A Reluctant Subject

A book about India is a book about an inscrutable place. There is the everyday country of the senses, and then the country made of numbers—the analyst’s country. One is overwhelming, the other is confounding. It’s a rare day when their stories line up.

The India of the senses tells us about the challenges its citizens witness every day. Indians see them in moments—the crowded clinics, the bustling courts—without recognizing that disparate issues are closely connected. These moments can stretch into years—the desire to work but not the opportunity, the absence of professional care for children and elders. The influences these issues bear are subtle. In quiet ways, they affect how Indians seek health and employment, and affect how their children think.

But numbers are what anchor our understanding of a country’s trajectory, and the first numbers we see tell us that progress and prosperity are imminent.

In short time, India’s ranks will swell to 1.5 billion. Over 700 million Indians are below the age of thirty—more than twice the size of the entire population of the United States. Every month, on average, a million more Indians become of working age. The country’s GDP per capita is $2,000 right now, but will more than double to around $4,300 in a decade. By 2030, India will become the world’s third-largest economy. This period will be marked by rising household aspirations, an increasingly formal economy, and widespread digital usage. By 2050, India’s GDP per capita could rise to $15,000.

While this sounds inevitable, India rarely lives in its averages. A far more complex and fascinating story is playing out on the ground. India’s distinct cultural histories, languages, and governance mean that individual states operate like thirty or more discrete entities that rarely reflect the national average. So while the nation’s income per capita is $2,000, annual income is $5000 in its most prosperous states, and less than $600 in its poorest.

The state of Uttar Pradesh alone has more people than Brazil. Maharashtra’s population is larger than Germany’s. Ten states account for most of the value of the country’s goods and services. Two-thirds of all manufacturing occurs in seven states. Just five states are responsible for over half of all postgraduates. India’s rural and urban markets often pull in different directions at the same time, with one growing while the other slows.

These differences magnify the perils of using a broad brush to depict India.

Partly, India is hard to pin down because of these idiosyncrasies. The country’s wide and complex spectrum of realities has been historically micromanaged by a sweeping, risk-averse bureaucracy (for instance, until recently, there used to be rules limiting what products enterprises of a certain size could manufacture). Even as GDP growth has averaged over 7 per cent a year for the past decade, a surprisingly large number of women have left the workforce. For all the excitement around India’s start-up culture, the country’s average firm employs just over two people. Domestic markets dominate India’s economy, in contrast to China, South Korea and Thailand.

The other part is down to timing. India’s development has come in an era of globalization and technology-driven change, processes that the country has at times embraced, and at times turned away from. Economic growth is driven by the services sector—information technology, finance, telecommunications—rather than the manufacturing-led progress seen historically across the rest of Asia.

There are other incongruities. Households purchase televisions and mobile phones before they reach basic nutrition levels. The country has successfully attempted some of the world’s most ambitious technological programmes (Aadhaar, for example), yet its levels of child malnutrition are still daunting.

Why does this matter? By 2050, China, the United States, India, and Japan will be the world’s largest economies, in that order. The US will have a per capita income of roughly $100,000. Japan’s will be $76,000. Sitting between them, India’s will be $15,000. What will it mean for India to carry the mantle of a global economic powerhouse while its citizens struggle with the bare essentials of a middle-class lifestyle? How will this dynamic affect the compromises India will have to make when it comes to questions of trade or pollution? India’s rise on the global stage means that the largest economies in the world (in terms of GDP) will no longer be the richest. This sounds simple, but its implications for geopolitical alignment and strategic priorities among the world’s major economies will be significant—and may already be influencing the backlash to globalization we see across the world today.

There’s a word in Sanskrit that perfectly describes the position India finds itself in today. It’s an antarlaapika—a riddle that holds, in its folds, a solution to its mystifying self.

Wrapping Technology Around People

Indians go to spectacular lengths for the most basic things. The graduates who join millions to apply for a few dozen entry-level positions. The rural traveller undertaking an epic journey from home to see a doctor while she worries about her work, her money, her family. When an endeavour is successful, the effort it takes is forgotten. The enormous odds, once they are overcome, gradually seem less daunting. But this success is also a sign of weakness. Unexceptional tasks are made exceptional only by the difficulty in achieving them.

We believe there’s a way to make things easier.

Using technology the right way, with targeted interventions, India can remove long-standing access barriers to vital services. We call the approach Bridgital—the application of tools in context. Bridgital wraps technological advances around India’s most abundant resource, its people, to multiply their capabilities and change how they work. This means using every tool available to us, including automation and AI, and setting aside ideas about them that we’re conditioned to.

When we think about the future of technology and work, there are three important distinctions that set India apart from advanced economies. These make Bridgital a significant opportunity for the country.

First, India’s lack of markets means access will take precedence over efficiency. Advanced economies have a host of mature markets in which digital transformation is focused on increasing efficiency. India doesn’t lack efficient markets, it lacks markets themselves. In the absence of these outlets, people fill in and operate independently—sometimes at the very edge of the law—meeting the unfulfilled demand for healthcare or other basic goods and services.

This absence of mature markets is evident in financial services. Despite the success of an ambitious financial inclusion programme that increased bank account penetration from about 50 per cent to 80 per cent in just three years, there is still work to be done. The country has around 190 million adults without a bank account, making it the world’s second-largest unbanked population after China. Of those who have a bank account, almost half did not use it in 2017, preferring to use cash for spending and saving. New-age financial technology companies are already stepping in with data- and technology-led approaches to meet the demands of the underserved. For example, low-income entrepreneurs, who had never been able to access capital from banks, can do so as companies use analytics to assess their trustworthiness, reducing reliance on collateral and credit scores.

Building entirely new markets is a different beast to optimizing existing ones. It means prioritizing access along with efficiency. When technology is adopted, it will create new markets within the Indian economy. As they are created, and entirely new ecosystems begin to form and spread, there will be demand for people skilled in the ways of these new technologies.

We believe that Bridgital workers—digitally literate and intermediately skilled workers whose capabilities are complemented by technology—can play a pivotal role in traversing the barriers that have prevented markets from developing. This is an opportunity to create a new category of worker who acts as a bridge, a guide, and a translator. As with cars, planes and computers, where new markets develop, new ecosystems flourish around them. For example, such ecosystems have already grown around the mobile revolution in Africa: Kenya’s largest mobile operator directly employs only around 5,500 people, but has spurred the creation of over 130,000 mobile money outlets to handle the country’s transition from cash to mobile money.

Second, India faces a perennially limited supply of skilled human resources and physical assets. It is widely known that India does not have enough skilled resources and expertise. Accompanying this is a lack of infrastructure and physical resources as well. India has only half the number of doctors recommended by the World Health Organisation. The availability of hospital beds is even more problematic, with around two-thirds fewer beds than the global average. A citizen in rural India experiences even greater deprivation than the overall figure suggests, because resources tend to agglomerate in large cities. More than 60 per cent of hospitals are in urban India, where only about a third of India resides. With a population of 1.3 billion and growing, India does not have enough physical infrastructure—hospitals, roads, schools, warehouses, testing centres—to match the challenges posed by its scale.

India is making gains on these metrics, but will continue to be a stretched society. It will need to make the most of what resources it does have, through a combination of both people and technology.

Third, India’s demographics demand a different approach to automation and AI. Developed economies are well into middle age. China and the US will have a median age over thirty-eight by 2020 (Japan’s will be over forty-eight). The older that countries get, the fewer workers they have available. This shortage drives them to develop technologies that can substitute for labour. As ageing economies have automated, they have transformed production practices, making them leaner and more efficient. The choices they’ve made are about efficiency, a response to their particular concerns.

In contrast, the median age of India’s population will be twenty-eight by 2020, and thirty-one by 2030. The problem India has is not of age or numbers; it is skills and qualifications. Therefore, India’s approach to automation has to be distinct from China, the US and Japan; it has to focus on technologies that augment and raise people’s skills.

India will not be able to simply cut and paste China’s (and much of Asia’s) development path. It will need to forge a new path and bring the twentieth-century growth model of manufacturing-led development into the twenty-first century. This new growth model requires an alternative strategy: Boosting a range of labour-intensive, intermediate economic activities that take care of India’s vast unmet demand and shift people towards more formal characteristics of work. Bridgital is a way of doing just this.

The Talent Dividend

In India, a woman’s path from education to work is often permanently interrupted—by marriage, family wishes, children, societal pressures. Their absence comes at a cost. India has an enormous number of secondary-educated women who are inaccessible to the workforce.

This means the economy gets hit twice: first, just 33 per cent of all workers in India have a secondary (or above) education. Second, millions of educated people remain outside of the workforce. Nearly 120 million women in India—more than double the entire population of South Korea—have at least a secondary education, but do not participate in the workforce.

For a country that needs millions of professionals urgently for vital skilled jobs, these millions of women provide a powerful answer. If even half of this group entered the workforce, the share of workers with at least a secondary education would jump from 33 per cent of the total workforce to 46 per cent—the equivalent of the last decade and a half’s worth of improvement in this metric. In one stroke, their engagement could add INR 31 trillion ($440 billion) to India’s GDP.

Indian women want to work. Three-quarters of teenage girls in a national survey of over 70,000 girls said they wanted a career after graduating, and expressed specific career aspirations. In a national survey in 2012, when researchers surveyed women engaged in domestic duties, almost one in three said they would accept paid work if a good opportunity arose. 

Despite the pressing case for women working, just 23 per cent of Indian working-age women are in the labour force. India is not only well below its neighbours (roughly 80 per cent of Nepali women work), but also countries of similar income levels.

Worryingly, trends show that women’s work participation in India is not only low, it’s falling. At a time when India’s economy reportedly grew over 7 per cent on average over the past decade, increased opportunities should have set the stage for a rise in women’s work. Instead, the opposite has happened: 19 million fewer women participated in paid work in 2017 than in 2011.

Talent is universal, but opportunities are not. Correcting this can lend a tremendous boost to growth. We have seen this take place in a global context. The Economist expressed the importance of women’s work participation best, back in 2006: ‘. . . the employment of extra women . . . has chipped in [to global GDP growth] more than either capital investment or increased productivity . . . Over the past decade or so, the increased employment of women in developed economies has contributed much more to global growth than China has.’ Just imagine: If all of India’s states resembled the country’s best performer—Karnataka—in terms of female to male ratios in managerial positions, India’s economy over the 1961–91 period would have been higher by more than a third.

The case for more women in the workforce is resounding, and India in particular has scope for a large boost to the economy from strategies that raise women’s participation in paid work. The last decade of experience and research has brought this opportunity to light. We now need to shift gears and understand better how to make paid work a worthwhile option for women. There are no simple solutions. Bringing about effective change will require India to navigate a complicated web of poorly understood barriers. But it can and must be done, if India is to effectively deal with the immense jobs challenge that is already at its doorstep.

Bringing women back to work

In a dusty corner of the country, a woman in a village quietly slips out of her home to attend digital literacy classes because her father or husband have forbidden it. When she learns to send messages and take pictures, the phone is declared a corrupting influence. In Delhi, a college student moves to a new home to avoid bus 544 and the men it contains. During a job interview, an executive from human resources asks a candidate when she intends on getting pregnant. Elsewhere, marriage bureaus reassure families that their daughter’s degree qualifies them for a discount on dowry payments. After work, women share stories about certain men. Phone manufacturers advertise a new feature for women: Emergency buttons. In earnest, a business report’s researcher declares that men are biologically incapable of maintaining relationships the way women can, and declares that is why companies must value women. The simple act of walking on a busy street is as stressful at forty-two as it is at twelve.

To understand the problem of women’s participation in the workforce, we spoke to cooperatives, start-ups, politicians, students, some of India’s largest companies, businesses which run women-only shop floors, firms that struggled to hire any women at all, women running hiring platforms, rural men and women engaged in informal work, Ivy-League-educated women who are out of work, researchers, women in the south, north, east, west, northeast, and abroad.

There’s no simple playbook to ease the tall, invisible barriers that keep women from work. Countries around the world are grappling with these questions in different ways. 

Many policy examples abound. Austria lowered the income tax on second earners to encourage women’s participation in the labour force; Belgium mandated organizations above a certain size to conduct a gender pay gap analysis every two years and produce an action plan to tackle pay inequality; the Philippines directed a minimum of 5 per cent of the national budget to gender and development initiatives. In Rwanda, investment in clean water provision freed up time for girls to go to school instead of spending substantial amounts of time fetching water. The country also has the most female parliamentarians in the world, after passing laws to ensure women’s representation at all levels of governance.

We can take inspiration from a wealth of successful interventions that have taken place globally, as well as within India. Three focus areas address the issues that matter most.

Build a Leading-Edge 21st Century Care Economy:A thriving economy of care centres for children as well as older people, crèches, and domestic helpers can offer options for women who want and need to pursue careers. It also creates millions of new jobs.

There are as many models of the care economy as there are countries. Sweden’s childcare system offers affordable day care and paid leave which parents can choose to share. Much of the system’s success is because Sweden subsidizes costs and rewards quality. Mexico’s Day Care Support for Working Mothers programme has community-based care providers and covers up to 90 per cent of the cost of childcare for women who work, want to work, or are studying.

India can be even more ambitious. Examples of high quality affordable care services within the country already abound. Mobile Creches, an NGO started in 1969, provides childcare facilities to communities underserved by government. The facilities are established on construction sites for migrant workers, whose assignments tend to be transient.

It will take generations to undo the stigma around using carers outside the home. To speed this up, there needs to be clear evidence that the solution works in practice. Professionalizing the sector will help. Families will want to know that their children and elderly parents are looked after by qualified staff in safe, high-quality facilities. Industry-wide accredited training and professional standards can help do this.

Address Unintended Consequences through Smart Gender Policy:Well-intentioned policies can have unintentional outcomes. When India addressed women’s safety concerns by restricting them from working at night in mines and beedi factories, all this did was reduce the number of hours women could work. There could have been other ways to address safety risks: Requiring companies to provide better and safer transportation, constant monitoring, and other infrastructure.

Instead, for a factory owner deciding between hiring a man and a woman, the choice was a simple one: Men could work at night, while women couldn’t.

When India introduced the Maternity Bill in 2017, it was hailed as one of the most progressive legislations of its kind anywhere. The Bill gives expectant and new mothers paid leave for six months. It also mandated that all workplaces of more than fifty employees provide access to crèche facilities.

But the bill is complicated. First, by providing working mothers with six months maternity leave but fathers with none, it reinforces the norm that raising children is women’s work. Second, employers in India end up bearing the costs of implementing the Bill’s provisions—providing paid leave, as well as crèche facilities. This discourages them from hiring women. Small and medium enterprises, in particular, struggle with this. Aside from this, the scope of the law arguably could be wider.

Amplify the counter-narrative:The opportunities Indian women have are limited by widespread notions of what men and women are better at. These distinctions are deeply ingrained across every strata of society, and they turn up in surprising ways.

The younger they are, greater the opportunity to change attitudes. NGOs like Breakthrough, which focus on women’s and children’s rights, have already shown that gender equality classes in school can make a bigger difference than other women’s empowerment schemes, such as cash transfers. Girls exposed to these types of gender equality classes are likely to have more bargaining power in household decisions and delay marriage and childbirth. Boys who attended these classes helped out more with cooking and cleaning at home.

If we can make a wider range of viable jobs both aspirational and accessible to women, and foster role models in sectors where they are under-represented, it will go a long way in opening up more avenues for gainful work.

Making work work for Indian women is paramount; this is a rare chance for India to go beyond statements of intent and prove that it truly wants more inclusive growth. We’ve done it in letter and by law. It’s time we did it in spirit.

Excerpted from Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology’s People Problem by N. Chandrasekaran and Roopa Purushothaman with permission from the authors and publisher.


  • Natarajan Chandrasekaran is chairman of the Board of Tata Sons, the holding company and promoter of more than 100 Tata operating companies. Prior to this he was the chief executive officer of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), a leading global IT services provider and one of India's most valuable companies. He is also a director on the Board of the Reserve Bank of India. Roopa Purushothaman is the chief economist and head of policy advocacy at the Tata Group, and the founder of Avasara Leadership Institute. A co-author of the path-breaking 2003 Goldman Sachs report, Dreaming with BRICS: The Path to 2050, she has contributed to a number of publications on globalization and development.
  • Roopa Purushothaman is the chief economist and head of policy advocacy at the Tata Group, and the founder of Avasara Leadership Institute. A co-author of the path-breaking 2003 Goldman Sachs report, Dreaming with BRICS: The Path to 2050, she has contributed to a number of publications on globalization and development. Roopa is a graduate of Yale University and the London School of Economics, and has served on the prime minister of India's advisory council on urban infrastructure.