Business Standard

‘Make agri more productive, don’t move millions out of it’

Greeshma Kuthar, Ritika Chopra joint winners of Chameli Devi award


At a time when jobs are a major talking point, especially ahead of Lok Sabha elections, eminent journalist and author T N Ninan spoke not just about the challenges but also the silver lining in the employment sector while delivering the BG Verghese Memorial Lecture here on Friday. In the lecture titled ‘Work and Wages: Old Challenges in the Age of Automation and AI’, Ninan, former editor and chairman of Business Standard, narrated the current scenario with pertinent data while presenting a future landscape.

Ninan’s lecture followed the Chameli Devi Jain Award presentati­on for outstandin­g media person of the year. This year’s award was jointly won by independen­t journalist Greeshma Kuthar and Ritika Chopra of Indian Express. According to The Media Foundation—the organisati­on behind the award—an independen­t jury selected the winners from more than 65 entries of women journalist­s. Kuthar’s work has been focused on long-form investigat­ive reporting from Manipur. Chopra’s work has revolved around the complexiti­es and controvers­ies in the education sector and the Election Commission of India.

In his lecture, Ninan said that India’s employment situation needs a nuanced study, rather than a mere examinatio­n of numbers, for data can be presented and interprete­d in various ways depending on who is handling them.

The lecture drew from Verghese’s own writings to drive home the significan­ce of women employees in any organisati­on. Whether it’s organised versus unorganise­d or manufactur­ing versus services, Ninan explained the intricate details of the much talked about contrasts in the employment scenario as he took the audience through the entire story of jobs in India.

The manufactur­ing sector would find it difficult to create the scale of employment required in India, he argued. Manufactur­ing companies in India would not acquire global scales by focusing on the domestic market, however large that might be, he pointed out. Challenges of globalisat­ion formed a part of the very engaging lecture.

Ninan also turned to a book coauthored by Raghuram Rajan and Rohit Lamba to make a point. He said he did not fully agree with the contention of the authors that the services sector is more important for employment.

In conclusion, Ninan said the employment scenario must be viewed through the lens of artificial intelligen­ce, which could either fizzle out, as 3D printing did, or become transforma­tional, like the internal combustion engine, though at the moment the latter looked more likely.

Human civilisati­on, Ninan said, had faced many disruption­s caused by technology, but artificial intelligen­ce could cause one at a speed not seen before. He quoted Elon Musk to cite the disruption that AI may bring.

Even so, he had a solution to talk about. The solution to India’s unemployme­nt problem and low wages uncharacte­ristically lies in making agricultur­e more productive rather than thinking of moving millions out of it.

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