The NDA’s Ministry of Un-Skilling India

A year after Narendra Modi's Skill India initiative was introduced, the country remains far from capitalising on its demographic dividend.

It is universally acknowledged that India has an enormous demographic dividend. By 2026, nearly 65% of our population will be between 15-64 years (with 35% being below 35). Given that, the country is poised to become the world’s single destination for skilled human resources. However, only 25% of India’s graduates, less than 10% of MBA graduates and 17% of engineers are employable (i.e., they have the necessary skill set to be employed by industries across sectors). Also, a vast majority of our population works in the informal sector, with little quantifiable skills. Consequently, our much hailed demographic dividend also happens to be a “demographic time bomb”. India needs to aggressively invest in providing skills to its youth to capitalise on this untapped potential.

The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE), which was established to upgrade the UPA government’s skill development infrastructure, the National Skill Development Agency (NSDA) and the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), was a step in the right direction. This was especially so because despite their best intentions, the UPA governments had ended up reducing the grand aim of skill development to select training programs undertaken by various ministries and departments. Half-hearted attempts were made to streamline these programs, but there was no clear focus on skill development. The MSDE promised to bring cohesiveness and unity of purpose to skill development in India. However, apart from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much publicised chest thumping on skill development, the NDA government has done nothing to expedite the process and has stumbled at many instances.

Given that it was to be a nodal point for the coordination of all skill efforts across India, much was expected of the MSDE’s “Common Norms” (subsequently amended in May 2016), which were to bring about uniformity and standardisation in the implementation of various skill development schemes by different central ministries and departments. However, what is extremely shocking is that the ministry’s own flagship program, the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) still does not adhere to the common norms. The PMKVY does not have standardised minimum hours, training cost norms, funding norms or input standard norms. This poses serious implications on the credibility of Modi’s Skill India initiative.

Furthermore, the two bodies responsible for certifying people, the National Council of Vocational Training and the Assessment Agencies empanelled by the Sector Skills Councils, work at odds with one other. They follow dichotomous norms, be it with regard to hours of training, competency standards, assessment norms or certification. This defeats the idea of a unified nationwide skill certification, without which employers won’t have a common metric of gauging the skill set of potential employees.

The NDA’s comedy of errors doesn’t stop there. The PMKVY was  designed so that the government would fund agencies to train people (Rs 10,000 was given for each individual trained). However, the government has not set up any monitoring or evaluation mechanisms to gauge the efficacy or the quality of training, thus reducing the scheme to mere statistical jugglery. Consequently, a whooping Rs 1,500 crore was spent hastily and without clarity on outcomes.

skill india Source: Scheme Outlay, Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana

Realising the enormity of the blunder (or was it a deliberate diversion to benefit nefarious interests?), the NDA switched to funding 600 Kaushal Kendras and guaranteed them steady business. Firstly, the NDA has made the eligibility criterion so rigid that only a few companies are qualified, which opens the door for corruption and an exclusivist ecosystem. Secondly, by taking upon itself the responsibility of providing students, the NDA has removed any incentive for these Kendras to be genuinely interested in being quality institutions of skill development, since they need not be competitive to be attractive options for students.

The vision of skilling India has been further stymied by the way the NDA is managing it. Originally, the NSDA was designed to be an independent regulatory authority for quality assurance of skill development. The NDA has relegated the NSDA under MSDE and instead of an independent director general at the NSDA, it is led by a joint secretary within the ministry (thereby eliminating any scope for an honest appraisal of skilling programmes). Furthermore, both the NSDA and the NSDC have the same chairperson, which is clearly a conflict of interest, for one body is meant to implement the schemes for skilling and the other to regulate them. Adding to this chaotic management structure, the PMKVY, which is also managed by the NSDC, is managed by another joint secretary.

Everyone in this swamp of institutions functions in independent silos, which has obviously resulted in severe conflicts of ideas and functions. How can we expect the MSDE to coordinate the skill agenda for the country when it cannot even coordinate or streamline itself?

It’s highly unlikely that India will capitalise on its demographic dividend if the current state of affairs continues. There are no innovative and radical strategies being deployed to skill India, nor is there any evidence of a framework to operationalise this. Plato once argued that empty vessels make the loudest noise. Both the prime minister and MSDE will therefore do well to remember that you are what you do, not what you say you will do.

Pushparaj Deshpande is currently an analyst with the All-India Congress Committee. He has worked on legislation and policy with various MPs.