How AI can increase the reach of India's public welfare programmes and make them efficient

By Sanjeev Sharma

India, the second most populous country in the world, runs a host of socially beneficial programs. Most of such programs aim to reach the millions of people who live in remote areas of our extensive nation. From providing mid-day meals for under-privileged school children to making modern healthcare accessible to residents of far-flung rural areas, our nation spends significant resources to ensure its policies reach the right people at the right time.

Making sure government services reach all 1.3 billion citizens, including those residing in remote regions, is a daunting task. AI-powered systems can become leapfrog technologies for our nation, transforming the reach and effectiveness of public welfare programs.

The implications are profound. A study by consultancy firm Accenture showed AI could boost India’s annual growth rate by 1.3 percentage points by 2035. Let us see how AI can transform critical areas of public spending.

Despite increased investment, India’s public healthcare system has struggled to cope with the needs of its vast, growing population. Only a third of Indians have any medical insurance and government spending on health is equivalent to just 1.1 percent of GDP. Private healthcare is a steep cost for most Indians.

According to recent media reports, every year some 36 million families, or 14 percent of households, face an unexpected medical bill equal to the entire annual living expenses of one member of the family.

Technology might have the answer to this complex problem. For instance, an AI-powered digital platform that collates data on symptoms and suggests treatment based on similar cases will make the diagnostic process far more accurate in public hospitals. Also, such a system can be quickly scaled up to cover major urban centers and remote areas, which lack adequate medical infrastructure. The Indian government recently launched, what is possibly the world’s largest public health insurance scheme. A scheme of such scope and scale can benefit from technologies like AI on allocation, geographic spread, checking veracity of health records and applicants, claim patterns and trends, ensuring the scheme reaches those who need it the most.

The government’s mid-day meal scheme, among the nation’s better-known federal programs, aims to reduce malnutrition in children and increase enrolment rates in schools. On the flipside, the program diverted attention of teachers and students away from education and toward carrying out tasks such as inspecting the quality and quantity of the food, according to a government report. AI technologies can help overcome this challenge. Machine learning technology and supply chain planning could forecast inventory, while process automation technology would ensure the right amount of high quality food reaches schools on time.

Another major focus of the government’s public spending is alleviating water shortages. Despite having over 18 percent of the world's population, India has only 4 percent of the total available water resources. A study by the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), the government’s think tank, said that about 100 million people are at risk of losing access to drinking water by 2030. To prevent that, our cities will need to double their existing water availability. Steps such as desalination and rain-water harvesting will help, but won’t be enough to bridge the shortage. AI-powered smart water management systems, such as digital flowmeters that track, measure and optimize water consumption in real time, can be the answer. This has already been implemented in parts of India and Africa. In Surat, such flowmeters have helped the municipality do a more effective job of monitoring water consumption at 500 textile mills and make smarter decisions on distribution. A similar solution in Algeria resulted in fresh drinking water for nearly 160,000 people in water-scare regions.

Clearly, AI-powered systems can help make public spending better targeted, and much more efficient than it is today. AI-powered platforms that have a large number of connected devices will provide a strong foundation to integrate devices into services such as cloud storage that reduce dependency on physical systems and strengthen information security.

Yet more needs to be done to realize AI’s potential transformative impact. The government and private organizations must work together to overcome existing challenges such as lack of awareness among stakeholders and unclear privacy and security regulations. According to latest reports on India’s AI potential, India needs more robust systems to assimilate, analyze and store high-quality data securely, something that companies like ours can help the government with.

It is encouraging to see that the government is moving forward with the intent to tackle these challenges. The budgetary allocation to research, training and skill development in AI, digital manufacturing and robotics – part of “Digital India” program - has been doubled this year. NITI Aayog has started working with major companies, including ours, to work on various aspects of AI, and increase awareness about emerging areas like advanced manufacturing powered by AI and robotics.

Over time, such actions will lead to concrete proposals that the government can implement to usher in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will bring people, technology and data together. This will help India close the loop between data and action and pave the way for the nation’s emergence as a global economic and technological superpower.


(The author is Managing Director, ABB India)