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.
Popular posts from this blog
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was,
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
A week into lockdown and things are beginning to change. Mornings are late, afternoons are lazier and evenings never end; meditations are filling out the time for Yoga routines and Netflix profiles are strewn with half-finished movies. This state-mandated, state-funded period of idleness is being likened to being called up to serve, but is nothing like that: Such a comparison is really an affront to the idea of service. Instead, this is just one long streak of panic; of the centre not holding and life not going on as usual. With the usual patterns and rules in suspended animation and business talk - and business - being rendered meaningless, space is opening up for unusual questions: Is Capitalism about to end? Is this the death of globalisation? Does it get uglier from here? My grandfather's generation would have scoffed at us. They saw through wars and pandemics. But, in fairness, we haven't had a life-ending crisis of our own. Notwithstanding the experiences of th
I wrote a note on Kolkata, the city I come from and would always belong to, in July 2010. Since then, the post attracted many visitors and comments, mostly critical, as most people, including those from Kolkata, couldn't see any future for the city. My current effort, some 18 months down the line, is also prompted by a recent article in The Economist, The City That Got Left Behind , which echo the pessimism somewhat. I, at least emotionally, disagree to all the pessimism: After all Kolkata is home and I live in the hope of an eventual return. Indeed, some change has happened since I wrote my earlier post: The geriatric Leftist government that ruled the state for more than 30 years was summarily dispatched, and was replaced by a lumpen-capitalist populist government. Kolkata looked without a future with the clueless leftists at the helm; it now looks without hope. However, apart from bad governance, there is no reason why Kolkata had to be poor and hopeless. It sits right
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
The ‘Why’ Question? Adolf Hitler was appointed the German Chancellor by President Von Hindenburg on 30th January 1933. This was an extraordinary turn of events. Previously, President Von Hindenburg consistently refused to appoint Hitler the Chancellor, despite the impressive electoral performance of NSDAP in July 1932, Hitler’s uncompromising demand of the Chancellor’s post and a repeat election in November 1932 which failed to break the deadlock. Explaining his refusal, Hindenburg wrote in a letter on 24th November, “a presidential cabinet led by you would develop necessarily into a party dictatorship with all its consequences for an extraordinary accentuation of the conflicts in the German people.” The question ‘why’ Hitler was appointed Chancellor, despite the President being acutely aware of what might follow, is therefore a significant one. The NSDAP had election successes throughout 1932, and was already the biggest single party in the Reichstag and various Landtags acros
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.