On factors holding India back, Gates said, “My biggest disappointment is the education system. I do want to create higher expectations about it.”
Bill Gates , who was the world’s richest man for almost two decades and is still its foremost philanthropist, talks about public health, technology and ideas that could change the world
He may have recently been replaced as the world’s richest man by Jeff Bezos+ , but meeting Bill Gates is still an immensely enriching experience.
The famed intellect is as rapier-sharp as ever, and his eyes light up with an endearing nerdish delight as he passionately holds forth on potentially life-changing ideas. He remains intensely focused and driven, but also exhibits an unexpectedly impish sense of humour.
There are many legendary tales of unprepared Microsoft employees being subjected to severe tongue lashings by an acerbic Gates when he ran the software giant. So, it was with a degree of anxiety that senior editors of The Times of Indiaassembled on Thursday to show Gates the articles that had been commissioned by him earlier when he agreed to serve as TOI Guest Editor. Gates went through the articles very carefully, and there was an audible exhalation of relief when he pronounced himself satisfied. “I’m glad you’ve got the bit about the new three-drug combination being used to treat elephantiasis,” he said.
“The two-drug combination requires five rounds and reduces the disease by 60-80% whereas the new three-drug combination has been shown to reduce microfilariae by 99% with the first dose itself. The triple-drug therapy is one of the most exciting things in the world of global health. India is one of the first places where we are going to go big on it. All three drugs are donated…so the donor money and government money all goes towards paying workers to go out there and distribute the drugs and then double check the quality of those campaigns. We are taking a lot of help from people doing the polio programme, because they have got such great results.”
Since he devotes so much time to India, does he feel that there are any specific factors holding the country back? “Most trends are positive, but my biggest disappointment when it comes to India is the education system. It should be far better. I don’t want to be critical, but I do want to create higher expectations about it.”
Would the Gates Foundation+ consider expanding beyond health into education? “We can’t do everything. Most of India’s own philanthropists have picked education as a high priority and I’m very glad about that,” he said emphatically.
Bill Gates is known to take an active interest in sanitation, so what does he think of the Swachh Bharat programme+ ? “Well, building toilets is like opening savings accounts. The real challenge is getting people to use them,” he quipped. “Part of our Swachh Bharat partnership with the government is to try and make sure that the toilets that are built are not so bad that you’d rather not use them. The first stage is behaviour change. In some parts of India, it’s worked really well, in some parts not as well. Once a village passes the view that nobody should be doing this (open defecation), then it tends to stay. The nice thing is that if you intervene for just a few years then sometimes it becomes the expectation. So that’s behaviour change and a lot of donors are doing that now.”
He paused to issue a warning that his response was about to get quite graphic. Assured that this was not a problem, he cheerfully plunged right in. “Now, what do you do about faecal waste? It either just builds up, so that the toilet becomes unusable, or you can have a truck come and get it. But then they just go and dump it into the river or somewhere. But five years from now, we are going to have a new toilet which actually, essentially burns the waste in the toilet. That’s the dream, to re-invent the toilet.
Right now, the same pipes that take out water also take out sewage, and the Ganga is Exhibit A of what happens as a result. If you had to build pipes that bring water in and sewage out in all the cities of India, it’s never going to happen, because of the sheer cost involved. So we need to invent a toilet that is cheap, doesn’t stink, and is as good as a flush toilet — that burns locally with no piping…In the next two or three years, we will have pilot units that are in the thousands, but to make a difference on this you have to be in the tens of millions. The trick is, it has to be dry enough to burn, and then you’re left with water, which you can boil. The dry matter gives you energy but you have to use that energy very efficiently to be able to boil the wet part.”
But how does one achieve the separation of, er, the wet and dry parts, we asked. “You use a mix of chemicals and mechanical engineering to separate them,” he explained patiently. “So you can have a pump and force the dry part through, and dewater it quite mechanically. Sanitation is highly variable in terms of how wet or dry it is…At the shared toilet level, we already have some good solutions, but we need to take them down to the individual level, and hopefully we’ll get them in place in five years.”
We couldn’t resist asking him about a project he’s invested in, which converts human excreta into potable water. He recently drank a glass of water that was produced as a result. How was the experience? “It was as clean as the specification for US drinking water,” he replied. “There’s a large-scale processing machine that costs about $200,000, which is about a factor of ten cheaper than it has been in the past. It boils the water twice, and runs it through filters, so it’s perfectly safe to drink. Today, brown water is mostly used to water lawns, but sometimes that can backfire because in some parts of the US, they were watering lettuce with it and that caused some infections.”
Since technology has been such a large part of his life, we asked him what he thought of Aadhaar and privacy concerns. “I haven’t read the recent Supreme Court judgement but if you ask me, should there be a right to privacy, the answer is yes, of course. At the same time, I don’t think Aadhaar itself intrudes on privacy. Aadhaar is just a 12-digit lie detector. You may claim to be someone and Aadhaar can tell if you’re speaking the truth or lying. Yes, there are many applications linked to Aadhaar and there are records related to them. Privacy issues can come up with the applications that get built on top of Aadhaar. But none of the records reside on the Aadhaar system itself. The irony is that I often tell Nandan (Nilekani) that if I had built Aadhaar, I would have created it with many more inbuilt capabilities, but Nandan was very careful about not intruding on privacy.”
‘Satya is a very zen person… in that respect, he’s better than I was’
Satya Nadella, only the third CEO in Microsoft’s 42-year history, had been TOI Guest Editor barely a fortnight ago. What were his impressions of Nadella, we asked Gates (62), who stepped down as the first CEO in 2000 (he still serves as a board member and technology adviser).
“I still care very deeply about Microsoft and devote about 15% of my time to it. Satya is very good at extracting the maximum value from my time and making sure I look at all the important things. He’s very thoughtful, good at working with people, working through problems in a calm sort of way. He’s a very Zen person — in that respect, he is better than I was. I was too emotional about something not going too well.”
Gates once famously remarked that in his youth, he probably overvalued intelligence. What did he mean by that? “See, there’s the kind of intelligence where I give you a 500-page book on, say, geography and you memorise it and tell me everything I need to know about weather systems
When I was younger, I thought that was all you needed. If you understand physics, how hard can it be to run a team? The idea that some skills, like managing people, are not correlated with scientific IQ — in fact some of them are negatively correlated to scientific IQ — took me a while to figure out.