What connects a popular Amazon Prime show, a Shah Rukh Khan film, tweets from the CEO of Zoho Corp, India’s most popular storyteller on radio, India’s biggest information technology (IT) company’s new work-from-home model, and the concentration of coronavirus patients?
The idea that the time has come for at least some of India’s best and brightest to think beyond the mega city as a destination for their hopes and aspirations.
Data shows that Delhi and Mumbai, the two biggest urban aggregations, megacities if you will, with core and allied populations of between 20-25 million people each, also account for nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 cases in India.
The Industrial Age is based on the idea of population shift from the rural to the urban, to create pockets of high productivity due to efficiencies in communications and travel. But surely this is questionable in the kind of unhealthy cities we live in these days with toxic air and water, and mind-numbing commute times?
Could we work better, smarter and avoid a debilitating life? Perhaps yes. The coming of the Coronavirus has fast-tracked the global conversation of the virtues of work-from-home. Companies are realising that in an age where employees are accessible 24/7, the reason to trap them in (often soul-sucking, un-inspirational, and expensive) offices might be futile.
Some of the biggest companies are readying to take a leap of faith. TCS, India’s biggest IT services company, has announced that it is moving to a new model for its nearly 450,000 employees worldwide. It is moving 90% of these employees to a new operating model called Secure Borderless Work Spaces where not more than 25% of the employees are ever needed to be physically present at a TCS office. It is, undoubtedly, one of the biggest work-from-home transitions ever in India Inc.
There are others who are thinking in this manner. India’s best-known radio storyteller has been making a slow transition to the countryside for several years now starting with launching a rural newspaper, Gaon Connection. Now, when Neelesh Misra lives full-time in his village home in Uttar Pradesh, he has started The Slow Movement, a content platform that brings the global slow campaign (slow food, slow fashion etc) based on back-to-the-basics sustainability to India. He now posts long format videos and content shot in languorous style literally in his backyard.
Sridhar Vembu, CEO of Indian software major Zoho Corp, is found advocating such a lifestyle on Twitter these days. Recently he spoke about the joys living without air-conditioning in his village home, and his latest series of tweets talk about seeding highly qualified talent in villages. He has written, “Of course if we can seed 1% by getting high skilled people to move to a village and then invest in training to create skilled jobs for another 1% of a village, the effect is a fairly substantial increase in overall village income, easily 2-3 times, due to all the multipliers”.
He argues that “If I get 10 well paid engineers to be located in a village of 1,000 people and they start spending more of their income locally, it makes a meaningful difference quickly.”
It is a plan Vembu says his company is trying to apply: “Seeding those 1% high paid jobs in a village is part of my agenda for Zoho. This is how we plan to redirect our jobs. I hope other entrepreneurs try similar ideas. Find a village you love and please don't overcrowd the same place—there are 600,000 villages in India alone!”
Such a shift, if it starts to happen with any scale, could be transformational for India. It would be the fulfilment of the Gandhian dream of sustainable village economies. But with a twist. These villages economies fuelled by some of the best talent in the country (a bit like what was shown in the film Swades where a scientist, played by Shah Rukh Khan, returns from a job at the American space agency NASA to help a village in India and finds contentment) would be integrated to the best of the global marketplace. But on their own terms.
This transition would not be without challenges. To start with it might be a bit like the experience of the character Abhishek Tripathi in Amazon Prime’s Panchayat who arrives at a village having failed to get the job he wanted in the city. But what is meant to be a temporary set-up soon draws him into myriad innocent joys and victories, until, he starts to feel that he belongs.
If this happens in India, it would be our true victory against the virus.
Views are personal.
The author is a historian and a multiple award-winning author.