely and dealing with simple requests like setting up hospital appointments. In a short period, the primary health centres in Kolar have been reinvigorated, meaningful jobs for semi-skilled people have been created, precious doctor time has been released, and health care services have become easier and more convenient to navigate for the people. The book tells other stories of how one single action has often changed the fortunes of the family — like that of Jasleen, whose family’s support allowed her to study and join the police.

All the stories highlight the essence of bridgital, the combination of bridgital processes (processes reimagined with technology), bridgital technology (the need for an integrated physical digital perspective) and bridgital workers (increasing the reach and spread of technology through trained, semi-skilled workers). The potential that this combination has for addressing many critical problems of Indians is enormous, and spans sectors such as education, skilling, agriculture and access to other basic services. One wishes they had explored these options more extensively.

This is a simple book, but it is not simplistic. It urges us to solve big problems using the resources that India has, supported by the power of technology. A technology that is empowered because processes have been recreated, and, reach and spread have been improved by training and empowering unskilled Indians. Chandra and Purushothaman want to reduce the pain of the underprivileged in navigating life in India. They try to illustrate problems by showing us, through real experiments, what is possible today. They give us hope and show us that the Prime Minister’s vision of sabka saath, sabka vikas, with sabka vishwas, is truly within our reach. They have written an important book that should be read by bureaucrats and politicians alike. As a nation, we need to act bridgitally!

Janmejaya Sinha is chairman, BCG India

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