Skills quotient: The key to accelerate skill development

November 30, 2020 5:45 AM

Decentralisation has to be logically extended beyond designated district committees to gram panchayats

DSCs are expected to, inter alia, reduce the supply-demand mismatch, facilitate inclusion for all marginalised sections of the society, manage labour migration issues, and provide for robust monitoring.

By Juthika Patankar & Maneesh Mishra

The humungous reverse migration of workers during the Covid-19 lockdown has presented an unprecedented challenge for states, demographic dividend notwithstanding. With Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Jharkhand expecting the number of returnee migrant workers to run into millions, the preparedness of their home states to provide local employment is being put to test. The answer to the question of gainful local employment does not lie in market-based opportunities alone, as there are massive regional inequalities where regions with higher population growth have the dubious distinction of being underdeveloped, too.

In the wake of this challenge, the governments of many of these states have announced elaborate arrangements. Registering returnees and their skill levels and collating job opportunities in projects funded by the central or state governments are some of the measures announced. Although the process is still under way, it is becoming clear that an exercise of this nature calls for strong ground-level institutions with serious capacities of planning and implementation. The situation brings back old-fashioned decentralisation, centre-stage.

It is evident that building adequate capacities at the grass-roots levels for identifying employment opportunities early and anticipating skill requirements at the level of districts is critical for an outcome-focused skills training system. But how it has to be done and why has this not been done till date are the questions that require careful examination from the skill development ecosystem, its trajectory of expansion, and the extent of decentralisation of its planning and operations.

India has 487 million workers, and over a million join the labour force every month. However, at the same time, about two-thirds of employers in India report that they struggle to find workers with the right skills. India ranks 78th on a list of 122 countries as per the Human Capital Development report of the World Economic Forum. With at least 20 government departments running skill development programmes in recent years, India should be doing better than that.

The outcome of skill development, unlike education, varies with employers and society. The return on investment in skill development depends on trainees’ easy access to training, apprenticeship opportunities and a smooth transition to the world of work. Therefore, the skill training ecosystem must take an integrated view of existing and potential demand, trainees, training providers and employers. Considering the demographic, economic, cultural and resource diversity of our country, putting such an ecosystem in place would continue to be an in-progress project for a long time.

Decentralised skill programme formulation and implementation would systematically capture demand, which, in turn, would result in supply rearranging itself to meet this demand. The organisation and management of training infrastructure, with attendant issues of labour welfare and security—which, thanks to the Covid-19 crisis, figures prominently on state governments’ agenda now—will ensure better alignment of demand and supply locally.

Effective decentralisation presupposes utilising existing institutions to greater effect. The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) is responsible for national skills training policy and management, and is aided by many institutions. The State Skill Development Missions (SSDMs) were launched in nearly all states to manage their skill development. Most states have also created designated district committees (generally called DSCs, but known by different appellations across states) to manage skill development. Thus, decentralised planning in skills is a concept already implicit in the skill development ecosystem of India. It is, however, noteworthy that the MSDE does not always have its exactly matching counterpart at the state or district levels, and so one would not normally find a district skills officer in the way from amongst 15-20 members of a DSC.

DSCs are composed of district-level government officials of various departments. Besides, a DSC can also co-opt local chambers of commerce and industry, civil society organisations, etc. DSCs are expected to deliberate upon and plan for access to viable skill training and employment for district human resources based on economic profile, market conditions and institutional infrastructure.

DSCs are expected to, inter alia, reduce the supply-demand mismatch, facilitate inclusion for all marginalised sections of the society, manage labour migration issues, and provide for robust monitoring. While this is a sound concept, in reality, where exactly do DSCs stand today vis-à-vis the achievement of all the above?

In many cases, DSCs have not been able to arrive at action plans to achieve their objectives. They lack leadership as well as financial resources. Most do not have a working secretariat. Their positioning and role at the district level is yet to be clearly spelled out. Their efficacy is subject to the personal engagement of individuals. In many cases, a district skill development plan (DSDP) has been produced by many a DSC, but their real contribution or even participation in the process has been illusory.

Should DSCs, then, be the starting point of this decentralisation? Yes, simply because they offer a ready-made platform from which all skill development planning and implementation could be given direction and focus. Governments need to strengthen DSCs by providing adequate financing. Professionals and subject-matter experts must be engaged for economic potential mapping and aligning skills to opportunities. A robust working linkage is needed between state skill missions (SSDM) and DSCs, so that opportunities and capacity at the national and state levels can be factored into the DSDPs.

In conclusion, but perhaps in what is really the beginning, decentralisation has to be logically extended beyond DSCs to gram panchayats. A robust DSC underpinned by gram panchayats, active in skill planning and implementation, would not only help handle the current challenges of rural distress and sustained livelihood, but also improve qualitative growth of the labour market.

(Patankar, an IAS, is additional secretary, MSDE; Mishra is lead consultant, SANKALP, MSDE)

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