For sustainability, we need to embrace a climate-friendly lifestyle: Narendra Modi

By Outlook Planet Desk April 02, 2024

In a wide-ranging and free-wheeling conversation, Bill Gates and Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed a range of issues ranging from technology, Artificial Intelligence, and innovation to climate change, sustainability, the pandemic, and public health. Their power-packed exchange highlighted the collaborative efforts between India and global stakeholders, emphasising the importance of inclusive development, digital governance, and sustainable practices. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

For sustainability, we need to embrace a climate-friendly lifestyle: Narendra Modi

Bill Gates: It was wonderful to witness India hosting the G20 summit, emphasising inclusivity and addressing crucial issues like digital innovation and the potential of South-South collaboration in healthcare. Our foundation is delighted with the positive outcomes in India and seeks to collaborate to extend these benefits to other nations. 

Narendra Modi: I concur with your observations. During my participation in the G-20 summit in Indonesia, there was significant interest from all member nations regarding the digital revolution you've spearheaded. I emphasised the democratisation of technology to prevent monopolisation, ensuring it belongs to the public domain. This approach fosters confidence among the populace, illustrating that emerging talent can contribute substantially. For example, while ten doctors may hold MBBS degrees, people often gravitate towards one due to trust." 

Bill Gates: India's strides in digital governance are commendable. What recent developments are particularly noteworthy? 

Narendra Modi: Health, Agriculture, and Education are focal points. I've established 200,000 Ayushman health centres in rural areas, serving as vital health hubs. These centres are directly linked to advanced hospitals equipped with modern technology. Initially, there was scepticism regarding the presence of doctors at these centres. However, people soon realised that doctors located hundreds of kilometres away could accurately diagnose and provide guidance through technology. This has bolstered trust in these health centres, which now offer healthcare on par with larger hospitals. 

My upcoming objective is to revolutionise education. I aim to bridge knowledge gaps among teachers using technology. Efforts are underway to create engaging visual and storytelling content as children exhibit greater interest in such formats. Furthermore,I aim to revolutionise agriculture and change the mindset towards it. 

Bill Gates: India's emphasis on making technology accessible to everyone, particularly uplifting those most in need, is commendable. 

Narendra Modi: When confronted with the concept of the digital divide globally, I resolved to prevent such disparity within my nation. Establishing digital public infrastructure became imperative. Today, I aim to extend digital access to rural villages.I prioritise women as they exhibit a propensity to embrace new technologies readily. Launching initiatives like Namo Drone Didi serves dual purposes: empowering three crore rural women to become 'Lakhpati Didis' and assisting one woman from an impoverished family, catalysing a psychological shift. 

Conversations with delegates from African nations reinforced my commitment to equitable opportunities and democratisation. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the necessity of a digital platform for vital information dissemination, prompting the creation of the Cowin app. This open-source app facilitates vaccination scheduling and certificate issuance within seconds, benefiting India significantly. I'm optimistic about India's continued success in the fourth industrial revolution, with digital integration at its core." 

Bill Gates: The rapid advancement of digital infrastructure, especially the government's digitisation of payment programmes, has not only yielded significant cost savings but also enhanced service accessibility. Efforts now focus on extending digital services to various sectors like agriculture, education, and healthcare, marking the onset of the second developmental phase. The subsequent phase will integrate artificial intelligence to augment service efficacy further. 

Narendra Modi: "Indeed, AI's relevance in today's world cannot be overstated. I often jest that in many Indian states, 'mother' is termed 'Aai.' AI has progressed to the extent that it almost mimics human speech. At the G20 summit, I facilitated seamless communication between guests and drivers using AI-powered interpreters, ensuring language barriers were overcome effortlessly. 

I utilised AI during the Kashi Tamil Sangamam programme. Now, I cannot speak Tamil, but that was not an issue. I spoke in Hindi, and the audience made up of Tamilians, heard me in Tamil, thanks to AI. The Namo app leverages AI quite significantly. This photo booth, utilising AI, displays my images from the past two decades, demonstrating technology's potential.I advocate for technology's everyday integration to empower people, fostering innovation and improvement."

Bill Gates: I'm eager to hear India's perspective on AI.

Narendra Modi: "I believe using AI solely as a magic tool would be unjust. If I were to use AI merely to bypass tasks, like drafting a letter, it would be a misuse of its capabilities. Instead, I advocate for utilising AI to challenge its language comprehension skills and spurimprovement.

Given our diverse languages and dialects, it's crucial to train AI to understand these nuances. For example, when introducing robots to astronauts, I noticed varying tones and accents. Despite this, the robot appropriately responded. When attempting to rename the robot, it didn't respond, prompting me to suggest to the AI to recognise my voice even without mentioning the robot's name.

I believe in presenting new challenges to AI to push its boundaries and foster continuous improvement.

Bill Gates: AI possesses its own capabilities and limitations. During Microsoft's 25th-anniversary celebration in Hyderabad, I urged the team to enhance AI accuracy, akin to a co-pilot. While AI can suggest actions and boost productivity, humans retain final decision-making authority. How does India plan to address AI challenges?

Narendra Modi: I understand your concerns regarding AI challenges, particularly the potential for misuse. Proper training for AI handlers is essential. I've discussed with AI experts the need to watermark AI-generated content to prevent misinformation. Addressing issues like deepfake videos, especially in democratic nations like India, is crucial to prevent harm.

In daily AI use, it's crucial to remember that AI should complement rather than replace expertise. For instance, when asking an AI assistant to play music, it should understand preferences for a meaningful experience.

Bill Gates: Data is integral to AI, yet privacy remains a significant concern. How can we balance these?

Narendra Modi: We need to emphasise data security and public awareness. While India has legal frameworks, individuals must also take responsibility for their data. For example, storing university certificates in the cloud for cost savings and compliance is practised. Leveraging technology for citizen welfare is prioritised, representing a shift from past usage focused solely on services.

Bill Gates: In 2015, when you came to Paris, we did a great thing together in that mission. 

Narendra Modi: Our dialogue on climate revealed shared perspectives, with your active involvement proving invaluable. At that juncture, alongside Obama and the President of France, we convened to strategise further actions. Regrettably, progress was limited then. However, following the G-20 summit, a conducive atmosphere has emerged, fostering a collective willingness to shoulder climate responsibility. Our collective endeavours served as the seeds for this transformation, with your pivotal contribution. It appears our efforts will yield results akin to the enduring growth of a banyan tree. Climate remains a paramount issue deserving increased attention. 

I am pleased with India's rapid advancements in renewable energy, particularly in solar, wind, and nuclear energy sectors. We are also enthusiastic about furthering our efforts in green hydrogen technology. 

Recently, I launched a hydrogen-powered boat in Tamil Nadu, with plans to operate this eco-friendly vessel from Kashi to Ayodhya for tourism purposes. This initiative not only contributes to keeping the Ganga River clean but also reinforces our commitment to environmental conservation. It sends a powerful message to society regarding the significance of environmental consciousness 

Bill Gates: What India brings to climate change is its rich history of caring about the environment. How do you connect those?

Narendra Modi: Our inclination towards reuse and recycling is evident. Take this jacket, for instance, made from recycled material. The uniqueness of recycled material lies in how the tailor crafts it. Waste materials, including old clothes and 30-40% of waste plastic bottles, are collected and transformed into this fabric through recycling.

Bill Gates: Innovation is thriving both in India and globally. Achieving our target of staying below 1.5°C remains challenging, with even the 2°C goal presenting hurdles. In Paris, we stressed the need for innovation. Robust adoption of eco-friendly approaches hinges on their economic viability. However, the question of who should bear the costs remains unclear. Is it equitable to expect wealthy nations to shoulder the financial burden, especially given historical emissions? 

Narendra Modi: I believe we should adopt a two-pronged strategy. Firstly, we need to focus on innovation, with a special emphasis on developing climate-friendly and nature-friendly technologies. To this end, India has recently established a corpus fund of Rs 1 lakh crore in the budget, and we have invited young people to come forward with innovative ideas. We will provide interest-free loans for 50 years to support their research and development efforts. Secondly, we need to promote a climate-friendly lifestyle in our daily lives. I have launched 'Mission Life' to encourage people to live in harmony with nature. Our current approach to progress, which is based on energy and resource consumption, is not sustainable. We need to prioritise climate-friendly parameters in all aspects of our lives if we want to protect the environment and achieve long-term progress." 

Bill Gates: I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on green GDP. Could you please give me an update on your thinking? 

Narendra Modi: I believe that we must develop the concept of Green GDP worldwide. Countries should measure the amount of Green GDP in their total GDP and determine the number of green jobs in total employment. However, I acknowledge that I may not always be able to follow these practices, such as using excessive electricity and water waste. 

Bill Gates: Now, it is important to involve consumers in the process of making cleaner products. This is particularly relevant when it comes to purchasing a car or any other product. Additionally, consumers can also make changes to their food consumption habits. Even if they do not become vegetarians, they can still make a difference by reducing their beef intake and increasing their chicken or fish consumption. Such moderation can also bring about health benefits. 

Narendra Modi: "I strongly believe that even vegetarians can improve their health by including millet in their diet. In fact, I was proud to celebrate the millet year of 2023 with the UN. Millet is a superfood that can be grown in barren lands with minimum water and no fertilisers. By promoting millet consumption, we can minimise the harmful effects of other vegetarian foods. Switching to millet can have many health benefits." 

Bill Gates: When I was in Odisha, I learned that millet used to be popular, but thenits popularity declined. However, now, there is a joint program between thefoundation and the government to bring it back up again. I visited some shopswhere women were showcasing the nutritious and tasty millet crop. This is apositive message for everyone to hear. 

Narendra Modi: Ihave observed a significant improvement in millet production lately. Some good companies are investing in millet products, increasing their value, and making them quite popular and fashionable. Even five-star hotels have a separate menu for millet, just like they have one for vegetarian food. Many people are now choosing the millet menu, which has been beneficial for small farmers as they are able to earn more income and save a lot of water. This trend has huge benefits for everyone involved. 

Bill Gates: During the pandemic, it's great that vaccines were developed, andIndia played a major role in their production. However, in many countries, rumours and fear surrounding vaccines have become a major issue. Surprisingly, India did not face this problem to a large extent. I'm curious to know how thecommunication was managed in India and why it turned out better here. 

Narendra Modi: You have asked a great question. The fight against such a virus cannot be just the government's responsibility. It has to be a collective effort. From the beginning, I have followed the philosophy that it's a battle of life versus the virus. I started communicating directly with the people of my country, following all public protocols, and setting an example. I encouraged people to clap and bang plates and light lamps to support each other. Although some made fun of this, I convinced them that we had to fight this battle together. Once people realised the need to save lives and help each other, it became a mass movement. People started wearing masks and following other safety protocols without question, and this became a people's movement. I emphasised the importance of educating and convincing people and taking them along, which was a significant campaign that contributed to the success of the vaccine. I faced a substantial financial burden because I hadto spend on research to develop the vaccine. I had to convince people that the vaccine would work, so I took the vaccine publicly along with my 95-year-old mother. By demonstrating that the vaccine can save lives, people started to believe in it, too. 

In the coming days, I propose to allocate a budget to our scientists in India to develop a vaccine to protect girls from cervical cancer. And I want to tell them that here, too, they must do local research and evolve a vaccine with very little money. The aim should be to vaccinate all the girls 13 to 20 years of age in my country and ensure that no girl is at risk of getting this cancer. 

I'd like to share an interesting historical anecdote. Around 1930, during his tenure as the mayor of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel faced an epidemic situation that necessitated vaccinations. However, some individuals resisted vaccination due to religious reasons. Patel, being firm in his resolve to safeguard everyone's health, made vaccination mandatory. This resistance to vaccination has been witnessed across the world for centuries. However, addressing it openly may yield positive outcomes. 

I heard you're planning to visit the Statue of Unity. I presume you might have read about it if you have planned to go.Let me share a fascinating backstory. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel played a pivotal role in India's unification. During my tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, I initiated a mass movement. I urged people from every village to contribute a piece of iron used in their fields. We melted all these pieces collected from six lakh villages across India to construct the statue. Additionally, we gathered soil from every village to create a unity ball. This ball symbolises the unity of our nation, containing soil from all six lakh villages. The statue serves as a testament to how unity can be forged amidst our country's rich diversity. Standing twice the size of the Statue of Liberty, it holds the distinction of being the world's tallest statue, crafted in record time. 

Bill Gates: I'd like to know if there's a video documenting the construction process. How do you even begin assembling something of that scale? 

Narendra Modi: I've compiled a comprehensive book detailing the structural engineering aspects and technological advancements from the foundation to completion. It includes detailed narratives and videography, available in book form. I'll instruct my team to provide you with a copy. I used to take engineering students to the site to study structural engineering, as it was immensely beneficial for them. Recently, I inaugurated India's largest sea cable bridge in Gujarat, and I encouraged engineering students to visit and study its structural engineering. I aim to ensure that such monumental projects are not just completed but institutionalised, benefiting future generations. 

Bill Gates: Technology has improved so much over our careers. I'm just curious about your journey. Was there something that really drew you in, orwhat has that been like? 

Narendra Modi: I have a profound fascination with technology. While I may not consider myself an expert, I possess a childlike curiosity that drives me. I recall owning a small handheld diary gadget many years ago, albeit a bit bulky. During my visits to the USA, I frequented technology shops in large malls. I often inquired about the latest versions of gadgets, eager to explore advancements. However, I haven't become enslaved by technology; I maintain a free-flowing approach akin to the flow of water. My quest for innovation leads me to constantly search for new advancements, absorbing knowledge wherever I encounter it. Sometimes, I find myself rushing to acquire the latest technology, pondering how to obtain it swiftly. When I identify something with multifaceted utility, my mind becomes fully engaged. This intrinsic nature, driven by curiosity and adaptability, feels like a divine gift to me.

I have heardthat you started your life in a garage and reached here fromthere; what would have been the most satisfying moment in that journey? 

Bill Gates: I consider myself fortunate to have been born during the era of the chip revolution. I received an excellent education, which instilled in me an optimistic outlook on life. Taking risks, such as dropping out of school, didn't seem overly perilous to me. However, the most rewarding aspect of my journey has been witnessing people harnessing the power of technology. It's incredibly fulfilling to see individuals using technology in classrooms and beyond, especially considering my initial curiosity about software and online courses. Witnessing how technology empowers others has been immensely gratifying. While there are still limitations, events like the gathering with Microsoft India employees mark significant milestones, where brilliant minds are pushing boundaries and elevating technology to new heights. One question I have always wantedto ask you is, you are one of the hardest working people ever, but I'm justcurious- when you do want to relax, do you have a game or something that helpsyou to take time off? 

Narendra Modi: I have a sort of built-in relaxation mechanism, a spiritual practice bestowed upon me by my teachers, which replenishes my energy and allows me to work more efficiently long hours. It's not just physical stamina but also my unwavering commitment to my mission that keeps me going. I am emotionally invested in my work, and my focus remains solely on fulfilling the mission at hand. Additionally, my body has adapted to minimal sleep, and I find myself able to work late into the night and wake up early feeling refreshed. This routine was ingrained during a period of my life spent in the Himalayas, where I followed the tradition of bathing in Brahmamurti around 3:20 - 3:40 in the morning. These practices have conditioned my body in such a way that I don't feel the need for additional relaxation activities. However, this dedication to my work also means I sometimes overlook other leisure pursuits, as I'm constantly engaged in exploring new avenues within my responsibilities. So, while this approach has its advantages, it also has its drawbacks. 

Bill Gates: We've had afantastic partnership. I see many opportunities to do even more. So, I lookforward to talking again, whether it's the next time I'm here or, hopefully, I’ll see you in Seattle sometime! 

Narendra Modi: I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and the opportunity to discuss various topics. Whenever we meet, I've noticed how dedicated you are to global causes like poverty alleviation, nutrition, education, and healthcare. Your genuine commitment to these issues is evident, and it's inspiring to see your enthusiasm for new ideas and initiatives. Despite our differing fields - you in global development and me in politics - I've always found our discussions enriching.