At 21, Bilal Ahmad gathered the guts to knock on destiny’s door a second time. After passing Std XII with a first division from a private school in Delhi, he had earned a mechanical engineering degree from the Guru Nanak Dev Institute of Technology in northwest Delhi’s Rohini in 2016. One among countless engineering graduates in the country, he grew desperate after months of not finding a job. A friend advised him to take up housekeeping.
A manpower services company trained him and found him a placement as housekeeping supervisor in Delhi Metro in 2017. He was paid ₹15,000 a month, but Ahmad knew this wasn’t what he had dreamed of. His father sold bedsheets for a living and Ahmad was expected to do better in life.
In June this year, he walked into a government-approved skill training centre in Okhla. He enrolled to become a CNC (computer numerical control) machinery operator, which entails a 500-hour course over 63 working days. On completion, he hopes to earn anywhere from ₹9,000 to ₹12,000 a month at a factory floor. The salary is lower than what he got as a housekeeper, but that does not matter to him.
“This is the closest I can ever get to being in my field. If not an engineer, at least this,” he says.
On July 15, 2015, a year after he was voted into power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Skill India programme and rolled out the skill ministy’s flagship scheme Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY), promising to make India “the human resource capital of the world”. Unemployment is a non-issue if India’s labour is skilled, he said, announcing that 40 crore people would be trained in various skills by 2022.
Skill India, with the support of the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), claims to have trained over 2.5 crore individuals across 527 PMKVY centres since the programme’s inception. But Labour Bureau figures show that the country is struggling to shake off a record low in job creation. What’s the true picture?
The business of skilling
“In India, your marriage gets fixed based on your degree first and your salary next. A driver earning ₹25,000 commands less respect than a B-grade engineer earning half that amount,” says a Delhi-based business head of an international skill development and training services company.
By 2021, more than 64 per cent of Indians will be in the working age group (15-59), according to the 2014 Economic Survey. By 2020, the average age of the 1.25-billion Indian population will be 29. By 2025, India is projected to have the world’s largest workforce — a surplus of 47 million skilled workers, even as the rest of the world faces a shortage of 56.5 million workers, it says.
But today, one in every three young Indians has fallen through the cracks, neither employed nor getting educated or trained vocationally. According to a World Bank report, only 2.3 per cent of India’s workforce is formally skilled when compared to 52, 68, 75 and 80 per cent in the US, UK, Germany and Japan, respectively.
The ambitious Skill India Mission set aside ₹17,000 crore last year to equip every district with at least one PMKVY training centre. The mission claims to impart skill training to match 252 job roles, with courses on masonry, carpentry, welding, electronics, beauty therapy, healthcare, banking, hospitality, retail, computer technology, sewing and so on.
But out of 18.03 lakh people trained under the PMKVY in 2015-16, only 12.4 per cent were placed or found jobs, said a 2017 report by a five-member government panel headed by Sharda Prasad, former head of the Directorate General of Education & Training, which questioned the efficacy of the mission.
The elusive jobs
Credible figures for job creation are hard to find, but based on the Labour Bureau’s surveys, the Economic and Political Weekly reported in September 2017 that total employment had shrunk by 0.4 per cent per annum between 2013-14 and 2015-16. An estimated 37.4 lakh jobs were lost during this period, according to the report by Vinoj Abraham of the Centre for Development Studies. “Perhaps this is for the first time in independent India that we have an absolute decline in employment,” it said.
There is more. The unemployment rate almost doubled between July 2017 and April 2018, from 3.39 per cent to 6.23 per cent, even as the number of jobs fell to 406 million from 406.7 million a year ago, according to the independent think tank Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). In the 10 months following the November 2016 demonetisation of currency notes, the average employment rate fell by 1 per cent to 41.9 per cent, and in March this year, it fell to its lowest at 40 per cent.
The Prime Minister, on his part, is questioning the data collection methods. “A person making ₹200 a day making pakodas is also employed,” Modi said recently, drawing flak from his critics who questioned how many pakoda-sellers earn even minimum wages. “More than a lack of jobs, the issue is a lack of data on jobs,” he said in a recent interview to Swarajya magazine.
The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wants to withdraw the quarterly employment surveys made by the labour bureaus and instead rely on figures from the EPFO (Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation), which are contested as they merely relabel existing unorganised sector jobs as new jobs in the organised sector.
“One should not confuse skilling with job creation. Skilling enables people to become productive. For job creation, we should ask, are firms investing in new capacity? Are firms investing in robotics and replacing the low-skilled with high-skilled manpower?” asks Pronab Sen, the former chief statistician of India and country director for the India programme of the International Growth Centre. “Skill India caters to the supply side. On the demand side, information systems aren’t agile enough to point us to where the jobs are. What could’ve been a skill shortage area five years ago might be facing a surplus today.”
After the big investment into skilling, lofty employment targets and, importantly, the next general election around the corner, there is immense pressure on the government to show that job growth is real.
The rot runs deep
Twenty-one-year-old Pradeep Kumar lives in Uttar Pradesh’s Banda district, better known as strife-ridden Bundelkhand, a region where farm distress is a constant reality. One of five siblings born to landless labourers, Kumar passed Std X.
“I worked as a labourer when not in school to earn for my family,” he says over the phone from Banda. At best, he earns ₹200 a day digging earth or carrying stones for an upcoming village road or pucca construction. Sometimes he works as farm labour.
Last December, a few men came in cars and offered Kumar, his friend Pradeep and others training and jobs as security guards at a monthly salary of ₹9,000. They had to submit their Std X original mark sheets, some photographs and photocopies of their Aadhaar card. It’s been months now, but they haven’t heard back from the men. “It took a while for me to realise that this was a scam. They still have my 10th pass certificate,” Kumar says.
“Each year documents of 2,000 to 3,000 individuals like Pradeep’s are collected across districts such as Banda, Mahoba, Jhansi and Lalitpur by selling a job promise. False enrolments are common here,” says Raja Bhaiya, founder of the livelihood and rights-based non-profit Vidya Dham Samiti in Banda, over the phone. He describes it as open loot in the name of Skill India and the Uttar Pradesh Kaushal Vikas Yojana (UPKVY).
He set up his organisation in 2001 to help ensure that government schemes reach the poorest of the poor. At the UPKVY office, Raja Bhaiya has verified with the data entry officers and seen the names and addresses of Kumar and others on the enrolment records. “They feign helplessness, saying, ‘We all have to meet targets’,” Bhaiya says.
“The scam is out in the open. I challenge any Skill India official to come with a list of enrolments from the centres here and knock on the doors of the so-called ‘registered’ students. They will find clueless faces,” he says.
In comparison, Delhi seems to witness more skilling, even through vocational courses offered in its government schools.
“My impression is that there is a very wide range of performance (differences) in the states and much scope for states to learn from each other. I am hoping that the skill ministry should really control this,” Rajiv Kumar, vice chairman of the Niti Aayog, told The Hindu BusinessLine in an interview last month.
In urban India, private skill training centres and certification bodies are a dime a dozen. Under the Skill India Mission’s PPP (public-private partnership) model, anyone can start a training centre or become a certifying body simply by showing a little industry experience, paying an often hefty registration fee (₹50,000 to ₹10 lakh) and adhering to some basic norms. Depending on the course offered, the centres can bill the PMKVY anywhere from ₹44.40 per hour for, say, GST training to ₹600 per hour for an advanced engineering course involving heavy equipment and infrastructure.
Industry insiders point fingers at the funding model of the Sector Skill Councils (SSCs) that was introduced in 2011-12. The SSCs are in charge of the development of each skill under the Skill Development Ministry, including designing and drafting the skill’s national occupational standard. The NSDC and the SSCs monitor only a handful of the training centres. Each SSC functions like a start-up, run by the seed capital of a governing council made up of the who’s who of industry. For instance, the healthcare SSC chairman is Naresh Trehan, chairman of Medanta multi-speciality hospital, while Rakesh Biyani, joint MD of Future group, is the chairman of the retail SSC. The SSCs were initially funded by the NSDC and other government bodies, but in 2011-12 they were asked to become self-funded, leading to partnerships with questionable training centres and certifying bodies. The lack of a standard operating procedure for assessments has led to questionable certification.
“Each time my assessment body has gone by the rulebook, we have had to pay a price and lose business. Only those who issue easy certification are frequently invited by SSCs for batch certification. Everybody is chasing targets,” says the founder of a Delhi-based skill assessment start-up, on condition of anonymity.
“An SSC that is financially bootstrapped is saddled with the headache of sustaining its own funding first. If you free them up, their only job will be to ramp up the quality of training and tighten assessments to be uncompromising,” says another industry insider, also on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t need to create 400 million half-baked jobs. We need 40 million top-quality jobs that will become ambassadors of Skill India”.
Too little for anybody
The IL&FS Institute of Skill in Okhla, where Ahmad studies, trained 1,888 students in 2017-18 for seven trades. There were just a handful of students present in the electrical, healthcare and beauty and wellness departments when this reporter visited the centre. It wears an empty look because the institute has been waiting for trade-specific allocations from the NSDC for over a month. Only then can it open up for free admissions under PMKVY. Each year, the NSDC specifies the seating capacity in institutes such as the IL&FS to ensure that the skilling fits the quantum of industry requirement. Until then, the students currently are either self-funded or trained under the CSR wing of corporate entities.
Centre director Kaviraj Kataria beams as he points to the thick placement folder kept at the reception.
Sandhya Gupta is one of several examples of success the institute cites when it comes to free training under PMKVY. Gupta, 23, completed a 45-day retail course at the Okhla centre last April. She had earlier graduated from Delhi University and was unsuccessful in finding a suitable job. She heard about the IL&FS institute and attended a counseling session. It helped her realise that retail matched her interests.
“The course helped me get a job at a theme park in Noida as a sales executive. Today I work at Shoppers Stop, a retail chain, and earn ₹11,000 a month,” she says.
With schemes such as Ustaad, Udaan, Seekho aur Kamao, Nai Manzil, the government seems to have something for every kind of livelihood option. But can it scale? “Udaan, aims to train 40,000 youth in Jammu and Kashmir and offer them employment across India to steer them away from violence,” says Kataria. His complaint is that the centre offers placement to all its candidates but only 60-70 per cent take up the jobs. “From next year, we want to be allowed to charge a commitment fee, so that the youth are serious about placement,” he says.
“There are gaps that remain. The placement record can be better. At that end, if you combine skilling courses with on-the-job training, you will get better results. The skill ministry is focussing on apprenticeship now in a big way,” said Rajiv Kumar.
Questioning the rationale behind investing heavily in private skill institutes, S Augusthy, principal of the 60-year-old CV Raman Industrial Training Institute in Delhi, instead calls for strengthening the infrastructure of the existing ITIs — institutes set up earlier to give skill training to students. “Last year, we saw 43,000 applications for the 10,000 seats across Delhi ITIs. We place 80-100 per cent of our students, depending on the trade,” he says.
“Success can only come to you by courageous devotion to the task lying in front of you,” reads a quote by the Nobel Laureate scientist CV Raman, in big bold letters outside Augusthy’s office. A good lesson for the Skill India Mission to reflect upon.
Construction 320 lakh
Retail 107 lakh
Beauty and wellness 82 lakh
Electronics and IT 69 lakh
Road transport and highways 62.2 lakh
Textile handloom and handicraft 60 lakh
Furniture and fittings 52.6 lakh
Tourism and hospitality 49 lakh
Logistics 42.9 lakh
Automotive, auto components and capital goods 41 lakh
Source: India skill report, 2018
(With inputs from Tina Edwin)