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Blueprint for a future-ready Bengal

The disruption caused by COVID-19 pandemic in forcing remote work, today, posits a bright opportunity for Bengal to retain its out-migrating talent pool that can now serve global markets while residing at home

Blueprint for a future-ready Bengal
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The silver lining of every crisis is the heap of opportunities it leaves at its lull. The devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be avoided. But neither should we blindside the rapid pace of innovation that allowed vaccine delivery in an unprecedented 9 months since gene isolation.

Speaking at the Sadhan C Dutt Memorial Lecture organised by Nabanna on May 29, reputed entrepreneur and chairman of The Chatterjee Group (TCG) Purnendu Chatterjee dug through his years of experience and astute business vision to discuss how today's crisis could potentially nurture a promising Bengal for tomorrow. Remembering the unmissable contributions of Sadhan C Dutt — among Bengal's most celebrated scientist-entrepreneurs — Chatterjee emphasised the importance of embracing technology in developing formidable solutions for the state.

World War II and the destruction it created has also perhaps been the greatest propeller of innovation in our times. The last 60-70 years have witnessed an unprecedented expansion of innovation — whether in industrial technology, microbiology, development of hybrid seeds, et all. The war against SARS-CoV-2 has brought home another such opportunity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense global disruption — in businesses, communications and every other aspect of life. The greatest disruption has been in the transition whirl-winded by remote working. What would've been dismissed as impractical a year back, is suddenly a gross reality. People are now comfortable with doing effective, efficient and compressed tasks as well as collaborative projects seamlessly across remote locations. This remote working is the disruptive force that Bengal could potentially utilise to build a new paradigm for growth — preparing the state for a new economic sprint that would emancipate the 28% still living below the poverty line.

Capitalising on human capital

Bengal boasts of a significant educated talent base that is waiting to be harnessed. Nurturing, retaining and in-migrating this talent across urban and rural Bengal will drive the path ahead. The pandemic, pushing people out of comfort zones, has opened the doors to retain 'Bangla'r Manush near Ma and Mati'.

A massive out-migration has been unfolding for the last 5-6 decades, if not longer. According to the 2011 census, Bengal ranks 4th in out-migration. Large pools of talent have been lost to Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad and wherever else there have been opportunities for science, technology and engineering. Across the globe, Indians and particularly, Bengalis, are serving the largest multinationals. Chatterjee believes firmly that by halting this out-migration and capitalising on the in-migration forced by the pandemic, Bengal can build another trillion-dollar economy.

Today, Bengal's state GDP is ~160 billion dollars and we are home to 100 million people. In the next 30 years, the population is expected to touch 160-200 million. If we can get 3% of this pool — 5 mn Bengalis — to work from Bengal remotely while serving the global technological eco-system, we can usher in a cycle of positive regeneration. These individuals can earn over $100,000 per person and with the multiplier effect, can create a trillion-dollar economy other than the $160 billion we have today, which too is expected to grow at 10-12%.

This cycle of opportunity today encompasses Bengal's future. The multiplier effect is also being aided by propelling tailwinds of large amounts of FDI and FII coming to India. The total FDI inflows to India between April 2014 and September 2019 was $319 bn, which is nearly 50% of the total FDI inflow of the last 20 years. The business scenario in India is undergoing rapid transformation and global investors have been showing great interest in the country. Today, there are about 100 unicorns in the country. This has been possible only due to growing acceptance and expansion of nourshment to fledgling entrepreneurs.

Along with creating an atmosphere of growth and innovation, new businesses have contributed significantly to direct and indirect employment. This is an additional tailwind that can be useful. We need to embrace technology and create an environment of world-class translational research that can focus on generating employment that looks beyond the traditional agri-industrial labour. As Chatterjee emphasised, it is imperative to nudge Bengal towards inculcating a positive attitude and shedding the past attitude of 'hobe na'.

Global opportunities in our local backyard

To chart the path ahead, we need to identify sectors with significant talent gap and need — and those that are global but can be fulfilled from Bengal. At the outset, some key sectors with great potential can be identified:

The first is core technology. AI/ML is impacting every aspect of civilisation. Quantum science and technology have been growing and still carry great potential for unravelling. At the same time, there may be something in between or pre-quantum. We must develop competence in this core technology to make any global difference.

The second that has gained unbelievable potential for innovation in the last year is healthcare. The quick delivery of vaccine has been possible only due to the tremendous growth witnessed in intellectual infrastructure around genetic engineering and technology. To become future-ready, Ben-gal must embrace this leap of innovation across neuroscience, cancer research, biotech research, etc.

Going by global trends, today, climate change and renewable energy technology present a huge need and talent gap. Battery research, hydrogen fuels are at the brink of greater innovation. There are a great many things we have to do to restrict the growing basket of climate refugees and limit temperature rise below 1.5 degrees.

Bengal is the food basket of the country. The state makes abundant cereals, vegetables and fruits. Like California, it could become a supplier of food for the rest of the country. Growing quality food, food technology, storage, distribution, food processing are all important. Technology must be developed for conservation, regenerating soil, air and groundwater, cleaning and preserving rivers, waterbodies and forests.

There has also been massive growth in new-age digital media where digital channels for social and business simulations are converging. We must harness this to curate local content for a global audience. Particularly, gaming and entertainment models have been transformed. The pandemic has shown how content-hungry the world is and Bengal harnesses huge amounts of talent that can meet these content needs.

Moving ahead, digital infrastructure will be essential. This has to be subdivided to district levels and not just remain limited to Kolkata. A minimum of 3 major cities is required to achieve this. Digital infrastructure must be developed to connect rural people to the global pool of talent. Our villages harness incredible talent and must be allowed to participate.

Sports and cultural arts are two other areas where Bengal can generate immense content and tap its rural potential.

Fixing gaps

This promising journey will also require some immediate steps. The state has to begin building 5 mn people for global talent markets. Large investments are required in modern infrastructure for human capacity building alongside creating an ecosystem that encourages startup entrepreneurship.

Digital technology will hold key to permeating education at the primary and secondary levels. While we train teachers, we must reduce dependency on them and attempt to percolate machine learning. To reap the benefits of machine-driven solutions, we also have to achieve digital literacy of over 80% in the next few years.

Further, developing players without facilities of research and translational research will be futile. We have to build international collaborations with researchers across the globe. In USA, the number of PhDs in the 1950s was less than 7,000; today, USA produces ~200,000 PhDs in a year. We need to carve our share from this global talent pool that will serve the Silicon Valleys of the world.

Every industry is today being impacted and everyone is beginning to embrace the work from home culture. Those who don't adapt won't be surviving entities in the next 10 years. We have to bring back the talent we have lost and encourage them to work from home. We are getting some back now but we are only just scratching the surface.

Bengal must take advantage of this change and build a remote knowledgeable workforce wherever there is talent gap and hunger. We must act on making Bengal future-ready. For this, we have to develop a nourishing ground of supportive culture, capability and commitment. The time to do this is here and now.

(These are thoughts of Dr Purnendu Chatterjee, discussed elaborately at the Sadhan C Dutt Memorial Lecture organised by Nabanna on May 29, 2021)

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