The Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has gone all out to declare, “No driverless cars
will be allowed in India". The National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) was established under the incumbent National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government
in January 2015 as a premier policy think tank to encourage innovation
in India and promote the country as a knowledge hub. Therefore, is Gadkari saying that innovation
is not welcome in India?
Let’s rewind a little. When Rajiv Gandhi
first introduced computers
in 1985 to revolutionise India’s communication, he met with much criticism and opposition. Similar concerns were raised back then too. People feared the introduction of computers
in offices and departments would kill thousands of jobs.
However, though thousands of jobs were killed, the introduction of computers
also ended up creating millions of other jobs. Back then, nobody had imagined the number of jobs computers
would create in the world. In fact, they continue to create jobs even today, for not just managing computers, creating software, analysing data but even in the area of information curation and dissemination. And the same will happen when, if ever, driverless cars
come to India.
The present government, under its various innovative moves, introduced Digital India mission and has been pushing for Smart Cities, Green Cities, Skill India and Make in India since it came to power in 2014.
Even the previous government
had taken some key steps in the direction by laying down the Science, Technology and Innovation
Policy in 2013, aimed at strategically transforming various sectors. Around this time, last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had even called for “transformative changes” (rather than incremental) “with drastic policy reforms”.
Earlier this year, the NITI Aayog, in a presentation on ‘Reinventing India as an Innovation
Nation’, too, stressed on a paradigm shift that meant “getting more (performance) from less (resources) for more (people)”. With such a future promised, complete with improved automation and efficiency, where are we in terms of innovation
Is it then a good decision to close doors to futuristic innovations? I wonder if Gadkari’s comment is a populist remark or if it questions India’s ability to transform itself into a knowledge and innovation
hub. I also want to ask that in the smart cities, which Indians have been promised, is there no room for smart transport?
When the minister aggressively refuses to allow driverless cars
in India, is he implying that the shared public transport system will never be efficient enough to encourage all segments of the society to use it? Is he implying that in the future, India will be only dependent on private and commercial cars? Should we then expect the number of registered motor vehicles to grow from 28.6 million cars, jeeps and taxis (March 2015) to millions more in a smart India?
For India to truly become an ‘innovation
nation’, it needs to look towards efficiency and let not traditional thinking hold it back. It needs to address the issue of relevance of traditional jobs versus relevance of futuristic jobs right now, and form the education level.
Several arguments point towards India’s ‘unskilled’ labour being rendered jobless in a transformative society where efficiency is driven by automation. I ask why? Does a smart and innovative India only exist in metropolitan cities of Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi for the privileged few who have all means of being ‘skilled’? Why is more relevant education not being imparted at the grassroots level to train our youth, which is one of the biggest youth populations in the world, in futuristic skills?
Before India simply shuts the door on driverless cars
without even as much as a discussion, it needs to see the possibilities driverless cars
can open in India, in terms of creating skilled labour and drastically cutting down on road accidents.
At present, as many as 400 people die every day in road accidents. Much of this is blamed on poor road conditions but we are also aware that India has a significant number of unskilled drivers holding drivers’ licenses. Though it cannot be denied that driverless cars
will render drivers redundant, they will open up opportunities for those engaged in maintaining the cars and up keeping the roads; it will also open up jobs for gas station attendants, software developers, data managers, data scientists, fleet managers, and many other unexpected lines of jobs.
Having said that, driverless cars
are a distant dream for the world, let alone India. Experts suggest it could take three decades until production of driverless cars
begins commercially. And even if that happens earlier, India would be among the last few countries to witness that transformation, especially given the size of its population and its unstructured road system in most cities. The argument of driverless cars
in India is thus futile. However, a blanket ‘no’ towards it does represent futuristic India's anti-innovation
Therefore, we must take a minute’s pause and ask our government
what its stand is towards incentivising and encouraging innovation
among youth to truly transform India into an innovation
and knowledge hub.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is a member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.