Would 'Exporting Manpower' Solve India's Job Problem?

The conversation in India today is centred on exporting workers. The Indian government is funding Skills Development centres across the country with a mandate for training young people so that they can find jobs abroad. Partly, this is a reaction to India's job crisis - only about 150,000 net new jobs are being created in the organised sector against 25 million people entering the working age every year - but this is also based on the policy thinking that India would be 'manpower exporter' of the world in the coming years. 

The wisdom of aiming to 'export' manpower is surely questionable. 

First, this also reflects an inadequate understanding of the scale of the challenge in India. In India, 70,000 people turn 25 every day on average, or about 2.1 million people every month. The total number of Indians living abroad at this point of time is 15 million. Whatever capacity of skill development for overseas employment could be created by the government, it is going to have a negligible impact on India's jobs problem.

Second, to add to this, the effort comes at a time of restricted mobility of labour. It is not going to be easier to send people out, rather more difficult. The political conversation in rich countries, without exception, is against immigration. It is going to be extremely difficult to send people out when doors are closing.

Third, the moral justification of manpower export is also questionable. There is the antiquated theory, practised in countries such as Bangladesh and Philippines, which sent out a large number of workers abroad, and their remittances kept the currency stable and allowed the country's rich people to buy their Land Rovers and foreign homes, wherein the overseas Bangladeshis and Filipinos had to toil away in slave-like conditions. 

Fourth, 'manpower export' as a conscious government policy is likely to skew the domestic labour market and development agenda. The jobs challenge in India can not be met by sending people out, but by developing the domestic economy. For this, India needs more skilled people, not less. It is surprising to see how much the conversation has changed from the 80s, when the developing countries complained about 'Brain Drain', but sending out skilled nurses and teachers, at a time when India lacks both, is not an intelligent policy.

It is also strange that the Indian policy makers are so keen to developing talent for global markets while they remain, at the same time, steadfastly protectionist in education and skills policy. They have made very little to build an education and training infrastructure that is world class, and rather, allowed a corrupt and inefficient system to persist and grow by keeping away global universities and training providers from the Indian market. While they subscribe to the view that India will become the preeminent supplier of global workforce, their thinking is limited to the number of bodies, and not on the quality of work.  

However, these deficiencies of Indian skills strategy is rather self-evident. What is not that clear is that the solution to India's job problem lie not so much in 'export' but rather in 'import' of manpower. Indeed, this is a big no-no for Indian policy-makers, and despite all their lobbying with rich nations to relax immigration norms, they are as averse to immigration as any of the rich nations. It is not even open to people of Indian origins operating freely in India, and have always avoided giving them the same economic rights as resident Indians. India does not allow dual nationality, and all other programmes, like the Overseas Citizenship of India, places significant hurdles for someone wishing to settle in India [For example, restriction on buying 'agricultural land', while not significant at the outset, could be problematic for someone setting up a factory, as some plots of land, even in a city, could be designated for agricultural use].

The point is indeed that the solution to India's jobs problem, which, if unresolved, can turn India's 'demographic dividend' to a 'demographic disaster', is the overall development of the Indian economy. 'Export' of manpower, like the 'Make in India' strategy which has been a resounding failure, is an idea past its sell-by date and it is a tragedy that the Indian government is trying to spend so much money on it. What is needed is joined-up thinking - a holistic approach to educational excellence, together with industrial strategy and outreach to investors - which is sorely missing in this discussion.





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