Last year, Kapil Sibal, India’s minister for human resource development, announced that schoolchildren would no longer be required to take the tough year-end exams; instead an internal evaluation system will be used to graduate to the next class, and only in twelfth grade will they be required to take a state-run exam.
This will certainly help the 250 million school-going Indian children who are struggling against all odds – including malnutrition and absent teachers – to make it to the next grade. But it won’t solve India’s potent problem of educating its youth and equipping them with adequate skills.
With 20 million Indians joining the workforce annually since 2007 and a million more being added every month, the prospect of a demographic debacle looms. It’s time to look at more pragmatic, even disruptive, ideas on educating Indian youth and preparing them for the workforce.
One idea that’s lately getting attention from the newly-created national skill development corporation, a public-private partnership in New Delhi, is from Subir Gokarn, an economist who is now a deputy governor of India’s central bank. In a series of articles written over a decade, he states that not everybody can finish school or has the capacity to obtain a college education. Indeed only 20% of Indians finish school and 65 per cent of these – 32 million – go on to college; fewer actually graduate.
Gokarn suggests an ‘exit’ from school after the 8th grade, followed by a year-long vocational training course, which would act as a funnel into the industry for which students have been trained.
Where Gokarn becomes radical is in his reference to India’s caste system – blamed for keeping much of India in poverty for centuries – and recommendation that it be used instead as an immediate skills-building bridge.
India’s vast population is divided into castes and sub-castes, each with a specific place in society, determined by profession. Guilds of traders, masons, carpenters, weavers and fishermen participated in a sophisticated supply chain and made India a wealthy nation, fertile for trading and conquest through the centuries. Arab and western colonial rule over India hardened the system, trapping people in their vocations for generations, denying them upward social and economic mobility.
The affirmative action efforts of independent India have broken down caste and inequality barriers. But the old professional skills, still embedded and honed for generations, have not been brought into the industrial age.
“Not using them has created a degenerative mismatch of skills and productivity in the country,” Gokarn says. By locating vocational training centres around clusters of such skills, they can be modernized and transferred into the productive economy. Industries will then gravitate towards these centres, setting up manufacturing facilities and providing local jobs. It will help to move India beyond being “a society determined by birth status,” Gokarn argues.
Successful models already exist. Chennai, known as the Detroit of India for its automobile factories, was able to grow rapidly because of clusters of blacksmiths who already knew how to work with metal. Ditto with Ambur, a small town near Chennai called India’s ‘leather city’. Ambur’s largely Muslim population has been in the tanning and curing business for over a century. With help from local businesses, they upgraded their skills to include the design and manufacture of leather products. Now over 40 per cent of India’s leather exports are from Ambur. India has many such skill clusters, making it easy for industry to follow – like software writers in Bangalore, carpenters in Orissa, weavers in Rajasthan and textile producers in Tirupur.
For years, Gokarn’s idea was met with scorn and taunts by social activists who accused him of being an elitist pushing India back into the dark ages and denying promising youth the greater opportunities afforded by a college education. But now a large section of India’s population bulge is under-employed or, for lack of opportunity, self-employed.
Just 7% of Indians have jobs that provide a payslip, while the rest are largely school drop-outs working in the informal economy. College graduates comprise just 8% of the labour force, according to a report on Indian labour by Teamlease Services.
“This cluster concept can succeed,” says S. Ramadorai, advisor to the prime minister on national skills development. “It is an alignment for everyone, from enrolment to employment.”
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