A few years ago, the then Indian Prime Minister of India proudly announced the biggest skill building initiative in the world, aiming to train more than 500 million people over 10 years.
The reason for such a high profile initiative was obvious. In India, where 69,000 people reach the age of 25 every single day, making sure that they are able to find work was more than important - it was essential for the survival of the republic. The attention that the initiative got, with investments lined up from public and private sources, with high profile committees and the usual lining up with consultants, was unprecedented. Everything and everybody was there, except just one thing. No one knew what this was all about.
It may sound nonsensical and it is, but the Government set out this multi-million dollar initiative without knowing what skills need to be trained on. There was little involvement of the industry, and none of the trade unions or communities. The consultancies wrote some reports and made some money, and recommended building training infrastructure. Accordingly, the government went out and handed out money to the companies which sprang up, well, to get the money.
This was, with the hindsight, one of the biggest social engineering attempts in modern, post-communist history. Indeed, all of it is a complete failure, but no one talks about it because there was nothing to be gained even by branding it as failure. A new government, which made some structural changes - such as creating a ministry of skill development - essentially followed the same path as the previous one, believing that Governments can enable skill building by fiat. A number of superficial changes, including the change of personnel, have happened since, but it is unlikely that the approach, and therefore, the outcome, would be any different under the new regime.
I have been arguing that government vocational training initiatives are likely to fail (see here) and that this funded approach to vocational education has done more harm than good in India (see here). However, one could see that in the context of Indian politics, where soundbites worth prime time TV is important, and vocational training has become a way to distribute crony money without upsetting the International Investor Community or businesses, this is not going to go away.
However, there is something more important than misspent government money at stake here. If India does this job badly as it is doing, it will end up having 500 million badly educated people, not fit for work. It is delusional that India is trying to become a leading nation, an economic power, with an unhealthy and uneducated labour force (as Amartya Sen would say) - and the penny must drop at some point.
2016 looks to be a tough year for emerging markets, as economies like China, Malaysia, Turkey, Brazil and others look fragile. India, with its mostly domestic debt and young population, is at a better place, but it is likely to be caught in the contagion if its fundamentals continue to be so weak. There are more than vocational education that need sorting out, but the lack of a coherent approach to workforce in the country, which aims to provide a quarter of the working population of the world in a decade from now, is a serious weakness, and it would count as one when the roll call starts.
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