The Indian Prime Minister unleashed a big idea in his big speech last week, India as the HR Capital of the world! Speaking at the launch of Skill India campaign on the World Youth Skills Day on 15th July, he laid out the goal of making India the Human Resources capital of the world. This was a sound objective, something that is suitably aspirational for a statesman and rather obvious at the same time. There is a looming Global Workforce Crisis, using a term coined by Boston Consulting Group, which may notionally cost the global economy upwards of $10 trillion between 2020 and 2030 - and India has the right raw materials, young people, for a solution.
It is also India's opportunity to lose. The country's 'Demographic Window of Opportunity', a period when at least 55% of its population is working age, opened in 2015. When population of most other countries are ageing - both United States and China would start to have more retirees than working people within the next few years - India's Window has just opened and would remain so till 2050. With the possible exception of the continent of Africa (and Nigeria in particular), where major public health and security issues have to be tackled, India's demographic strengths in the coming years will be insuperable. Some estimates project that India will supply a quarter of the global working population by 2025, and most agree that India will in any case have the largest workforce.
But, Mr Modi's aspiration should be larger than the mere logic of demography. The idea of being a Human Resource capital is more than what India was - a source of Babus and Plantation Workers for post-slavery British Empire - or has been of late - the home of Offshore services! Implicit in it, if we read it right, an aspiration to lead with knowledge, something that translates the number of people into a source of prosperity and prominence. Therein lies the biggest challenge of India - how to educate a large population effectively to unleash a productivity boom, and to move up the global value chain of knowledge and power.
So far, India's response to this challenge was pedestrian. While the previous government recognised the demographic strength and thought up large scale skills development agenda, something that Mr Modi is carrying forward, there was little imagination involved. Even disregarding the implementation difficulties, customary inefficiencies and usual corruption, the Indian project tried to borrow the skills development models from the developed world - and widely missed the mark. The world would be a different place in 2025, with a perfect storm of globalisation, automation, urbanisation and occupational changes, and the skills and abilities that would be required in this whole new world are completely different from what we needed in the 1990s. Despite their current dominance in the new Indian workforce, the Programmers and BPO workers are on their way out! The millions of process-based jobs that India created in the last wave of globalisation, the experience that shaped ideas of Mr Modi's predecessors, will increasingly become automated. The new millions of jobs that Mr Modi want to snatch from an increasingly expensive China, the aspiration that informs his 'Make in India' slogan, are being shipped back to the developed world, where nimble manufacturing is enabling a new convergence of production and consumption. The worker of 2025 that India needs to fulfill its HR Capital vision is so far missing in action in India.
One could, and should, talk about overhauling the Indian Education system if the Prime Ministers vision has to be realised, but the challenge is broader than just effecting a quantitative and qualitative educational change. Other, more complex, questions will also need to be addressed. For example, adapting to the global context, as this new worker must, would require an open approach to new ideas, and abrogation of 'Not Invented Here' mindset that one spots so readily while engaging with India. Most of the new workforce in India would come from regional, racial and religious minorities, and the country's educational hierarchies have to be reshaped, shedding its elitism. And, it has to accept the role of women in the workplace, and discard the stigma associated with working girls. It must be noted that these ideas, however obvious, run somewhat counter to the ideological transformation of India that Mr Modi's government wants to affect. The HR Minister wants to create a more Indian system of education, which will be centrally controlled, and reject the Western ideas embedded in the system. The ruling party wants to establish the Indian identity based on the majority religion and language. And many ministers publicly said that they would want women to return to their traditional roles and have more children (presumably to support the demographic agenda further, but with wrong consequences).
In conclusion, therefore, the Prime Ministers comment needs to be seen in this perspective. If these comments were meant to convey mere demographic information, one should recognise the limits of this rhetoric - and that it could be self-defeating. It must be recognised that the demography is not destiny, and the future must be actively imagined and brought into being. And, this, in a rapidly changing world, can only be done through realism, openness and engagement with the world.
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