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Ancient country, new ideas

India's innovations are still changing the world

I’m excited to see the latest breakthroughs during my visit this week.


I’ve been visiting India since the 1990s, and I’m on my way to visit again this week. Over the years, I’ve learned about its rich history and visited some of its stunning monuments, including the Taj Mahal.

But when I think about India’s most important contributions to the world, these are not the first things that come to mind. India’s greatest gift is its ability to innovate.

This country has a long history of important breakthroughs. (Mathematicians in ancient India are widely credited with introducing the decimal system for numbers.) More recently, India has made advances that are saving and improving millions of lives in India and around the world. The Gates Foundation has been a partner in some of these efforts, and I’m visiting this week to learn about how we can continue working with India to help its ideas and inventions reach everyone who needs them, no matter where they live. This will be a main topic when I meet with Prime Minister Modi this week.

Health is one area where India is making a big difference. This country is the world's largest producer of vaccines—it supplies more than 60 percent of all vaccines distributed by Gavi, the organization that has helped vaccinate more than 1 billion children in lower-income countries. Indian companies pioneered the creation of high-quality, low-cost vaccines and drugs, leading the world in making affordable treatments for diseases like HIV/AIDS as well as vaccines for rotavirus, pneumococcal pneumonia, and COVID. The government has helped deliver huge supplies of vaccines to its own people and to other low- and middle-income countries, and now it’s looking to do the same for medical devices and diagnostics.

Thanks in large part to India, developing countries now get new medicines and vaccines much faster than they used to. I rank these efforts as one of the most important health achievements ever. (We’ve made progress, but we’re not done. The world should still do more to shrink the gap between when a drug or vaccine becomes available in rich countries and when it reaches lower-income ones.)

Another area where I admire India’s innovative spirit is what’s known as digital public infrastructure, or DPI. In short, DPI refers to the digital platforms and tools that help deliver various services. India’s biometric identity program, Aadhaar, covers more than 1.4 billion people, allowing them to take advantage of all kinds of government services without needing a photo ID. UPI, a digital payment system that ensures that the person you’re doing business with is who they say they are, processes more than 12 billion transactions a month.

During my trip I’ll get to see India’s DPI in action. I’ll visit an agricultural monitoring center in the state of Odisha where government officials use DPI to give farmers real-time guidance. Thanks to Aadhaar, this center is able to maintain a registry of 7.5 million farmers—even if they don’t own land—and their crops, so officials can keep track of who is growing what (and, therefore, what kind of farming advice they need). It has also developed a chatbot that makes it easy for farmers to get the latest information about their crops, using AI to tailor content to their particular needs and in their local language.

This service’s pest-management program now reaches more than 4 million farmers, and since it began in 2018, the volume of crops that participating farmers lose to pests every year has dropped by 90 percent. Now others—including other states in India as well as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and the World Bank—are looking to learn from Odisha’s experience with this service as well as its biometric ID and digital payments systems.

I'm also looking forward to learning more about how India is addressing urban poverty, especially among women. It has one of the fastest-growing urban populations in the world, and more than 100 million people there live in slums, where it’s hard and often impossible to get even basic services like health, education, and clean water. Women are particularly vulnerable because they face discrimination and violence.

This week, I’ll visit a low-income community in Odisha where a government program is helping women get the skills to fulfill government construction contracts. Since 2018, this program has helped 22,000 groups of women deliver on more than 52,000 projects including building roads, drains, and toilets.

This program could be a model for other countries that are facing similar challenges. The women who participate in it are partners in creating the projects: They get training in engineering, accounting, negotiating contracts, and other skills, and they’re involved in planning the project, making a budget, doing the construction, and doing maintenance on whatever they build. I'm looking forward to meeting a few women who are part of this program so I can hear about the challenges they face and the successes they’ve had.

India’s capacity to innovate will also become increasingly important to stopping climate change. Indians are already being affected by higher temperatures and less-predictable weather, and eliminating the greenhouse gases that are causing the problem is a huge scientific challenge. So it’s great that India is ramping up its ability to invent, manufacture, and deploy climate breakthroughs. The government is investing in research to raise the productivity of crops and livestock even in a warmer climate, and it’s expanding its plans for clean energy.

These are just a few of the ways in which India's innovations are changing the world. I could list many more, and I’m sure I’ll learn about a few new ones during my visit. I’m looking forward to speaking with government leaders, CEOs, and students who will drive innovation in India. This country has a lot to offer, and I'm optimistic that it will continue to lead the way in creating a more equitable world.