Unskilled India

By Arunabha Bagchi 

One relatively unnoticed victim of the latest reshuffle of the Modi government was the Minister of Skill Development. This ministry was created by the Modi government in 2014 as part of the project of streamlining ministries that went with the slogan of ‘less government, more governance’, whatever that might mean.

In the meantime the number of ministers almost reached the maximum threshold, with one of the most talked about ministries during the unveiling of Narendra Modi’s first cabinet losing his job apparently for lack of performance.

My thesis is that the Ministry of Skill Development, in the manner envisaged by our ‘best and brightest’ bureaucrats in the PMO, was bound to be a failure irrespective of the minister in charge.

Our educated elite policy-makers still think of skill development as a way to clear their conscience by giving rudimentary knowledge in ‘operating the lathe machine’ to a tiny fraction of our vast majority of ‘mostly lower caste’ functionally illiterate youth.

Looking from the perspective of Germanic countries, the entire skill development policy of our government going back for decades appears to be a charade.

I realised this when I once read in a newspaper report during the UPA II government that our bureaucrats were planning to visit junior colleges in the United States to get on-the-spot experience about skill development! A cynic who knows junior colleges in the US might think that the policy-makers used this self-created opportunity to see their children in the US and/or visit places of interest there that they had missed during their previous official trips.

Skill development, like all other programmes of the present government barring the disastrous demonetisation, is a continuation of the programme initiated by the Congress government decades ago and tinkered with superficially ever since.

Spreading skill development efforts over numerous ministries, or merging all those activities under the umbrella of one ministry, misses the basic reason why our skill development efforts so far have been an abject failure.

Unless we consider skill development as part of the education process of our unfortunate youth population that missed out on the traditional college education, the stigma of skill development programmes will persist.

The only way for skill development programmes in India to have any meaningful future is to make them an integral part of the Ministry of Education, or the HRD (Human Resource Development) Ministry as it is fancifully called these days.

For what could be more directly related to human resource development than skill development? In fact, medicine, engineering and management studies, among others, are also glorified skill development programmes, albeit with a large dose of theoretical knowledge demanding a certain level of intellectual ability.

Skill development, as it is commonly understood, should also contain some theoretical knowledge component commensurate with the abilities of the students, in addition to the usual dose of practical training. This would make the students completing those courses to qualify for some other technical jobs outside of their direct training.

With sufficient coverage of general subjects at the higher secondary level, the bright students of our skill development programmes should have the opportunity to join the polytechnics, possibly with additional remedial teaching.

The general stream in higher education that is followed by the vast majority of our students has no skill development component in its curriculum, making the stream virtually useless in the job market, with the exception of a small percentage of students with academic bend and capacity for creative thinking.

By contrast, polytechnic education, the backbone of legendary industrial strength of the Germanic countries, is in coma in our country for lack of social recognition of its graduates. In fact, students completing polytechnic studies in India are not even called ‘graduates’ in our highly stratified society.

The plethora of third-rate private engineering colleges mushrooming in our country during the last three decades under political patronage made parents with some means ‘buy’ engineering degrees for their children and avoid the ignominy of obtaining polytechnic diplomas.

Polytechnics should provide the best mechanism for ‘advanced’ skill development, but are ignored in the skill development scheme altogether. In Germany a polytechnic graduate gets an engineering degree, although distinguished from a university engineering degree, while in India we refuse to even give them a bachelors degree.

Going back to the basic skill development programme meant for the vast number of our youth, the number of ITIs (Industrial Training Institutes) meant for them is scandalously few for the need of our bulging youth population. No wonder very few parents whose children badly need skill development courses are aware of such possibilities.

Owners of medium and small enterprises, potential employers of these children in the informal sector, do not see any additional advantage for their businesses in recruiting them. Unless government gives those employers some initial incentives in hiring them, the vicious cycle will continue. With the expanding role of the services sector in the economy, we need to expand skill development to the services sector on a massive scale.

With more than half of our population still engaged in the agricultural sector producing only 15 per cent of our GDP, we need to develop ATIs (Agricultural Training Institutes) in as many provincial towns as possible to provide employment to higher secondary dropouts in various agricultural services.

There is also immense possibility of generating employment in the rural health care sector for women with meaningful skill development programmes. Most importantly, these must be brought to the attention of those who need them.

It is, therefore, no surprise that we were ranked almost at the bottom, in the 103rd place this year, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Human Capital Index. To put this in perspective, Russia was ranked.

(The writer is former Dean and Emeritus professor of Applied Mathematics, University of Twente, The Netherlands)

Source: The Statesman

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