High time politicians realised the two are incompatible
With GE establishing its ‘brilliant factory’ in Pune over two years ago, India began to understand what the factory of the future would look like. For one, while most factories take weeks to switch over from one production line to another, GE has produced a multi-product factory that reduces this switchover time dramatically, as a result of which it can produce items as diverse as locomotive engines and wind turbine blades within days from the same factory. Designs coming in from engineers automatically get converted into 3D drawings that are fed into the machines—overhead cranes take parts from one machine to another while an optimising solution reconfigures the assembly line depending upon the need of the day; the latter, in turn, is decided by the fact that the factory’s equipment ‘talk’ to one another over the internet and can take decisions based on what customers across the world want.
With the fourth industrial revolution, with its emphasis on ‘smart’ factories such as GE’s likely to become the norm in developed economies, the department of industrial promotion and policy (DIPP) has done well to come out with a concept note on ‘Industry 4.0’ which, it says, is driven by an amalgamation of emerging technologies like data volumes, computational power, internet of things, business analytics, advanced robotics and cyber-physical systems—it means, the paper says, ‘the meeting of real and virtual worlds’. While, at one level, India’s industrial reality seems far away from version 4.0, the country’s advances in data analytics and industrial R&D—that’s why most MNCs have large R&D bases in India, often their second-largest in the world in terms of manpower—make it clear that, for certain parts of the industrial base, version 4.0 may not be that difficult to achieve.
Which is why, the DIPP paper asks what India needs to do to ensure the spread of industry 4.0, particularly when it comes to the bulk of industry, such as that in the MSME sector. Since innovation is the bedrock of Industry 4.0, DIPP wants to know what India needs to do to support innovation. Clearly a vibrant intellectual property policy is critical (does India need to junk its present IP policy?), as is the tax framework (several start-ups are choosing to register in Singapore due to a better policy environment there) and the education policy (an education system that is focused on learning-by-rote, and failing at even that, cannot deliver what is needed). What of the labour force? The DIPP rightly says “the shift in employment caused by adoption of industry 4.0 will be gradual but profound … existing jobs will require to be transformed with the aid of virtual reality and augmented reality … the existing workforce would require large scale re-skilling to adjust to the new reality”. While the DIPP rightly talks of the need for massive upskilling as ‘digital labour would become integral to most work profiles”, it does not address the fundamental incompatibility of Industry 4.0 and Labour Standards 1.0. At the very core of Industry 4.0 is the fact that lifetime or permanent employment as we know it—that is becoming increasingly rare in even Industry 3.0—will more or less cease to exist with workers, instead of finishing their education and then looking for a job as they do today, will continuously be retooling themselves depending upon what the market wants and what robots can’t do better.