Of drones, unemployment and social exclusion

By Veronica Pala

There has been a falling share of labour in the national income of most countries of the world. This is because a large number of jobs have vanished into thin air. They are taken over by machines and Artificial Intelligence (AI). ATMs and CDMs have replaced the cashiers in the banks; chatbots and virtual assistants are used to help process applications to higher educational institutions, robochefs are replacing cooks and chefs in restaurants, to name just a few.
The pace at which technology is developing and changing our lifestyles is frightening. No corner of the earth, however remote, can escape the touch of AI. Now in Meghalaya medicines will be delivered by drones in West Khasi Hills district to start with. Should we welcome this development? What next? Very soon when big e-commerce companies set up their godowns in Meghalaya they will compete with each other in being the best and the fastest. Drones will inevitably be used to deliver packages at the doorsteps of consumers. Further, driverless cars will be a common sight. Washing machines and dishwashers are already replacing human labour to a large extent. The pandemic has quickened the process of digitalization. Online learning has reduced the role of teachers and so there will be less demand for teachers especially at higher levels. Students can enroll themselves in courses being offered in any part of India and the credits that they earn in such courses will be included in their result leading to the award of the degree for which they have registered in the parent institution.
This is the essence of massive open online courses (MOOCs). The list is endless if we are to enumerate the jobs that will be lost and have been lost in this era of fourth industrial revolution.
Although there will be immense gains in productivity and efficiency, there will be catastrophic disruptions of the labour markets. This will be more so in developing countries or educationally backward states like Meghalaya where only 28 percent of rural Class VIII children can do division and 50 percent of Class V students cannot even read a Class II level text according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). The people of the state are not ready for AI when majority of the students still struggle with the basic 3 R’s. This is not being anti-development. But we need to decide what kind of development will be good for the people.
Coming back to the example of drones delivering medicines, the same service can be done with human labour, thereby, providing employment. We need to introspect what hinders the delivery of health care services and medicines in the rural areas of Meghalaya. Is it bad roads? Does lack of basic amenities act as a disincentive for doctors to work in the rural areas? Is it lack of monitoring and supervision? The solution to the problem does not lie in AI. It lies in better rural infrastructure and a citizenry that is aware of their rights and is willing to question the authorities and elected representatives when their rights are denied.
The scope of employment for the urban educated youth too is very limited in Meghalaya. What work will they do? Where are the jobs? How much are they earning on an average? What are the new jobs that are being created and what are the jobs that are being lost? Are our youth ready for the new jobs? Are we providing them education, training and skills to be future-ready? These are questions that need to be asked by the policy makers.
Inequalities are increasing and social exclusion is observed in many aspects. The excluded are those who do not enjoy the fruits of development. There are many forms of social exclusion and unemployment is one of them. The unemployed are excluded from the production process. They do not contribute to the production of goods and services. Hence they are also excluded from the consumption process. They have no income to consume the myriads of goods and services that the economy produces. Thus although the economy becomes more efficient and productive with less labour and more AI, the aggregate demand for those goods and services will decline because the masses have no purchasing power. Economic growth will decline leading to more unemployment.
The social ramifications of large-scale unemployment are serious. Therefore, the state and the country as a whole need to adopt policies that benefit not only the capital-owning class but also the labour class. This may slow down the process of development, but a development that will lead to exclusion of a large section of the populace should not be considered as a development at all.
(The writer teaches in Department of Economics NEHU, Shillong)

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