With the launch of “Skill India” on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a step towards fulfilling a key promise of his campaign — that his government would address the failures of the country’s education system to make employable the 10-lakh-plus young people who will join the labour market every year until 2020. Skill India, and the various initiatives it is comprised of, is an acknowledgement of the very real danger that India might fritter away its much-touted demographic dividend. If India properly equips its enormous pool of young people — as per a UNFPA report, there are more Indians between the ages of 10 and 24 than the entire population of the US — with skills relevant to industry, it could meet domestic and global manpower needs. Although the acknowledgement of the yawning gap between the demand for skilled labour and its supply predates this government, academic studies and industry reports continue to find that the lakhs of students coming out of schools, colleges and universities are ill-prepared to meet the requirements of a modern globalising economy. These unfulfilled aspirations could also fuel social tensions. If the Modi government acts boldly and imaginatively to meet them, it would cement its legacy. Skill India could be to the Modi government what the Golden Quadrilateral project was for the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
The National Skill Development Mission could streamline skilling activities across India, where over 20 Central ministries fund training programmes through more than 70 schemes. This would help cement the trend towards the harmonisation of initiatives that was inaugurated when they were brought under one umbrella ministry in the early months of the Modi government. The National Policy for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship recognises that a big challenge in incentivising enrolment in vocational training programmes is the perception that it indicates an inability to progress in the formal academic system. But it lacks detail on how an attitudinal transformation could be effected. Similarly, it speaks of the need to create industry linkages and bring potential employers on board in the design of curricula that can nimbly adapt to the needs of the market. But it does not suggest ways in which such partners can be motivated to remain engaged in and take ownership of such initiatives.
For any project as large as Skill India to succeed, there must be some understanding of how and whether skill development programmes have had an impact on labour market outcomes. Skill gap analysis must be institutionalised to inform the design and implementation of skill development programmes. The government must also develop a central system to track outcomes — whether the jobs trainees received matched their training and aspirations, and what the wage levels were. Without evaluation, Skill India may end up replicating the mistakes of the formal education system, whose failures are, in large part, responsible for the poor opportunities available to so many of our young.