Engineers are the main focus of Modi's Skill India, but what of the underprivileged?
If you thought Prime Minister Narendra Modi's aim of turning India into the "skill capital of the world" was a pipe dream, think again.
The ruling BJP government has gone ahead with setting up a formal central service for the purpose - the Indian Skill Development Services (ISDS) - under the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC).
The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) issued the notification for the ISDS on 4 January.
Empowering 500 million
The plan is to "attract young and talented administrators for Skill Development", who will help the government achieve the 'Skill India Mission' - a flagship programme, launched on 15 July 2015, which originally aimed to create a "skilled workforce" of over 400 million people by 2022.
However, the new ISDS notification mentions the target of "skilling 500 million by 2022".
The government hopes to "supply huge human resource not only in India but also internationally", says the MSDE notice.
The Union Cabinet had approved the creation of this 'Group A' category service under the UPSC on 7 October, 2015.
But while aspiring civil servants have another option to choose from, only engineers will be recruited as the induction will take place through the Indian Engineering Service Examination conducted by the UPSC.
"The knowledge acquired by the engineers recruited will give new impetus to the initiative of the government to the skill development and also efficient and effective implementation of the schemes," as per the notice.
With this new service, "the skill ecosystem is expected to get strengthened and modernised in line with the current scientific and industrial development in the country".
Was this a necessary step?
Catch spoke to experts to find out what this new service means for the country. The views were conflicted, as some welcomed the new service as attesting to the "seriousness" of the government; others thought it was "unnecessary" and did not address some core existing concerns.
Professor Bino Paul, an expert on labour issues and Dean of the School of Management and Labour Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumabi, welcomed the move.
"The service adds to the seriousness of the government's commitment of skilling India's youth," said Paul.
"Given the massive scale of Skill India mission, we need a threshold level for sustainable growth which we have not yet reached. This requires coordination and focus, and the ISDS is a step in the right direction."
He said one of the advantages of the ISDS will be ensuring "quality".
"At present, skill development is being conducted in a silo. Besides government initiatives, there are also many private agencies involved in skill development that do not comply with the quality standards. The ISDS will help align the skill training with National Skills Qualifications Framework, ensuring quality. Otherwise, it can be difficult to ascertain the quality of skilled labour vis-à-vis the expectations of the employers."
There are at least 13,105 ITIs in the country, catering to more than 18.65 lakh students. Of these institutes, while 2,293 are government-run, the rest are private.
A 'blue-collar workforce'
However, there are criticisms that Skill India basically aims to create an army of "blue-collar workforce" to cater to the needs of the global market, while cutting off the underprivileged population's access to higher education and even neglecting the importance of good primary education leads to better prospects.
Skill India is also tied to the 'Make in India' campaign, which seeks to turn India into a global manufacturing hub.
The main concern is that the "skilled" labour force is likely to be youths belonging to socially and economically disadvantaged sections - further widening the difference between those who attend the ITIs (Industrial Training Institutes) and the elite IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology).
The importance of general education
Responding to this, Professor Paul emphasised the need for "broad-basing of skills", or in other words, ensuring that the skilled workers also acquired a solid general education besides vocational and technical skills.
"Currently, there are three separate verticals of general education, technical education, and vocational education. There is a need to ensure that there is a fusing of these three. We need to ensure the working classes acquire generally education as well, as it will lead to flexibility in work and more earning potential for the workers."
This was also among the various concerns raised by Professor Praveen Jha, an expert in labour economics and development economics, who teaches at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning as well as the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
"First of all, what do we mean by "skill"? What kind of skills are we talking about here? What are the activities being considered? An engineer has "skills" as does a plumber or mechanic or an agricultural labourer," Jha said.
"More importantly, what is the problem with the existing skill development infrastructure? Why have the present failed to deliver? Is it because there are not enough skilled workers or because there are not enough employers?"
Jha said there are "different cohorts among the unemployed." The highest numbers of unemployed are the educated unemployed, whether those with college degrees or even those who are Class 12 pass, he said.
The professor gave an example of a newspaper advertisement by the UP government inviting applications for 360-odd vacant positions of peons, sometime in September 2015.
"The government received 27 lakh applications, of which more than 2.5 lakh were engineers, and a significant number held PhDs," he said.
"So what is the problem? This is obviously linked to the question of demand, not just supply as implied by Skill India. While there have been a few reported complaints by industry that they do not find suitable workers, can we really make a studied case that there is a skill shortage? Where lies the mismatch? Do we really have a shortage of plumbers or factory workers, for example?"
Then there is the question of where this massive army of skilled labour will be employed.
"What we are seeing is a jobless growth of the economy. In fact, the last quarter and the one before show that the money is flowing out. The average number of investments has halved, never mind Make in India. So where will these 500 million skilled workers go? With this new service, what are we looking to address? Is it a short-term mismatch?"
Jha said he is not disregarding the importance of skill development. "On the contrary, the whole rhetoric around skilling seems to trivialise the issue of skill development by reducing and obfuscating complex questions," he said.
"Every society needs to have provisions and infrastructure for imparting skills that ensure employability of the people."
He gave the example of China, which India seeks to emulate. "China became the factory of the world as it ensured good quality secondary-level education, good enough for the population to get absorbed in a whole range of activities. In fact, almost 90% workers in China receive in-house skill training, provided by employers after recruiting the workers. They do not have ITIs like India."
He also said before starting a new service and pushing existing problems under the carpet, we need to find out why the existing system has not worked.
"The national skill mission was first launched during the UPA-II regime. The ITIs have been around for many years and their number is increasing. gain, what is the problem? Are there issues with the curriculum, the design or the mandate that they have been given? Is it the demand? Without addressing the existing problems, creating new 'skill universities' and even this new service is superfluous."
Jha's solution echoed Bino Paul's suggestion, of bridging the gap between skills and education. "We need to give people very good basic education at different stages. The imparting of skills has to be connected to the larger project of good quality education."
Both Paul and Jha gave the example of Germany, where towards the end of free and good-quality schooling, kids have the option of going for vocational and technical streams.
Edited by Aleesha Matharu