The Commonwealth Games (CWG) fiasco is nothing but an extension of our jugaad mentality — the concept of somehow making things work, of cutting corners, of compromising on quality. We are a little miffed when foreigners like the Duke of Edinburgh criticise our cut-and-paste jobs, and he has, indeed, on more than one occasion. But we still refuse to relinquish our penchant for patching things together and hoping that they will work. This same jugaad has pervaded our educational system, which is designed like an inverted funnel and aimed only at making the bulk of people literate. But what about making them employable, entrepreneurial or self-reliant?
Look at our demographics. We have over 65 per cent of Indians below the age of 35 and a staggering 600 million under the age of 25. This is almost thrice the entire population of Britain, France and Germany put together! And by 2020, it is estimated that the average age of Indians will be 29 years. In such a scenario, how is it even possible for governments to provide jobs to these growing millions? Well, it’s a different matter that we have surplus food but can’t feed our population, let alone equip it with the proverbial fishing skills.
But with a little imagination, there are solutions, which don’t require huge budgets or path-breaking innovation. With less than the money spent on the CWG, and with slightly better planning, we can make every Indian a bread winner. We can indeed pave the way for a shining rather than whining India. All it needs is a grand alliance between the State and the private sector for an affirmative action plan to provide skills to India’s youth. It’s time now for a Skill Bill — one that makes it almost a right to ensure that children attain grade-specific competencies and youth a few basic skills, be it spoken English, computer or financial literacy, sales orientation or technical skills of the employable kind.
This will make them more confident and more likely to successfully earn a livelihood. Considering that, even today, 60 per cent of children studying in Grade 5 cannot do Grade 2 maths, the Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry may want to consider a proactive approach to save India’s demographic assets from becoming non-performing assets.
My company’s Naandi Foundation started a programme called Livelihood Advancement Business School (LABS) in 1996. The idea was to select and admit unemployed youth for a short-term skills course that will enhance their chances of employability. The course covers all the basics that our education system has been failing to provide — spoken English, finishing school skills, confidence and personality development, all through a common curriculum. Electives include aptitude-based courses in healthcare, financial services, retail, housekeeping and many such market-centric courses, to capture the imagination of new-economy employers in sectors like information technology, retail etc. We soon found that supply, not demand, will be a constraint.
Accordingly, in the last few years a lot of these youth were placed in the private/organised-sector jobs. Another section are being trained to become micro-entrepreneurs to grab the burgeoning opportunities in the allied-services sector. These include trained home-keepers, nursing attendants, nannies, finance and insurance sales force, etc. We have scaled it up by partnering with all the state governments and the rural and urban ministries.
Thus, LABS has been able to provide livelihood to people in 22 states in India, and employment to over 215,000 ‘unemployable’ youth, till date. Often, at a per capita expenditure of $100. In the next two-three years, we will touch the million-jobs mark! If this could be done by one company, one can visualise the potential of a concerted plan of action.
The public-private partnership required for this will be less complex than the huge infrastructure projects currently executed. There are two broad policy prescriptions that will be required. First, from Grade 8, all children will have electives that impart specific skills — both mandatory ‘soft skills’ like spoken English, grooming and personality development; and optional ‘hard skills’ like technical know-how, hospitality, sales, healthcare and ITeS-related, etc. Look at infrastructure. Despite the boom, we don’t get qualified crane drivers or heavy equipment drivers despite salaries of over R15,000 per month.
The second will be a test of the government’s political will. If a reasonably successful Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) could become so immensely popular in providing wages to the unemployed for their unskilled labour, the same could be extended to enhance the value of our human capital by imparting skills to the youth.
A new policy could extend the MNREGA idea in the form of vouchers, which the youth can encash to earn a skill in private sector-led programmes.
Instead of paying wages like under MNREGA, the government can give a scholarship/fee vouchers of R5,000 per unemployed, unskilled youth, asking them to join skill schools set up by the private sector, like the affirmative action school of the Mahindras. The one-time investment of $1 billion will create 100 million jobs, not to mention the huge return on investment for the nation.
Despite sharing the dais with Mukesh Ambani on occasions, I never got the chance to pick his brains, if not appeal to his heart, on the issue of the skill-less, listless youth of India. But I should concede the fact that there has been more than one occasion when I was tempted to counsel him on offsetting his apparent personal profligacy, as reported by the media from time to time. Till I heard the story about his Patalganga refinery, where he trained over 300,000 unskilled, unemployed youth to become carpenters, plumbers and electricians, as our billion-plus human resource couldn’t provide this work force when he required. After the construction of the refinery, all of them left for lucrative careers in West Asia and Europe. I’m sure one of them will be mending the cracks in Buckingham Palace as skilled labour is becoming the most-sought-after global resource. That should be one in the eye for the Duke of Edinburgh.
K. Anji Reddy is Founder Chairman, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd. and Naandi Foundation and a member of the PM’s Task Force on Trade & Industry The views expressed by the author are personal