Shortage of skills is preventing large segments of the population from being part of India's growth story.

The ‘inclusion' thrust of the Eleventh Plan and the ambitious goals of the National Skill Development Mission call for transformational paradigms to reach out to the informal sector, to the backward regions and to those facing the brunt of social and gender divide.

Shortage of skills is preventing large segments of the population from being part of India's growth story. The Eleventh Plan document states, “the unorganised sector which constitutes about 93 per cent of the workforce is not supported by any structural skill development and training system of acquiring or upgrading skills. By and large, skill formation takes place through informal channels like family occupations, on the job training under master craftsmen with no linkages to the formal education training and certification...one reason for this poor performance is the near exclusive reliance upon a few training courses with long duration (2 to 3 years) covering around 100 skills.” The Plan document outlines a massive remedial initiative in the shape of the National Skill Development Mission mandated to skill 30 per centof the overall target of 500 million people by the year 2022. The Mission involves an outlay of Rs. 31,200 crores.

The dismal performance hitherto however, suggests that this ambitious vision and the large public outlay for it need a new architecture to reach the masses. For example, the Eleventh Plan document talks of creating 50,000 Skill Development Academies by leveraging schools and post-offices. While on the face of it, using the existing infrastructure appears to be a good idea, the devil lies in the details. The vocational education programme through schools has not taken-off. Thus can this system deliver on a massive initiative involving the informal sector workers? Post offices have a good track record, but delivering training is a far cry from managing small savings. Also, a skill development initiative of such order will require significant back-end effort in developing the training content, the delivery modality etc. The Plan document does not outline any architecture for this critical back-bone.

Similarly, while the Plan document places a lot of importance on public-private partnership, greater clarity is required on its strategic content in the context of service delivery to the masses in the informal sector. This is the point where most public developmental efforts seem to flounder.

A solution emerges when we break the traditional mould of thinking with regard to PPP. India has created an impressive infrastructure in formal education and S&T. This infrastructure should be leveraged to create an organized back-end structure for generating high quality content for the skill development needs in the informal sector. Wide dispersal of such content could be ensured through micro-skill development academies which local entrepreneurs could set up in small towns, semi-urban areas and baastis and cater to potential demand in a convenient and cost effective manner. A suitable franchise mechanism could ensure that these micro-skill development academies maintain requisite quality and financial viability.

The UNDP-supported project ‘Skills and Knowledge for Improved Livelihoods and Living Standards' (SKILLS) bears-out the promise of the above mechanisms in the context of the informal sector. The SKILLS project demonstrated that the PPP model it evolved is relevant not only for market-related skills, but also for skill sets involved in local livelihoods-support activities and self employment in the informal sector.

The evaluation report of the SKILLS project concludes, “The VoTEG Project created an alternate approach to skill formation, the SKILLS project has successfully evolved a model to upscale that approach at a mass scale. The concept of giving training in market dictated skills, on commercial terms (through PPP), is a laudable innovation... The Project has successfully developed the real and virtual (through PPP and through the e-Portal) modes of skill formation under the SKILLS Project…The programme was successful in attracting semi-educated youth in both rural and urban settings with large number of school drop outs, farmers and also marginalized women (in Goa)… In all four cases, trainees expressed satisfaction in the quality and usefulness of the training imparted. The evaluation team could feel improvements in terms of skill, knowledge and confidence in the trainees. Trainees were willing to pay for the training, whether in repair of home appliances or agriculture, in spite of various free training courses provided by government agencies. This should be treated as an indicator of success for the programme.”

The SKILLS project also demonstrated the power of ICT in bringing into the public space, the vast knowledge-base across various skill trades that already exists but lies dormant or confined to apex promotional institutions such as KVIC. It further experimented with the use of ICT in creating mechanisms such as a web-based ‘employment exchange' for informal sector workers on a highly localized and cost effective basis. Currently the Portal offers basic and premium content for 49 trades, obtained from the 6 institutions involved in the VoTEG and the SKILLS Projects. The goal is to scale-up the coverage to about 200 in the near future.

However, the livelihood-linked needs and activities of small farmers, artisans and women's groups in the rural hinterland will require additional measures. For this stakeholder group, instead of one-time and fixed-duration group training, more flexible and longer-term handholding development support is required. The rural service enterprise model presented in IMI's report ‘Creating Vibrant Public-Private-Panchayat Partnership (PPPP) for Inclusive Growth' is relevant in this context. The Dungarpur case study in the report presents evidence to show that PPP-based rural service enterprise models that could ensure to each tribal family, an income of over Rs. 25,000 per annum on 0.5 ha plots even in the context of a highly hostile eco-environment are feasible. (An overview of this report was presented in the Op-ed column in this newspaper on April 28).

In the context of the backward regions, supply-side mechanisms will have to be matched with a powerful demand-side strategy. A long history of local stagnancy (compounded by the poor quality of training delivery) has resulted in low premiums being attached to development activities such as skill acquisition. This is clearly manifested in the problem of high drop-out rates even under fully government-funded programmes. Thus social mobilisation through the Panchayati Raj Institutions, schools and other socially influential institutions will be required to create awareness about the benefits of quality skills and the need to invest in it.

The above PPP model presents the development challenge and the solutions in an entirely new perspective. First, it flags the need for systemic solutions for lower order skills as small and ad hoc solutions cannot cater to the massive needs that exist, nor can they ensure quality assurance of the desired order. Such solutions can only be built around the existing infrastructure and capacity embedded in the academic and technical institutions, a large proportion of which lie in the public domain. Second is the need for innovation in the delivery mechanism. Since the traditional institutional approach has not worked, new mechanisms based on entrepreneurship need to be tried. Third, it presents the role of the government and public outlays in a new light. Instead of spending large resources on creation of supply capacity through its own agencies, the government ought to focus on creating an institutional framework that helps harness and deliver the capacity that already exists or could be created productively by others. The latter approach would require a lot of work on formulating rules and regulations that are conducive to PPP, and on meeting the credit needs for both the grassroots entrepreneurs and trainees a majority of whom lack credit-worthy legal identity by current standards. This is quite a challenging package. But for meeting the ambitious goals of the National Skill Development Mission and the ‘inclusion' objective of the Eleventh Plan, there is no alternative to a new architecture to reach out to the informal sector, to the backward regions and to those facing the brunt of the social and gender divide. — Courtesy: U.N. Information Centre for India and Bhutan

(Formerly with the UNDP, Harsh Singh is currently the head of the Centre on Market Solutions to Poverty at the International Management School in New Delhi.)

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