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‘Technology is the reason 9 billion can live on this planet without destroying it’

One of the richest men in the world,Bill Gates,talks his recent visits to UP and Bihar and on how technology and innovation can help the poor.

Written by The Indian Express |
May 18, 2010 3:01:33 am

One of the richest men in the world,Bill Gates,co-founder of Microsoft,stepped away from day-to-day operations at the software giant to devote more time and funds to his charitable foundation,the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Today,India is among the biggest recipients of the foundation’s aid. In this Walk the Talk with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta,Gates talks about the foundation’s focus on health and agriculture,his recent visits to UP and Bihar and on how technology and innovation can help the poor

Shekhar Gupta: Hello and welcome to Walk The Talk. When I have Bill Gates this week as my guest,I don’t waste time introducing him. Welcome,Mr Gates. It’s good to have you on the show.

Bill Gates: It’s great to be here.

Shekhar Gupta: Just for you,we had the hottest May in 60 years.

Bill Gates: It’s not bad.

Shekhar Gupta: I know you are thick-skinned. You even went to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the same weather.

Bill Gates: It was hard in Bihar,but I really wanted to see where the polio campaign is going there and the challenges they face. I am glad I went.

Shekhar Gupta: What did you learn going there?

Bill Gates: The intensification of the polio drop campaign is pretty amazing. It is very important that we eradicate polio from the remaining pockets in Bihar and UP. It will be the second disease ever to be eradicated. It is a big priority for our Foundation (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and India is doing a great job. It looks like the numbers will stay down.

Shekhar Gupta: In a letter on your website,you have said that you are now learning. What does Bill Gates learn when he goes to Bihar and UP?

Bill Gates: A good example is to understand how things work in the villages. We saw villages with women self-help groups and villages without them. We went to a village where a partner of ours—Pradaan–is helping women use agricultural techniques,preserving water in different ways and growing tussar silk that has been a big success. I don’t know much about agriculture.

Shekhar Gupta: Did you check out any tussar silk yourself?

Bill Gates: They were very generous; they gave me silk products they made.

Shekhar Gupta: Tussar is the cheaper silk. You don’t have to import it. So maybe it can generate employment locally.

Bill Gates: Yes. It looked like a great thing,and that’s the kind of innovation I love to see. But if you would have asked me 10 years ago how silk is made and what the opportunities are,I wouldn’t have known anything about it.

Shekhar Gupta: In India,we believe that nothing works in most parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These are what we call BIMARU (Bihar,Madhya Pradesh,Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) states. Bimaru in Hindi means ‘sick’. So,these are the sick states. When you visit them,do you figure out that they have a special degree of difficulty?

Bill Gates: Well,certainly things have been tough there. These states are poor,and whenever states are poor,it is hard to get the health statistics up. And they have a high population growth,which makes everything difficult. I have a real sense of optimism about what is going on there. The statistics are definitely improving. The government has the NAC plan to improve health. They put more money to those states that need it. A lot of innovative programmes like ASHA worker,the JSY payments or people delivering clinics,are starting to show real results.

Shekhar Gupta: But do you see a governance deficit?

Bill Gates: In Bihar,the vaccination rates,which were as low as 11 per cent are now up by over 50 per cent. That’s been achieved really in only about four years. That’s a very rapid increase. There is a lot still to be done,but I think you are going to see health improve quite substantially. I think it won’t be easy to underestimate those states.

Shekhar Gupta: Those states have problems that are very intrinsic to the Hindi heartland. Messy politics,caste divisions,and divisions that are as intricate as embroidery work on the tussar silk.

Bill Gates: I don’t think messy politics really needs to hold states back. The United States has messy politics,and I would say even the south of India,at least to me,has some messy politics. The basic issues of getting the schools right,getting the healthcare right…

Shekhar Gupta: I can’t say about America,for it appears to be polarised right now,but the south has a method to the madness. The ground-level governance works better there than in the Hindi heartland.

Bill Gates: If you see a village with well-functioning self-help groups,it feels very sane. They were telling us how before they got organised,it wasn’t like this at all. In fact,we saw a few villages without that. Once those women are empowered,they are not going to go back and sit in the hut all day.

Shekhar Gupta: The latest I have read from Joe Klein is ‘bureausclerosis’— when your bureaucracy becomes sclerotic. In his latest column,he says that the problem with the Democrats is that they are great at passing Bills,but who is going to implement them,because the bureaucracy is so messed up? I think that the problem might exist in India on a much bigger scale. Does it not worry you?

Bill Gates: In health,you are spending less than one per cent and there is a commitment to take it to three per cent–that’s a big change. We have been involved in funding public health schools to bring in a new level of expertise. Yes,it is easy to get frustrated. Governments aren’t the fastest moving things. They are not like a technology company that’s changing things overnight. But when they get lined up to care about the right issues,they,given time,can do very well. In 1960,over 20 million children died; last year,less than nine million died. That’s because governments created vaccines,bought them,distributed them,and also nutrition and other things came along. So the world is far better today than back in 1960s.

Shekhar Gupta: I’m glad you compared governments to tech corporations. Nobody in the government would retire at 50. In Indian politics,you are young at 60.

Bill Gates: You have private sector entrepreneurs like me doing this UID thing. It’s great to see that you can take talent from an industry and have it work on these problems that affect people the most.

Shekhar Gupta: Do you understand the UID project?

Bill Gates: Oh yes,I’m a big fan of the work being done there. It’s a pioneering project and I’m sure there will be a lot of challenges. But it’s a very important piece of work. If you see how hard it is to set up a bank account now or how difficult it is to get payments from the government,this could really change those things. Digital technology has been applied to a lot of things. Improving government efficiency there is a lot to be done and this is a case where India is leading the way.

Shekhar Gupta: Some of the usual scepticism has begun to surface about the UID project as well,such as what the government will do with all the data. Do you see ethical questions in it?

Bill Gates: As soon as the government starts using digital tools,they will have to have clear rules about what is kept private and who can use what data. Your cellphone knows everywhere you go. It used to be that when everything was on paper,we didn’t have to think about privacy laws. Now,whether it’s the government or companies,we have to have clear policies.

Shekhar Gupta: You have seen technology work for the poor.

Bill Gates: I have,and that’s a big theme of our Foundation’s work. When I think technology,I’m thinking about new seeds,new vaccines–it’s a very broad definition.

Shekhar Gupta: I read a little bit about the new book you read on what happens in agriculture. You seem to be a big supporter of organic farming.

Bill Gates: The book talks about how these new seeds,which some people are against,really are very important for the principle of not hurting the land and yet being able to feed people. So we need the best ideas from biotechnology with good reviews and we need some of the ideas of organic farming. The book is called Tomorrow’s Table and I highly recommend it.

Shekhar Gupta: Tell me something about biotechnology. Do you share the concerns about this,which are arising from the American liberal circles? Europe has nearly banned them except that now they are beginning to change their minds a little bit on GM crops and seeds.

Bill Gates: The US has been totally open to this. In fact,the amount of insecticide and herbicide used has been greatly reduced because of this. When you try to feed more people,if you don’t have increased productivity,then you take land that you shouldn’t use and you put it under cultivation. That destroys the land. We need innovation. It’s very,very important. We need to be careful about that. Innovation is particularly needed for African agriculture because they haven’t had the productivity increase like India’s Green Revolution or that other countries did. We need to use science in the right way. If we just stick to what we have now,we won’t be able to feed the population.

Shekhar Gupta: So you don’t support the idea of tossing GM right away? In India it’s a big issue right now.

Bill Gates: The climate is getting more challenging. We need crops that can deal with drought and rain. There is a rice variety in India that wasn’t done with GM technique but done with advanced science,that if the rice gets submerged,it survives. That’s a fantastic example of technology helping poor farmer. Rain-fed rice growers are the poorest of all rice-growers. That’s a case where it actually happened fairly quickly. Technology properly applied is the reason to feel like nine billion can live on this planet without destroying it.

Shekhar Gupta: You have no fundamental disagreement with GM crops as long as the proper safety standards are followed and testing is carried out?

Bill Gates: That’s right. You need to have a regular authority to look into the development. But you need that for all the new crops,no matter what technique is used. We will have to grow more food on acreage we have on this planet.

Shekhar Gupta: Your voice will matter because the debate in India has now become very black and white. There is a smaller group of people that says all technology is good,but there is a more vocal group of people saying that all biotechnology is to be treated guilty until proved innocent.

Bill Gates: There are two issues that are important. One is when you make a new seed: is there a scientific danger from it? Second is as those seeds are being made,are you still making sure that the poorest have appropriate financial access to those things? These are both serious issues,but I do think that once you make sure they are not a problem,it’s very important that we get this kind of an innovation.

Shekhar Gupta: But Gates Foundation is now getting into agriculture. Is it the new area of interest besides health?

Bill Gates: Health is by far the biggest,I’m not cutting that back. But helping poor farmers get better productivity…we have funded people like IDE who do pumps here in India,Pradaan takes smart,young people,sends them out to villages to help poor farmers there. It’s really fun to see what’s going and it’s very necessary as the population is growing and there are more mouths to feed.

Shekhar Gupta: The population is demanding more. They are not as easily resigned to their fates as they might have been in the past. They see a better world that others have. You spoke this year at Davos on your new vision of capitalism. Do you see global capitalism buying this new idea?

Bill Gates: I wouldn’t say it’s a new system at all; I would say that it’s taking the successful companies and adding a new responsibility on them that they innovate on behalf of the poor. So whether you are a cellphone company,a drug company or a bank,there are ways that you can take some of your research and your innovators and help think about the poor. In some ways that’s not a totally new idea but I see it happening. In fact,we have a group that ranks all the drug companies according to their activities to help the poor. A great thing happened when companies that didn’t rate so well started changing that. They were asking what diseases they could work on. Likewise,the food companies are also getting more involved. So it’s not a dramatic change,but it can accelerate the reduction of an equity.

Shekhar Gupta: Did you also look at any Indian company?

Bill Gates: The vaccine companies here just have it as a natural thing to make low-cost vaccines. After all,here in India,you need to do things at a high volume. I met them and was very impressed. They are growing and are doing important work and our Foundation has supported them.

Shekhar Gupta: So many of them make low-cost generics.

Bill Gates: Vaccines are the part that we get more involved in. More and more its innovative work,and as these companies grow,their contribution will be big. They really do have a huge benefit for the poor. The cellphone companies here are all engaged in this discussion about financial inclusion and the role they can play. The willingness is definitely what I would hope for.

Shekhar Gupta: Let’s go back to Capitalism 2.0 and America. America is now more polarised than it has been in a very long time. The debate again seems black and white. One side is saying what Obama is doing is almost anti-capitalist,is socialistic and driven by Nancy Pelosi. The other side says we are a capitalist country with flaws that need fixing. Where do you stand in this debate?

Bill Gates: I think it’s important not to see it as some huge divide. We are talking about pretty minor issues. If I explain to your audience what’s in that Financial Regulation Bill,they would say that’s such a detail on a detail of which accounts are insured and which kind of derivatives can be traded by which company. But basic consensus is there. You have to go all the way back to the 1930s before there was this huge divide in America about really big questions of how we should run the country. Now,it’s great under democracy. People are going to compete on how quickly we should reduce our CO2 emissions,how do we make sure the bankers don’t cause problems in the future. The level of consensus about capitalism and how the country is run is very strong.

Shekhar Gupta: You don’t see any fundamental doubts there?

Bill Gates: If you took the budgets the Republicans and Democrats would have,there will be about a five per cent difference. One would cut defence spending a little more than the other; one would increase social spending a little more than the other. Fortunately,America in the 90s was incredibly successful. And even though this economic recession was a setback,the country is advanced,the products are better—there is a lot to feel good about.

Shekhar Gupta: As somebody who worries about the state of the world,were there nights in September,October and November 2008 when you lost sleep?

Bill Gates: There was definitely one week when some of the flaws in the system required quick action. My friend Warren Buffett understands these things very well,and he and I were talking on a regular basis. There is a thing called money market funds from where people were moving their money out because those had lost some value. That was a fairly key thing for the finance companies. To make sure that the Federal government acted decisively,that made a huge difference in avoiding something that would have set the economy back far more than it happened. I feel good that people like (Timothy) Geithner and (Henry) Paulson stepped in and did some good work.

Shekhar Gupta: But you were worried for a week.

Bill Gates: Yes,the system had in terms of how people had achieved their funding,even companies that were fundamentally sound,had funded themselves in more of a short term way. And if that disappeared because of the ongoing effects on the economy,you could have had a big contraction. So,we were smarter about that. The biggest cause was that we over spent,our housing prices were a bubble and that had a big impact throughout the economy. Now the signs look good. But capitalism is always going to have these excesses. Fortunately in this case,we call it a two or three-year setback.

Shekhar Gupta: We have seen the excesses of socialism as well.

Bill Gates: Absolutely. This (capitalism) is the best system. And we are getting smarter about how to run it. There is innovation. China before 1979 did it one way and after that did it another way. In Korea they drew this line and they said you North Koreans try it in a different way and we South Koreans will do it in a different way. We have interesting tests of this question.

Shekhar Gupta: I can never forget something that V S Naipaul said on this show. He said you Indians can’t figure out what’s really wrong with socialism or communism because you have never really been a communist country. I asked him what he meant. He said we Britons can because we have been a communist country. A socialist system is tougher to question. It doesn’t self-correct so easily like capitalism. Do you agree with that?

Bill Gates: These things aren’t black and white. Even in Singapore,which is purely capitalistic,everything has a balance. Roads,army,education—all countries provide that through taxation. Adam Smith wrote very eloquently about these issues. He framed it very well. Striking that right balance will always be hard and you want to have great incentives for innovation and hard work and yet you want to have a sense that even the people who get left out of the system,their life is not made so difficult.

Shekhar Gupta: You like writing letters and you have been to India several times. If you were to write a letter to India on your way out,what would the first few lines be?

Bill Gates: I’m not arrogant enough to think that I can write some broad letter. I have visited here a lot of times and loved the things going on here. But I only get a glimpse. The healthcare system is the thing I know most about and I see some really good things happening there.

Shekhar Gupta: What would you write to Rahul Gandhi?

Bill Gates: He and I had a great day where he really wanted me to see how things can work well and how they don’t. It was very enlightening. I think he and I share an interest that if we put the right things in place,10 or 20 years ahead,you could make a big difference. When he is thinking about what’s gone well in India and how we do more of that,it’s a very interesting conversation.

Shekhar Gupta: What is it about him (Rahul Gandhi) that surprised you most of all?

Bill Gates: He is very hands-on. He likes going into these villages but he doesn’t come in and say that here I’m the big man with the answers. He is actually fairly quiet and really interested in what the people are saying. It’s really about being realistic; about how hard it is,and that was an educational visit for me.

Shekhar Gupta: What would you write to Obama?

Bill Gates: He is a very intelligent person. I have met him a number of times and our Foundation works a lot with members of his Cabinet. They are doing a lot of things right. You can question if they are trying to do too much. In a democracy,it is hard to change things. The power of the state is very high. In general,that’s a good thing. Unless there is a huge consensus,things change at a fairly modest rate. And that’s the way United States is. There are people who are unrealistic. They think if a Democrat is elected things will change dramatically. Our system doesn’t run that way. I think he is doing a lot of things fairly well. His policies have helped economic recoveries.

Shekhar Gupta: What about his Health Bill?

Bill Gates: It’s so complicated that I wouldn’t even want to go into that. It’s so long and hard to read. The US health system spends too much money to not get too much in the way of impact. In terms of why the incentives are wrong,we didn’t fix that. It is still a problem that is ahead of us. I hope we do the right thing because the health costs in America are really squeezing all the other spending including educational spending.

Shekhar Gupta: How do you handle your current status which is like the head of a large state? You are treated like a head of state; people anticipate your arrival in various capitals like a head of state,as it is tougher to get aid from the US government than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Does it put additional pressure on you?

Bill Gates: Certainly. We believe in having more visibility. When I go out to a village in India,nobody knows who I am. They know who Rahul is and they wonder who that pale-looking guy is whom he is taking around. In some ways that’s kind of fun that I’m the ‘nobody’.

Shekhar Gupta: Is there pressure in the way governments relate to you?

Bill Gates: I’m not a voter; I’m more of a technocrat getting down to the specifics of the topic. I feel very lucky to meet somebody like the Indian Prime Minister who is a great man to hear. Not many people from outside India get to meet him so I’m very lucky that way.

Shekhar Gupta: Thank you very much,Mr Gates. It is wonderful to see you in India and wonderful to see you doing such marvellous work. Keep coming back.

Transcribed by Manimugdha S. Sharma

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