Panel Discussion: The idea of Reason, Science & Progress


Neeraj Jain, Country Director-India, PATH
Ajit Phadnis, Professor, Humanities & Social Sciences, IIM Indore Parag Agarwal, CEO, Janajal
Atindriya Bose, CEO, Trringo (Mahindra Farm Equipment) Himanshu Jain, President APAC, Diversey

Moderated by Anurag Batra,
Chairman & Editor-in-Chief, BW Businessworld & Exchange4Media

Anurag Batra:The topic of our session is the idea of Reason, Science and Progress. The world is changing, which raises the question of how should we meet the challenges that the new environment brings forth? 

Would you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist in terms of meeting society’s changes? 

Neeraj Jain: I work for an international NGO called PATH. We work in the health sector, and we have no option but to be optimistic about where we are heading, because the challenges are so large that if we are not optimistic, we probably won’t get much done. There is immense need to do something, and besides that, so much is happening in terms of innovation and collaboration that we feel the need to translate that into scale to start making impact.

Ajit Phadnis: I am a die-hard optimist. Being a professor, I come face-to face with students every day, and there is a remarkable change in the mindset of students, which makes me an optimistic about meeting society’s changes. In the past, courses related to social issues attracted a lot less interest and a lot less participation in the classroom, but today, the students are interested and they want to participate. Money is definitely on their minds given that they have opted for management education and its cost has gone quite up, but the idea of making a larger difference, of having a meaningful purpose is more ingrained in the students.

Part of the reason behind the change is also the demographic changes. Families have become better off now, so people coming into management institutions are better off too and are therefore not as obliged to take care of their survival needs. They can look beyond themselves to also look at how they can contribute to society or the world. This is the reason why I’m an optimist.

Parag Agarwal: I am the eternal optimist. My company JanaJal works in Bharat. We live in India, but we work in Bharat, and there we sense and experience a very determined, aspirational Indian, Bharatiya who really wants to excel, who really wants to do well, who wants to go out and deliver and achieve all the good things. They are trying to educate themselves, upskill themselves, gain better knowledge and vocational training. They want better things and they’re determined to get it one way or the other. This is the reason I remain the eternal optimist, even more today because India will do well, irrespective of who is in government, because we want to do well, and that is going to prevail.

Atindriya Bose: There are two factors that are the reason for my optimism. One is the scale of challenges that the Indians are facing and the interest of every Indian to come out of those challenges by look for solutions. When so many people are looking for solutions, there is no reason why you should not be optimist about what lies ahead. 

Second factor is the environment of collaboration coming in. People are realizing that such a scale of challenges cannot be solved individually. There are partnerships happening between the private sector, public sector, and the NGOs. They are working together in solving many of the societal challenges, such platform approaches give every reason to be optimistic about what lies ahead.

Himanshu Jain: Over the past 50 years, the topics of science and reason have progressed in the right direction in our society. There are always setbacks to any progress, but over a period of time, the society has become much more scientifically oriented than it was 50 years back. For example, hygiene and cleanliness, the sector we work in, was the most mundane thing that people have ignored. Just five years ago, when we used to talk about saving water, no one cared. The picture has completely changed. The topic of reducing water consumption gets immediate attention.

The social sector, especially sustainable activities can really contribute to the grassroots of this country, in terms of nation building and in terms of making commodities. 

Anurag Batra: What are the top two-three challenges that we need to solve to some extent in the next five years, and what are the red flags that we are not even discussing? 

Himanshu Jain: Healthcare is one of the most pressing challenges that the society needs to solve. With the number of people ageing, the growing population and more people moving around in common spaces, the potential of epidemic has increased like never before. Mumbai airport was built a few years back, but it is already overloaded because the traffic is growing so fast. These are the reasons which cause the healthcare challenge to become more intense and that’s a challenge we need to get under control in the next few years, or the problem will become much bigger and will take longer to solve.

As for the overlooked red flags, the simplest thing that is missing from conversations is almost a complete cognizance of a need of clean working space. Our sense of cleanliness is really poor, and it needs to really go up a few notches.

Anurag Batra: What are the challenges of rural India that we are not solving or even taking note of? 

Atindriya Bose: In the rural market or in any part of the society, one of the biggest issues we tend to ignore is the inclusiveness. In rural India, the big farmers have greater access to resources that the marginal or the small farmers. So, inclusiveness is a challenge, it is not just a challenge of them adopting technology or the exposure they are getting or their capability of accessing those technology. It comes down to the hierarchy created by society, which decides who will get served and who will not

Anurag Batra: Tell us something that you are doing to address that.

Atindriya Bose: In terms of democratizing the technology, one of the biggest challenges of the marginal farmers is not getting an access to farm mechanization. The local mechanization dealer will not serve them because they have a small farm. At Trringo, we have created a digital environment where anyone who places an order is able to avail farm tools and mechanizations, irrespective of their social status.

Anurag Batra: Are there challenges in the water sector that we are not solving or taking note of? 

Parag Agarwal: One of the very obvious things that is being grossly disregarded and which needs to be taken cognizance of, is the social sector. In the last five years, the social sector has got recognized but it is still not being harnessed the way it can be. The social sector, especially sustainable activities can really contribute to the grassroots of this country, in terms of nation building and in terms of making commodities. 

One of the biggest problems that the social sector is faced with is the difference between profiting and profiteering. That classification is very essential to get accepted that profiting is not a bad thing. Profiteering is. Sustainability hinges on profit, but since social activity has always been philanthropic in nature, you are expected to do it in the same vein and not make profits. This is a problem, and the lack of profits is the reason projects do not sustain.

To look at it from the perspective of the water sector, water alone can be a big enabler. We are a water services company, so for us, water is the medium through which we create jobs, provide social entrepreneurship opportunities, train people, upskill them, and do many other things. Mr. Amitabh Kant wrote an article about how water which gets priced at an affordable level can contribute up to 6% to the GDP. This is the kind of significance that water can have. We have done projects that indirectly gave a boost to education and economic productivity amongst women because their time spent in procuring water got freed up. Hence, the social sector needs more attention, sustainable activities need to be boosted and given a thrust because that can change the dynamics drastically.

Anurag Batra: Do you think there is any other sector that we are not even looking at?

Ajit Phadnis: While we see an energy from students needing to make a difference, the real crunch comes in terms of our ability to create educators for them. We don’t have enough educators who can educate students on social issues. There are very few management schools in India that focus on programs which also embed social issues into their curriculum. This connects to the argument that social issues don’t get enough prominence, and that is because they are not discussed in the classes. There is dearth of ideas, and that’s also partly a function of the fact that we don’t have enough discussion on social issues. A report in the EPW which looks at Corporate Social Responsibility expenditure by different companies shows that a bulk of the expenditure is focused on only three sectors- education, health and environment.

There is a need for innovation on the part of business schools as well to embed subjects on social issues into their curriculum, so that students, who will go on to become CEOs and CFOs of the future, have a social consciousness in mind before they graduate.

Anurag Batra: Tell us what you are doing in your area that sets an example for others?

Neeraj Jain: The biggest challenge for us is how are we going to scale innovations thinking about health impact. Unfortunately, we do a lot of pilots all over the country but there is nothing which is large enough to have impact, which will start moving the health indicator. 

We work in TB. Three years ago, we started a program in Mumbai, which is known as the TB capital of the world. 70% of poor people do not go to the public health system in India. They go to private healthcare providers, and the problem that we found and the government also realized was that nobody was actually talking to the private sector, nobody was dealing with this issue. Under the program, we reached out to 100,000 people with probable TB and found 55,000 to have TB. We linked them up with the public health system in terms of better diagnostic, better adherence mechanisms, as well as better services. Thus, public health got bridged with the private healthcare provider without taking the business away from the private health care provider

Interestingly, it has become a national strategic plan of Government of India to eliminate TB by 2025. We are helping the government roll out the program across 400 cities and 3.5 million population in the country. If we have to reach the target by 2025, this is the scale that we need to work in. We cannot do it by doing little pockets. 

Another example is of vaccine development. We developed the rotavirus vaccine with a company called Bharat Biotech. It has got licensed and approved by WHO, and the Indian company, Bharat Biotech is now going to be able to sell it across the world. We brought the price down from $15, which was the GSK price to $1 a shot. Once it is rolled out across the country, we will be saving about 70,000 children from diarrhea in India alone. So, unless we look at innovations and start scaling them up, we aren’t going to get to fight.

Even the private sector is realizing the need for collaboration, and they are working with each other to create a platform approach and the platform of a common information bandwidth.

Anurag Batra: If you had to allocate money for addressing any of the challenges, where would you allocate it?

Ajit Phadnis: There has to be a complimentary effort towards raising the capabilities of people and improving social and economic inequality. So, while we invest money in resources of education and health, so as to enhance the capability of individuals, we also need to simultaneously keep resources in mind so that people who are not able to benefit from the resources that we are giving in terms of the growth strategies are also included in that. So, for the growth strategies, I would give maybe 60%, but I would give over 40% for inclusive strategies.

Anurag Batra: Technology is also creating issues of mental wellbeing, addiction to mobile phones, cybercrime and misinformation propaganda. How are we dealing with that? 

Parag Agarwal: This issue is here to stay. Going forward, the dominance in terms of presence and involvement in day-to-day life of technology at different layers is going to only increase, especially in youngsters. They were born in the technology world, so they haven’t lived in a world where they don’t get something at the hit of a button. That mindset is so impatient that it leads to frustration and desperation when we cannot achieve everything quickly. But the fact is that the body and mind have their own growth curve, which is consistent. Technology is accelerating it a bit but not so much.

Anurag Batra: If you had to make one prediction about what will happen right and one prediction about what may not go right in the next three-five years, what would that be?

Atindriya Bose: There is a realization that none of the issues can be solved by a single entity. It has to be collaborative, and we will se more collaborative efforts in the future. Many governments are now moving from a regulatory role to an enabling and participatory role. Even the private sector is realizing the need for collaboration, and they are working with each other to create a platform approach and the platform of a common information bandwidth. The government is also tapping into it and creating an environment where we can do it. This collaborative platform approach is the one that will unleash a huge amount of value, and people are realizing that the value unlocking will be happening out of this collaboration, not by each individual trying to make little amount of money out of it.

However, while the small entrepreneurs are creating innovations, the biggest challenge is that when they get into the go-to market, they don’t get partners who can scale up their innovations. In many cases, most of the innovation that happens is software innovation that is about enhancing operational efficiency. There is not a lot of product innovation happening partly due to the challenge of scaling up, and that may set us back.

Anurag Batra: Himanshu, you have the last word before we bring in the audience and stick to our time. You heard all the other panelists. You’ve been at the National Competitiveness Forum for the last five years I can safely say. What has changed in the five years? And what do you want to change in the next three-five years? Very specific things.

Himanshu Jain: Our openness to ideas and collaboration has increased significantly. So, that mindset change towards collaboration has happened. One thing we need to fundamentally change is our attitude to society and mindsets we live with, but three to five years may be a short time. Whether it’s about scientific temperament, cleanliness or healthcare, we need us to look at our practices closely, reflect what is relevant what is not, and make choices instead of carrying through life without thinking about that

Ravi (Audience): Typically, in business, we are familiar with creating a push, that is, deciding what the customers need and creating a product. If we need to instead create a pull, understand the needs first and then create product, how can we engineer that change?

Atindriya Bose: The scale of the challenge is so much is that it cannot be done in a traditional push way. At Trringo, we realized we can create a lot of points of the service being available to the people, but if we are not unlocking a specific need of those farmers, it will not work. In this sector, if you have to move in, it has to be with a deep insight and a problem you are solving. That will create the pull. It’s not the traditional pull of advertising, but the pull of our real problem being solved.

Neeraj Jain: We’re dealing with a low resource settings situation. There does need to be a pull but the industry also needs to also realize that the margins are going to be small and it’s going to take time before you build scale. When you want to build scale in the social sector, you will have to crisscross with the government and the public space, which is not an easy place to navigate. Therefore, while it needs to be a pull eventually, you have to first build towards it. You also need to be more longsighted on this journey rather than think that you will start making money just a day after the product comes out, because there are policy implications that need to come in for you to be successful.

Parag Agarwal: Companies need to deploy more patient capital. It will really a lot of enterprises to turn that Titanic around from the push to the pull model. It’s far more challenging out there, and people sitting on the board is not going to make it any easier with the current mindset. They have to accommodate the times as well as the internal demands, and if that can be done, it will be a huge enabler. It is because the acute internal stress faced within the enterprises, the boardroom stress gets demonstrated on the ground.

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