Nitin Gadkari barb on driverless cars: Terming technology as job-killer is a historic blunder

Back in 1980s, in Kerala, there were protests from trade unions, mostly left-backed ones, against computerisation. Trade unions then said computerising their offices would mean less requirement of human intervention and, thus, less number of jobs.

The line of their argument was computers are ‘capitalist evil’ that will steal jobs from the laborers overnight. Those protests during mid-80s went on for some time and, arguably, delayed the modernisation process of offices and industries in the state but later the change came.

Gradual computerisation happened in Kerala and life adapted to the change. People learned how to improve their skills to accommodate themselves in the computerised world. Had Kerala listened to the trade unionists and continued with the paper ledgers, the God’s Own Country would have got stuck in 1980s while rest of India advanced to embrace the opportunities of the modern world.

 Nitin Gadkari barb on driverless cars: Terming technology as job-killer is a historic blunder

Union minister Nitin Gadkari - PTI

The point of revisiting the 1980s' agitation is in the context of Union road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari's statement that the Narendra Modi government will not allow driver-less cars in India.

"We will not allow driver-less cars in India. India suffers a huge shortage of 22 lakh drivers...Cab aggregators take advantage of these. We are not going to promote any technology or policy that will render people jobless," Gadkari said.

According to the minister, to meet the demand of 22 lakh commercial drivers in India at present, the government has planned to open 100 driver training institutes across the country. “Five lakh people will get jobs over the next five years,” Gadkari said. Gadkari’s intention is good — to save jobs — and it goes without saying that much of the crowded, potholed Indian roads are ill-prepared to accommodate driverless cars. It will certainly take years of preparation before India could implement something like this on Indian roads.

But, the problem with Gadkari’s statement is when he says “we are not going to promote any technology or policy that will render people jobless", this is an fundamentally flawed logic.

Gadkari’s grudge against the new technology as an impediment for job creation reminds one of the 1980s anti-computer protests. Adapting to new technology is inevitable for India, for that matter any developing country, in the modern world. It will be a cardinal mistake if the nation holds back new technology just for the sake of saving jobs. This will not only slowdown an efficient economic growth but will put India on a backfoot as it tries to achieve the position of world’s manufacturing hub. Instead, the right approach will be to invest in skill-development and make people useful for new types of vocation.

Even in this particular case, what is interesting is that Gadkari’s statement against driver-less cars goes against a major provision of the proposed Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2017, pending in Rajya Sabha (read an HT report here), which talks about testing such a new technology. “In order to promote innovation and research and development in the fields of vehicular engineering, mechanically propelled vehicles and transportation in general, the central government may exempt certain types of mechanically propelled vehicles from the application of the provisions of this Act,” reads a clause in the Bill.

Moreover, it also goes against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aggressive drive to introduce various facets of technology as a key driver for growth. Had India showed aversion to technology seeing it as an impediment to jobs, computerisation would have never happened in the country, industrialisation wouldn't have taken place ever and Indian factories would have still languished in terms of efficiency with human-machine system in front of a world that is advancing at a maddening pace.

Indian banks would have still operated with paper-ledgers and challan. Construction activities would not have grown at a rapid pace, as the country would have still primarily depended on human force on sites. Utility bill payments would have still been a nightmare as we wouldn’t be paying online or through mobile but would have still dependent on the clerk at the office counter. Technology has come in all these areas and made our life easier, of course in effect cutting down the number of jobs. But, those people have adapted to new skills and jobs.

Indeed, rising unemployment is a reason for worry, particularly in the unorganised sector. There needs to be a well thought out long-term plan, at least for the next few decades on how to enhance skill-development and shape the education system to produce millions of workforce who will enter India’s job market every year. But, holding technology as a villain for unemployment, as a state policy, is nothing short of a disaster.

Updated Date: Jul 25, 2017 11:08:36 IST