India's 'skilling' mission: questioning the assumptions


Over the last decade, India has set in motion one of the largest ‘skilling’ missions in the world. However, despite the grand ambition, unparalleled political and media attention and enormous expense, it is clear that the objectives, both quantitative and qualitative, have not been achieved. Though the Indian endeavour is only a few decades old, the English habit of ‘restructuring’ has already caught up – and several attempts have been made to redefine the objectives and reorganise the delivery for better outcomes. However, the founding assumptions of the ‘skilling’ mission have gone unquestioned and rethinking these assumptions, rather than operational rejigging, may provide a framework to decide what needs to be done.

At the outset, it is worth noting that India’s ‘skilling’ ambition, when it was unveiled, was a top-down affair. Employers did not beseech the government to intervene; angry young workers didn’t attack Delhi demanding a better life and living. Rather, it was the Ministers and the consultants, enthralled with the vision of India’s ‘demographic dividend’, of the 2.1 million people reaching working age every month, came up with this utterly rational solution of ‘skilling’. From the very start, this was a supply-side phenomenon: Even the employers were not asked whether this was needed and what was needed. True, business chambers were involved, but as these chambers mostly receive their funds from the government, rather than having to earn their keep from the membership, these bodies are as top-down as one can get. It did make good prime-time news: All the elements, big money, big ambition, big ideas for little people, were there. It did not matter much that employers, trade unions and young people were missing in action; McKinsey consultants and the Prime Minister were there.

One could argue that the ‘demographic dividend’ is common sense and the government didn’t need employers, in a country where organised sector employment is only a sliver of the overall labour force, to be told what to do. But, because this was a bureaucratic, top-down process, instead of a consultative one, the skills programme was conceived with unexamined assumptions.

First, it was assumed that India would go through a stage-by-stage development progressing from Agrarian to Industrial to Service sector economy, the historical model imported from Europe and North America. This textbook case has indeed never happened in reality – England’s ‘industrial revolution’ was as more helped by colonial trade than enterprise and skills – and India’s own experience, a service economy sprouting up in the middle of industrial distress, points to the meaninglessness of stadial models. This firmly assumed India to be stuck at the lower end of the global value chain and most Indians limited, irrespective of their capacity and interest, in the menial jobs forever. It was a deterministic model lifted from consultancy reports, without a historical basis or social sense-check.

Second, this view of the future assumed a straight-line path to urbanisation, globalisation and expansion of global value chains. It was a marker of extraordinary confidence, given that this was all being conceived in the immediate aftermath of the global credit crisis, or extraordinary foolishness. Whatever it was, it is now clear that some of the assumptions did not hold: Political realities are reshaping globalisation and new technologies are undermining the rationale for global value chains. Climate and health concerns, diseases such as Dengue, shortage of drinking water and ecological challenges such as stray dogs should also have raised concerns about the assumption of urban centralisation into mega-cities, though not many people in India are asking such questions yet. The implication of the false realities for skilling was misdirected priorities – does the country need construction workers or nurses, for example – amplified in the echo-chamber of bureaucratic decision-making.

Third, it was assumed that most Indians are unskilled. While low productivity statistics may have been used as a guide to arrive at such a conclusion, it was forgotten what we call a ‘skill’ is socially determined. For example, the boy who played a mouth-organ in a street corner and supported his family through his earnings must now be trained as a construction worker – to be skilled and employed properly. The person who prepared snacks to be hawked on trains (most certainly, illegally) should now move thousands of miles away – and, adapt to a new language, custom and food – to be a plumber. At the point of delivery, the benign message of skilling had the most malignant vision of social engineering. It was not surprising that many of India’s training providers cannot find enough takers for what they offer, even if they offer it free of cost.

And, finally, it was assumed that people can be trained, over a fixed period looking like one or two college semesters. The top-down model, which makes education not a fire to be lit, as John Ruskin would say, but indeed a bucket to be filled, demanded no personal transformation, not even a better level of numeracy and literacy. It was all about courses on plumbing and what-not, to be delivered over a certain number of days, whether the learner is interested or not. No wonder one of the biggest issues in India’s skills training efforts is the challenge of ghost learners, registered pupils who never turn up (but the provider claims the monies due from the government).

Arranging the deck-chairs when a ship is listing is not a very smart response, but it is usually the bureaucratic one. Hence, all sorts of re-engineering have been tried to make things right in skilling: Ministers came and went, providers were blacklisted and restored again, global providers beelined in India in the hope of rescuing their failing practices in respective home countries. Employers remained critically disengaged. While the government planned to manage the problem of ghost learners by unleashing biometric technology, the budding auto-mechanics were trained on carburettors, though no cars in India were made with one in the last twenty years (they use, like in rest of the world, Multi-point Fuel Injection). The irony may be lost on some people, but the question that if the auto-mechanics are in short supply, all skilled auto-mechanics (those who can deal with MPI) would rather be working than training, is a serious one to answer. Conversely, like in Welding, where the wages were not much higher for the government trained ones, the certified welders found it easier and more rewarding to become trainers rather than actually getting into the jobs. And, indeed, as is bound to happen in a globalised economy, all the trained construction workers were immediately shipped off to Dubai (the government schemes, which incentivised ‘overseas placement’, encouraged that), leaving India’s health and safety standards, and building quality, rather unchanged.

In fact, it is possible to argue that India’s poorly thought-out skills training intervention led to deskilling. While the government spent millions of dollars on building up new infrastructure, the state-run Technical training institutes (ITIs) ran out of funds and were sold off one by one. The private training industry, which was focused on middle classes but flourished through the 1990s, got crowded out by the state intervention: India’s world-class IT Training industry, which played not a minor role in creating the Indian IT industry, and expanded globally for a while, became, a sector critically dependent on government hand-outs. The overall effect of the skilling mission was to enact pervasive social engineering, unconnected with economic priorities or social reality, in the quest of an unachievable ‘demographic dividend’. This is not a scenario unlike the Soviet Union, which, in the quest of industrialisation, set up massive, narrowly focused skilling programmes in the seventies, only to produce certified workers whose skills were out of date and out of sync with a modern economy. That was rightly labelled an ‘education for decline’.

My objective, however, not to spread doom-and-gloom and repeat the horror stories, but to urge the policy-makers to stop tinkering and revisit the assumptions. If India is emerging, why must its aspirations be limited to playing the role of a global back-office or a manufacturing hub? Why should the country’s mantra be ‘make in India’, a desperate plea based on labour cost arbitrage, and not ‘made in India’, an aspiration to lead the world in the quality and consciousness? Why must it be proud of Jugaad, the art of making do, and not of intelligence and excellence? And, why must India’s poor, its village population, be assumed to remain locked in the quest of subsistence, and not allowed to play a part in a shared future world-making?

In short, why should India not think of an ‘educational leap’ and not skilling? There is a reason why education and skills are kept in different compartments in England: It is an essential ingredient of a royalist society where lineage and accent matter more than abilities and aspiration. Should the same apply to India, a young, ambitious yet poor republic? With globalisation on the reverse gear, even the Indian middle class is poorly served with the overtly literary education that is on offer: Why must one continue the dichotomy of higher and lower education?

These questions, I think, need to be at the heart of skills discussion in India, not whether a foreign qualification framework must be implemented or what cool technologies may transform skilling. Literacy and Numeracy, rather than biometric, would have a greater impact on skills. Joined up thinking would obviate the need of directing government funds to schools and healthcare, rather than frittering them away on consultants and private providers. The tragedy of education-without-skills, along with the chimaera of skills-without-education, would be eliminated. The private training sector, market-driven as it has to be, would focus on demand-driven development, without being skewed by government money and political priorities. It is time to let ‘skill’ free in India.

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