The last few months have witnessed the most significant disruption of all time—a disruption that has forever transformed the way we engage with each other and with the world. And while the Covid-19 crisis has brought with it a bevy of challenges, it has also served as a reminder that human well-being takes precedence over everything else. We saw proof of this as Covid-19 made its way across the globe—different countries responded in different ways. However, the first response, without exception, was to safeguard lives and ensure everyone’s safety.
For the first time in our history, we are all on the same side, united against a common enemy. Together, we are staring out at a new dawn that will bring with it an unprecedented opportunity to realise our long-standing vision of a more inclusive India with human well-being at the forefront of everything we do. The time to act on this vision has never been better, and with technology serving as an ally and an enabler, we have the tools and the intent to affect change where it is needed the most.
Post Covid-19, the top-of-mind concerns for everyone, from individual citizens to the government and leaders across India, should be to drive inclusive economic growth that will create equitable opportunities for all. Over the past 15 years, India has witnessed an average GDP growth of around 7%, indicating that we were on the trajectory towards a $5-trillion economy by 2025. However, considering the wide-reaching impact of the pandemic, this growth is under risk, with recent numbers suggesting a GDP contraction of 23.9% year-on-year in the first quarter.
To kickstart balanced economic growth across the nation, I believe there is a need for all of us—people, businesses, and governments—to come closer and build a world with equal access to opportunities. Inequity is at the heart of many of our biggest challenges, specifically jobs, poverty, access to quality education, healthcare, etc. If not balanced, the divide will widen further, especially for our farmers, women, and the urban poor.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), small farmers produce more than 80% of the world’s food. At the same time, the World Bank estimates that 80% of the world’s poor work primarily in farming. Technology can play an important role in boosting their income and improve agricultural practices. For example, during the lockdown, many farmers used WhatsApp to connect with their end consumers directly to sell their produce, thus opening a new channel for farmers to sell their products quickly and at a good and fair price, creating an additional revenue stream. Today, even as we unlock the country, more farmers are going online to sell directly and experiencing the power of the Internet and connectivity.
Technology can also help extract insights on crop yields, weather patterns, plant disease patterns, soil quality, moisture content, etc. and make the information available to farmers and government officials for better decision-making and crop management. Through the collective power of digitisation and partnerships, we can help farmers lift themselves out of poverty.
The last two decades have seen a rapid expansion of opportunities for people in India, but progress has not been even. For instance, women constitute only about 23% of India’s workforce, many of them unwilling or unable to travel to work. Now, with the digitally powered gig economy gathering steam, women will have more opportunities to join the workforce, which could be the key to unlocking India’s economic potential. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, India’s economic output in 2025 could be as much as 60% higher if women had equal opportunity for participation! Moreover, through e-commerce platforms and online payment ecosystems, women-owned businesses can also transact with a wider consumer demographic—another step towards elevating their economic standing.
In this and many other ways, the Covid-19 crisis has provided an opportunity to reduce inequity and create new possibilities. Consider the 75 million-strong small business sector in India (according to a Zinnov study), a majority of which operate in semi-urban and urban areas and employ a large portion of the 300 million urban poor in the country. The rise of digital consumers and the low-touch/no-touch economy has opened the market for disruption. By embracing technology, SMBs can pivot quickly, plug gaps, and build differentiated offerings for the new digital consumer and create a level playing field. This can have a direct impact on enhancing the quality of employment, skillsets, and wages of the urban poor. According to a recent study by us, the digitisation of small businesses can add up to $216 billion to India’s GDP by 2024. Moreover, as the world digitises, scaling quality education and healthcare becomes easier and affordable. This enables governments to put people on the path to self-sufficiency by providing sustainable livelihoods and facilitating economic independence.
Covid-19 has prompted us to reimagine the possibilities of connectivity and the Internet, triggering a change in the way we think about human welfare—not as a disparate function, but as the primary focus of everything we do. The crisis has jolted us to recognise that it isn’t over for anyone till it’s over for everyone, and post-Covid, with technology at our disposal, we have a real chance to make our vision of a truly inclusive India a reality.
Views are personal. The author is president, Cisco India and SAARC