India wants to train 500 million people in vocational and technical skills over the next few years. This is, on paper, the most ambitious vocational skills training agenda anywhere in the world.
This is old news and the details are well known. The announcements, and subsequent splurging of money have been well documented: The creation of an opportunistic vocational training industry in India, where training firms were created overnight to take advantage of this windfall of public money, is less so. The fact that such efforts have actually gone nowhere in the last few years is usually kept under wraps, because it serves no one to admit that things have gone wrong.
However, the need to change things are rather urgent. India's competitiveness is under threat as the skills bottleneck drives up costs and wastage, limiting opportunities for Indian businesses. Besides, expansion of mining activities and industrialisation is driving out a huge rural population into the cities, and without a strategy to integrate this excess populace into a modern economy, India will face not only economic problems but social unrest as well. So far, the Indian government has tried to deal with the modernisation of economy in a very traditional way - by expanding its welfare system - but this is clearly unaffordable beyond a point for a hugely indebted Indian state.
While the need of productivity boost through skills training was clearly understood, how to do this was clearly not. As with other things in India, this became a thing to be announced quickly, by the policy elite for the policy elite, and with little discussion or understanding of the issue involved. As an example, while the big announcement was made - that India needs to train 500 million people - and the money was allocated (with the usual suspects lined up to receive the largesse), the government forgot to ask what skills may actually be needed. Besides, the skills development agenda, as the government saw it, was to be driven by training organisations, alongside training divisions of employing organisations, based in Indian cities. These organisations, many of whom may have done excellent work in training 'white collar' workers in IT, hospitality, retail and other trades, were surely unconnected and clueless about the intended audience of this new 'opportunity', the disenfranchised rural jobless with little intention to move to the city.
So, what happened since is all too predictable. Most of these organisations have not gone anywhere near the projected numbers: The usual complaint is that people don't want to take the training they offer. Tales from the field tells one about the emergence of a new phenomenon: The ghost learner. These are people who may turn up for the first one or two days of training, but then drops out, as s/he figures out that the training is not for them. However, the person remains on the training company's books, because they have little incentive to report the drop out. And, if underachievement of the numbers, alongwith the fact even the reported number include more than 30% ghost learners (in some cases, 100%), is bad enough, the skills they learn is out of sync anyway: It is reported that 500 auto-mechanics were trained in UP to work on carburetors, whereas auto companies have stopped manufacturing cars with carburetors for last two decades and use Multi-point Fuel Injection instead. Needless to say, none of the 'trained' personnel could find a job in any auto service station.
The government and its agencies are reportedly well aware of the problems. Their search for solution has been to create more top down mechanisms, such as UK-style Sector Skills Councils, involving the industry, and to sign more MoUs with overseas agencies and providers to get more expertise and better training. Indeed, these show that the Government has no idea what the problem is - that the people being trained can't be reached - and the officials are more interested in creating news than getting anything done. How else would the Sector Skills Councils justify its existence, when the trades are mostly unorganised? How do MoUs with foreign providers enhance the proposition when the local ones can't find enough people to train?
Apparently, there are two problems here. One is a global problem of skills training. It is almost always poorly done by training providers, and particularly by big ones. The officials overseeing skills development, usually well-educated policy people who has never really been out there (except for well-staged photo opportunities), don't, can't, recognise that skills are socially constructed and only developed over a longer period of time. A skilled plumber becomes skilled not for a three week (or six months, or even a year's) training programme he attends, but he becomes skilled because (a) plumbing is socially valued and he is encouraged by everyone around him to do plumbing; (b) he keeps at it for a long time, doing work and getting paid enough to sustain himself; (c) there is incentive for him to improve, in the form of good plumbers getting paid more than bad plumbers and amateurs. Without this eco-system of values and practices, skills training becomes a business of warm bodies: This is mostly the case in many countries where Welfare State splurges money on training providers.
The second is a very Indian problem. Work with hand falls at the lowest category of the work hierarchy, and the Government is indeed fighting a futile battle with deeply embedded belief systems here. This is not a battle that the government can win through its usual functionaries, the officials, the tycoons and the training man. In fact, if anything, these pyramids of privilege sustains the prejudice against the physical work, and only reaffirms the caste system by its own existence. This can only be changed with creating grassroots involvement through grassroots organisations, organisations that are for, of and by the people of disadvantaged castes doing the work. Indeed, this is to be done not as a 'scheme' but as a 'movement', and that is the only way to do it.
My intention is not to make a dark prognosis about India's skills development and say that it won't ever happen. Indeed, this needs to happen if India has to progress, and even for the country to survive in its current form. But, this will need imagination, a cultural revolution, a commitment to bottom up in a country where everything runs top down: This is indeed the shape of the solution to skills development problem everywhere in the world, with trade unions and workers' guilds doing a far better job than the bureaucrats and skills training colleges. But it is best to acknowledge that this is more difficult in India than anywhere else, because the Indian state is distant, disconnected and hijacked by its elite, it is not in control of itself anymore.
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