Grand unification

The need for skills is urgent, a separate ministry is warranted.

With the establishment of a Central ministry for skill development and entrepreneurship, the Narendra Modi government has gone into silobreaking mode. This is welcome. The move wrests the core elements of the prime minister’s vision for growth from various ministries and pools them under one minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, and under one budget, which could be in the region of Rs 25,000 crore. Negotiations had begun in June with almost two dozen ministries, and most of them had apparently objected to losing their turf. However, it is time to consolidate the numerous skilling initiatives taken by various ministries and institutes. The National Policy on Skill Development declared a training capacity of only 3.1 million. This year, the National Skill Development Agency set a higher target of 7.3 million. But the economies of scale and unified vision, which must result from consolidation, would be required to meet even the UPA government’s goal of skilling 500 million workers by 2022. Indeed, the target would have to be escalated if growth accelerates the exodus from agriculture.

Rapid skilling is essential if India is to convert what has been described as a population problem into a demographic dividend. Fast-growing economies require the highly skilled in far greater numbers than the highly educated. Besides, skilling addresses the social problem of the highly educated but unemployed, a familiar phenomenon for several decades. India has one of the world’s biggest workforces, but the proportion of qualified skilled labour is quite small, and the primary opportunity could lie in certification.

For now, far too much of young India learns on the job. It learns well but lacks the stamp of authority, and languishes in low-paid jobs or in the informal sector. Apart from the obvious goal of training the wholly unskilled, the new ministry should give some thought to certifying the armies of the irregularly skilled who form the backbone of unorganised manufacturing. Several trades like those of machinists and carpenters would benefit from certification, and jobs and assured incomes — even dollar incomes — would follow. However, skilling on a national scale, preparing workers for both Indian and international markets, requires centralised oversight and unified vision. The purpose would have been indifferently served by training bodies under diverse ministries. It is time for a grand unification.