Let us not go overboard about DESH-Stack e-portal for skilling just yet

Let us not go overboard about DESH-Stack e-portal for skilling just yet

The latest Union Budget contained a slew of announcements on skill development to signal the Central government’s continued commitment to advance the cause of skill development in the country given its stated objectives of ensuring sabka vikaas (development for all) and creating an Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) [1].

With India accounting for almost 17% of the global population, a “vibrant demography” has been identified as one of the pillars that need to be strengthened for putting in place the self-reliance model that the administration has been talking of for some time now. The other pillars on which rests the ambition of self-reliance being “Economy”, “Infrastructure”, “System (Technology-driven)” and “Demand”.

The most notable aspect of the Budget pronouncements was about the launch of a “Digital Ecosystem for Skilling and Livelihood” or “DESH-Stack e-portal” that would “empower citizens to skill, reskill or upskill through on-line training”, and, also, provide Application Programming Interface (API)-based “trusted skill credentials, payment and discovery layers to find relevant jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.”

Well intentioned as these Budget announcements were, it may be a little premature, though, to immediately start going overboard about these despite the hype that has already started getting created in some quarters around the potential of the DESH-Stack e-portal to revolutionize India’s skills landscape. The development of a digital ecosystem cannot by itself prove a gamechanger unless we recognize and address the hard realities that could determine our success in developing a vibrant skill development ecosystem in the country.

So, what are these hard realities?

First, much as some of us may rue the absence of skilled plumbers, electricians, etc., those at the bottom of the pyramid don't see taking up such job roles as their way out of the bottom of the economic pyramid and the passport to a better quality of life. Even if some of them may also formally learn these trades at skills institutions, be passed down that knowledge from family members engaged in these professions or become gig workers on platforms that create opportunities for such people.

A lot of times, plumbing, electrician skills etc. are picked up by economically marginalised youth in the hope that by doing so they may, if chance favours them, land a government job or some form of employment as a handyman at gated housing complexes that are now springing up at a rapid pace even in the smaller towns and cities.

Secondly, it is time we accepted that a significant proportion of young people don’t want to become (low-cost) factory labour out of choice even if that’s what some manufacturing companies would prefer to keep their production expenses down (and in the case of SMEs, especially, stave off automation for as long as possible to avoid the initial high costs of embarking on that exercise). The preference of most youth is to work in the services sector (which, in any case, contributes the maximum to the economy) because they believe that doing so could open the doors for them to a better quality of life that acquiring low-end manufacturing skills wouldn’t.

Thirdly, no gain is achieved by setting up larger and more facilities under some government scheme to provide manufacturing skills of a lower order if doing so does not result in significantly improving the earning abilities of those acquiring such skills. Just because a neighbouring country has achieved success in becoming the factory of the world doesn’t mean that India must replicate everything it does as there’s also no guarantee that doing so would yield the sort of results we are seeking.

Fourthly, no purpose is served by obsessing about some of our traditional skills dying out because the new generation is not interested in those any longer. For, as it has been said, the old order must change to make way for the new. The traditional ways of doing certain things can always be documented so that the learnings are not completely lost.

Fifthly, the skills, culture can only take deep roots in the country if all of us, including the urban middle-class, and not just employers, industry, and business, demonstrate the willingness to pay more to those possessing skills. Why should anyone bother to get themselves skilled if on the ground there is hardly any earning difference between the unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled blue-collar workforce?

Lastly, and most critically, the biggest success possibly of India’s skill development efforts over the last 10 years has been the creation of a huge business opportunity for all kinds of vocational training providers (VTPs) even as ‘employability’ of the supposedly ‘skilled’ continues to remain a question mark.

By way of example, on the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) – the Government’s flagship skills training initiative – alone, the Government has spent nearly Rs 10,000 crore till December 31, 2021, to train 1.34 crore people. The bulk of this amount has gone to reimburse VTPs for the training they provided to different individuals under the scheme. 

In a written reply to the Rajya Sabha on February 9, 2022, the Union Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship admitted that since the inception of short-term training programs under the PMKVY scheme in 2015, less than 50% of the total number of people certified had been “placed” (in jobs or self-employment) till December 31, 2021[2].

The PMKVY has two training mechanisms – Short Term Training (STT) and Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL). Under the scheme, placement opportunities are provided to STT-certified candidates, while RPL is not linked with placements as it recognizes the existing skills of candidates. Under PMKVY-STT, 53.89 lakh candidates had been certified till December 31, 2021. Of this number, 23.70 lakh candidates received “placement”, including the 2.95 lakh who opted for self-employment.

The PMKVY (except PMKVY 1.0 launched in 2015-16) has two components, namely, a Central component that is being implemented through the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), and State component that is implemented through the State Skill Development Mission of the concerned State/Union Territory. Under the Central component of PMKVY, there is no provision of a state-wise funds allocation.

Since the inception of the PMKVY, an amount of Rs 8,590.29 crore had been disbursed till December 31, 2021, to the NSDC towards the implementation of the scheme. Following the incorporation of the state component in the PMKVY in 2016, an amount of Rs 1,224.82 crore had been disbursed till December 31, 2021, to states for the implementation of the scheme.

Way Forward

So, how does one go about fixing India’s skills development scenario in a post-Corona world marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity?

The DESH-Stack e-portal is a good starting point. However, this needs to be supplemented by a series of measures to get India’s skills ecosystem move at the pace necessary for making a concrete, manifest difference in the lives of youth.

The private sector can play a bigger role in the process of raising the pool of employable graduates through increasing opportunities for internship and apprenticeship in their organizations. Incidentally, the National Policy for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, 2015, had also talked of businesses, including micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), encouraging apprenticeships at their facilities [3].

Implementing the National Education Policy 2020 in both letter and spirit can also contribute significantly to the cause of skills-related education in India as it lays down a blueprint on how vocational education can be integrated with conventional formal education. Among other things, the National Education Policy talks of exposing 50% of learners in the school and higher education systems to vocational education by 2025. It also mentions integrating vocational education “into all school and higher education institutions in a phased manner over the next decade”.

Moreover, the policy states that the aim, going forward, would be to make vocational courses available to all students enrolled in Bachelor-degree programs, including the 4-year multidisciplinary Bachelor programs [4].

Weeding out poorly performing vocational training providers associated with government-funded skill training programs at the Centre and state levels, too, could help inject new life into the skills domain. Authorities could come up with a grading mechanism for VTPs on the lines of the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) that already exists for higher educational institutions, and, then select only such training providers to be associated with government skilling programs that have a good track record in ensuring placements for the youth trained at their facilities. That way, VTPs would be compelled to raise their standards of service delivery as not doing so could potentially lead to them losing out on securing business from the government.

Automation may prove the death knell for many low-end, repetitive jobs in future. Given this stark reality, encouraging the acquisition of ‘transferable skills’ – whereby a person working in a specific sector can translate some of the skills and competencies associated with that domain in a different segment – can ensure that youth are better prepared to locate alternative employment opportunities in the event of their current jobs getting automated.

The Union Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship could work closely with industry bodies such as CII, NASSCOM, etc. to identify different kinds of transferable skills and the sectors where these could be found useful. The benefits of acquiring transferable skills could be communicated through awareness campaigns run by the Ministry. Following consultation with all relevant stakeholders, especially industry, the curricula of heavily domain-specific skills training programs could be redesigned so that adequate emphasis is accorded on skills trainees acquiring identified transferable skills and competencies.

Prioritizing the provision of business loans under the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY) to people who have been skilled and certified through government-recognized skill development programs could, in its own way, moreover, encourage greater enrolment at skills training institutions, and, in the process raise the pool of trained manpower in the country.

Mudra loans come in three categories – Shishu (loans up to Rs 50,000), Kishor (loans upwards of Rs 50,000 up to Rs 5 lakh), and Tarun (for loans above Rs 5 lakh and up to Rs 10 lakh). The Union Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship could take the lead in coordinating with the Mudra authorities to ensure that skilled youth, especially those living in smaller towns and cities, and rural areas, who are interested in entrepreneurship can easily gain access to Mudra loans [5].

For a country like India that is banking on a favourable demographic profile to become a $5 trillion economy over the next few years, it is imperative that those in the working age group be provided with the relevant skills and lifelong learning opportunities that would enable them to participate in and contribute to the nation’s growth and development.

Staying grounded, learning from the mistakes made in the past, and demonstrating the willingness to be adaptive could be the best ways through which the key drivers of India’s skills ecosystem can help the country meet its commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) target of substantially increasing by 2030, “the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship” [6].



About the Author

Sumali Moitra is a current affairs commentator. Twitter: @sumalimoitra

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