India’s belated skilling revolution:
According to a 2012 paper “Comparative Study of Agriculture in India, China and USA” written by Dr. S. Vijay kumar, Head & Associate professor of Economics at the Kakatiya Government (UG&PG) College, Hanamkonda (Andhra Pradesh), citing data relating to circa (about) 2003-05.
The great sin of sustained neglect of primary, secondary and higher education in post-independence India has been compounded by continuous neglect of vocational education and training. But a quiet skills revolution is gathering momentum countrywide.
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY India’s dysfunctional education system, defined by crumbling infrastructure, multi-grade teaching, massive dropouts, truant teachers and abysmal learning outcomes, is the most damning indictment of Soviet-style central planning adopted as the official development dogma of free India, after political independence was wrested from imperial Britain by Mahatma Gandhi and leaders of the freedom movement in 1947. The essence of central planning is that the State commandeers, generates and canalises national resources into industry, agriculture and services — drawing up intelligent priorities — to ensure balanced and equitable national development.
But curiously, even 66 years later, neither the political class, establishment, nor public has accorded sufficient weightage or priority to education — even primary education — unambiguously acknowledged as the essential precondition of national growth and progress (see special report p.74). It’s pertinent to note that while the education outlay to GDP ratio averages 5 percent globally, and most OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development, a rich nations club) countries allocate 7-10 percent of their GDP to education, in post-independence India, it has averaged 3.5 percent per year.
The consequences of this inexplicable blindspot of the Planning Commission and the self-serving Indian establishment (including the media) are patently visible. The vast majority of the 1.3 million government schools has conspicuous deficiencies of teaching staff and basic infrastructure. According to the manifesto of the recently promoted Children First Party of India, whose lib-lab-lav agenda is to equip all elementary schools countrywide with libraries, laboratories and lavatories within 12 months (expenditure: Rs.42,750 crore), 650,000 elementary schools across the country are without libraries/reading rooms; 410,000 lack drinking water; 500,000 are bereft of laboratories; 610,000 are denied toilets and 250,000 don’t provide separate toilets for girl children.
Unsurprisingly, learning outcomes in India’s primary/elementary schools are abysmal. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) published by Pratham, India most respected education NGO, learning outcomes in the country’s 700,000 rural primaries which school an estimated 159 million children in the age group 6-14, are declining continuously. ASER 2013 reports that 53 percent of children promoted to class V cannot read and/or comprehend class II texts written in their own vernacular languages. Moreover 74.8 percent of children in class V can’t do simple three-digit division sums.
Learning achievements aren’t anything to boast about in secondary education either. In 2010, a Union government-selected batch of Indian class IX students wrote PISA (Progamme for International Student Assessment) — a global annual test which assesses English, science and maths learning of 15-year-olds — and was ranked 73rd among 74 countries. Since then, Indian participation in PISA has been discontinued. In higher education, according to a 2005 Nasscom-McKinsey World Institute study, 75 percent of India’s engineering and 85 percent of arts, science and commerce college graduates are unemployable in multinational companies.
The great sin of sustained neglect of Indian education by the Planning Commission and successive governments at the Centre and in the states has been compounded by continuous neglect of vocational and skills education. According to i Watch (estb. 1992), a Mumbai-based not-for-profit advocacy NGO focused upon the areas of governance, education, economy and employment, currently 90 million youth are enrolled in 500,000 VET (vocational education and training) institutions across China and 11 percent of its total labour (816 million) force has received formal VET education. On the other hand in India, the number of youth enrolled in its 11,800 VET institutions (including 5,114 Industrial Training Institutes run by the Union ministry of labour) is a mere 3.5 million, and only 8-10 percent of ‘organised sector’ workers (30 million) have received formal VET education. The rest of India’s 480 million strong labour force is at best informally trained in the learning-by-doing tradition of crafts families. On the other hand in Germany, USA and the UK, 75, 65 and 70 percent of their national work force have experienced formal VET education.
“For Indians and India to prosper, it is necessary that long-term planning of education and training should allow 90-95 percent of the population to learn a skill, a trade or a competence. In fast developing nations such as China, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and developed countries — Japan, Germany, Korea, Taiwan, UK, Australia, Canada — this is the reality. At any given time, at least 5 percent of the total population should be receiving some sort of VET. This translates to about 55 million people getting VET in India,” says Krishan Khanna, an alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur and promoter of two BSE listed companies (Hoganas India and Denora India) who quit the corporate world in 1992 to morph into a pioneer education evangelist. The same year he promoted i Watch which has played a major role in impacting the importance of VET education upon the Central and state governments and the public.
THE PRICE THE INDIAN economy and the long-suffering people have paid for under-investment in education and VET in particular, is catastrophic. The country’s 7,900 cities, haphazardly planned, constructed and maintained by ill-educated engineers and technicians and defined by water and power outages, potholed roads, inadequate sanitation and traffic chaos, are on the verge of breakdown. Shop floor productivity of blue-collar workers in industry and manufacturing manned by poorly schooled and hastily-trained labour is one-third to one-tenth of their counterparts in China and the developed OECD countries.
According to a detailed 2007 study by Barry Bosworth and Susan Collins of the Brookings Institution, USA — the world’s top-ranked think tank — during the period 1978-2004 output per worker and total factor productivity in the economy increased by 7.3 percent and 3.8 percent respectively in China cf. 3.3 and 1.6 percent in India.
Yet perhaps the worst impact of the neglect of elementary education and VET has been experienced by the vast majority of post-independence India’s rural citizens whose average per capita income is Rs.40,000 per year — equivalent to less than $2 per day. With over 300 million of them unable to read the simplest instructions on product (fertilizer, pesticide, medical formulations) pamphlets, agriculture yields per hectare in rural India are among the lowest worldwide. For instance, India’s wheat production averages 2,688 kg per hectare (kg/ha) compared with 4,155 kg/ha in China. In rape and mustard seeds production, India averages 909 kg/ha against China’s 1,778 kg/ha and rice productivity in India averages 3,034 kg/hectare and 6,233kg/ha in China, according to a 2012 paper written by Dr. S. Vijaykumar, associate professor of economics at the Kakatiya Government (UG&PG) College, Hanamkonda (Andhra Pradesh), citing data relating to circa 2003-05.
The problem of low yields in rural India is compounded by the mystifying neglect of the Central and state governments to build or encourage construction of post-harvest technology infrastructure. According to National Horticulture Board (NHB), India produced 240 million tonnes of horticulture produce (fruits, vegetables, flowers, plantation crops, spices, honey, mushrooms etc) in 2010-11. What the lavishly produced India Horticulture Database of NHB conveniently fails to mention is that over 40 percent of the produce valued at Rs.50,000 crore per year is unmarketable and rendered waste, because of pervasive ignorance of post-harvest technologies and logistics infrastructure, wiping out the toil and investments of millions of farmers every year. Shockingly, the country’s co-opted academics and other intellectuals — including media pundits — have failed to connect the dots linking massive education — especially VET — deprivation in village India with rural backwardness, indebtedness and mass suicide.
THIS COMBINATION OF deprivations and tragedies rooted in gross indifference to elementary and VET education, and a loud outcry from a minority within the intelligentsia, belatedly prompted the Congress-led UPA-II government in New Delhi to promote the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) — a government-industry partnership enterprise — in 2009. Its mission is to build a sustainable ecosystem to promote skills development through provision of long-term loans to private sector VET firms, set up sector skill councils with employer engagement to prescribe standards and benchmarks, accredit training institutions to certify trainees, and encourage industry to employ trained personnel. Surprisingly, instead of a retired bureaucrat as usual, in a moment of lucidity UPA-II appointed S. Ramadorai, vice chairman and hitherto chief executive of Tata Consultancy Services — India’s #1 IT software and services company — and invested him with cabinet status to get NSDC off the ground. The corporation’s mandate is to ensure that private sector VET providers skill 150 million youth and workers by the year 2020.
Since NSDC became operational in 2010, Ramadorai has set high targets and is clearly satisfied with the progress of this overdue national skilling initiative. “During the past four years, 129 VET institutions have been approved by NSDC which will skill over 78 million individuals by 2022. Our goal is to create capacity to train 210-220 million so that even if some VET ventures fail, we will achieve the 150 million target set for NSDC. The pace at which NSDC partners are producing and certifying skilled workers is indicated by data. In 2010-11 NSDC-supported firms trained and certified 20,000 individuals. In 2011-12 this number increased to 181,000 and last fiscal to 400,000. In sum since NSDC got going four years ago, the total number of people trained till February is 1.53 million of whom 830,278 have also been placed. By the end of this fiscal, the number of trained and skilled workers — mentored in over 2,500 training centres in 350 districts across India — will exceed 1 million. I am confident the number of training institutions will multiply as youth and workers become aware of the benefits of VET, and NSDC and its partners will inject 150 million skilled workers into the Indian economy by 2022,” says Ramadorai.
Although Ramadorai’s bullishness is stimulating, given that in four years NSDC-funded and supported VET providers have been able to skill and certify a mere 1.3 million individuals, the 150 million target seems like a Planning Commission-baked pie in the sky. Perhaps a more promising development is that independently of government, a small but growing minority of NGOs — including Education World promoted in 1999 with the mission objective to “build the pressure of public opinion to make education the #1 item on the national agenda” — is seriously addressing critical issues such as universalisation of primary education, measuring learning outcomes and promoting skills-based education.
The sustained initiatives of non-government education missionaries have begun to attract the attention of many compassionate and can-do leaders of India Inc, genuine philanthropists and citizens aware of their social and civic responsibilities to lend a helping hand to the hundreds of millions of high-potential children, and marginalised rural youth being driven to despair and insurrection against society and the State.