It has been a comforting mantra: “The world is ageing, but India has youth on her side.” By the end of the decade, the average age of the Indian population will be 29. In comparison, in China and America it will be 37, 48 in Japan and 45 in western Europe. As a result of this “demographic dividend”, by 2040, a quarter of the globe’s incremental increase in working population is set to occur in India. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggests India’s youth bulge has the potential to produce an additional 2 percent per capita GDP growth each year for the next two decades. We are an emerging global power and riding the back of the demographic dividend.
Or so we would like to believe.
India’s key to future success — its youth — is a ticking time bomb. It is a growing mass of largely undernourished, undereducated, unemployable young people who aspire for a better life but don’t have the means to get there. Why? Because they aren’t qualified for the job market, and even if they are, jobs don’t exist.
Our present eligible workforce (the 15-64 age group) comprises 430 million people. Of them, only a few have received formal vocational training. Our organised sector, home to the jobs connected to aspiration, money and India’s growth story, employs only 30 million people. This leaves 400 million people in the unorganised sector, fending for themselves. Even now, 60 percent of our workforce is engaged in agriculture, which contributes only 18 percent of GDP, indicative of the widespread disguised unemployment and low productivity.
Amitabh Kundu, a professor of Development Economics at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, argues that though in the next 20 years, India will add another 480 million people to its existing workforce of 430 million. To convert this demographic dividend into a social and economic dividend, we need skill formation and that is sorely lacking. “The youth is getting disillusioned with the system of governance and this is being reflected on the streets. Baba Ramdev, Anna Hazare and even the Delhi rape protests are a reflection of a general sense of frustration among the youth,” says Kundu. “Frustration among the youth creates political instability and our generational dividend could turn into a disaster.”
INDIA’S YOUTH problem starts in the womb. More than half of the expectant mothers in India don’t receive the minimum three check-ups that the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH) has mandated in its guidelines on antenatal care. As a result, one out of every five child in India is of low birth weight and over 40 percent of children in India are underweight and stunted. Scarily, while 70 percent of children below five years are anaemic, only 43 percent of children below the age of two receive all their immunisation, compared to 90 percent in Bangladesh.
What is the impact of all this? According to the World Bank, the effect of undernourishment during the first eight years after birth can be devastating and enduring. It impacts the individual’s health as well as the ability to learn, communicate, think analytically, socialise effectively and adapt to new environments and people. While more than half the deaths before the age of five are caused by malnutrition, for those who do survive past five and find their way into schools, shouldering the hopes of their parents, life doesn’t get much better. The system sets them up for failure.
TAKE SATYAVATI. She had big dreams for her children. The 30-year-old works as a cleaner in New Delhi’s Govindpuri to support her husband financially and to ensure their three children get educated. It was during a parent-teacher meeting that she realised something was amiss in the local government school. “All the children would be out playing, even on school days, and the teachers would come just to mark their attendance so that they could take their pay and go home,” she says.
When Satyavati and her husband tried to shift their eldest son Abhishek, who was in Class V to a private school, to their shock they found that he could not read at a Class I level. He was forced to start from Class I again. Having shifted all three of her children to a private school, Satyavati says, “They have only starting seriously studying now.” A combination of childhood under-nutrition and negligent teachers has cost Satyavati’s children years, perhaps crippled their future for good.
According to the recent Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) report, 60 percent of the children in Class V cannot read at a Class II level and 75 percent cannot complete simple division sums. While the government pats itself on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for having achieved near universal enrolment in primary education (96 percent), there is in fact an 80 percent dropout by Class XII. So, of the 27 million children who annually enrol in primary schools across the country, only 5.4 million make it to Class XII. This is the reality of India’s generational dividend.
Says Minster of State for Human Resource, Shashi Tharoor: “We spent so much time in the first six decades after Independence concentrating on expansion of institutions, which is natural given that we only had 17 percent literacy at Independence. We also had to spend a lot of our energy on equity, including those who were left out from the education structure due to gender, caste, region, religion, and in some cases, language. So we missed out on excellence and the result is uneven quality. We have a few outstanding, elite organisations like the IITs and the IIMs and the rest are islands floating in a sea of mediocrity. This is the challenge we face today.”
The scary thing is, unlike physical capital or infrastructure, you cannot throw money at human capital. Human capital, skills and education levels are built generationally and if you have a bad system, you are going to lose a generation. There are four main faults with our education system — outdated and rigid syllabi; an educational structure with a ‘final exam’ fixation; failure of the vocational training set-up; and most importantly, teachers and their pedagogy.
EDUCATIONISTS AGREE the quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. Teacher training is the key to better education and if you have good educational leadership, you can raise the student achievement levels by 25 percent to 40 percent. However, in India once you have your BEd, you are a teacher for life and never need to update yourself. Shockingly, the quality of qualified teachers is below par. “Today, I get so many applications from ‘qualified’ teachers, but they lack the basic skills required to be a teacher and we cannot hire them,” says Abha Adams, director of the Step by Step School in Noida.
Take the case of Saroj Shukla, 30, the youngest of six brothers and the only one who dared to venture out of his sleepy village, Bhitauli in Uttar Pradesh, to pursue higher education in Lucknow. After completing his MA and PhD in Sanskrit, Saroj also qualified the National Eligibility Test (NET) from the UGC, but is still waiting for interview calls from several universities and degree colleges where he has applied for the post of a Lecturer of Sanskrit. While he waited he also completed a BEd in 2009, hoping to at least secure a teacher’s job in a state-run primary school. But a job eludes him.
“Sometimes I feel my brothers are much better off ploughing their fields. They are satisfied in life and do not face a challenge to their existence like me,” says Saroj, who makes 300 a class as a part-time lecturer in Lucknow University. Saroj is not only embarrassed to return to his village, he is also unable to marry until he gets a job.
And now thanks to the universalisation of education, as mandated in the Right to Education Act, 2010, India needs about 6.3 million school teachers to cater to children in the 6-14 age group. If you factor in retirement, you are looking at recruiting 2.5 lakh teachers every year.
“The biggest problem is the third-rate institutions for BEd,” says Vinod Raina, an educationist who helped draft the RTE law. “Post-RTE, we put a universal eligibility test in place to weed out unqualified teachers. Of the lakhs of trained teachers who appeared, only 1 percent passed the test. Where will these 6.3 million teachers come from?”
But, who wants to be a teacher? That is a question Abha Adams would often ask her students. “Not a single hand would go up. To the youth, teaching is not something you aspire to do.” According to a 2007 McKinsey report ‘How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better’, Singapore and Finland, which have the world’s leading school educational systems, recruit teachers from the brightest 5 percent-10 percent of graduates. Starting salaries of a teacher equal those of an engineer.
It is almost the antithesis in India. Though the Sixth Pay Commission has pushed starting salaries of primary teachers close to 25,000 a month, it is a Union government obligation and applies to all Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas, but not applicable to state and private schools. Even if you could pay all school teachers a higher salary, you don’t have enough candidates. India’s gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education is around 15 percent. Where are those 6.3 million teachers going to come from?
WHAT EXACTLY do we want from education: knowledge or skills? If you have the skills you can find your way to knowledge and the real learning of school is not in the textbooks. “The way you structure your class room is central to a child’s learning,” says Preminda Langer, a Delhi-based teacher trainer. “There is something known as habits for life, habitual ways of responding, which usually start being formed before the age of three. This starts at home, over which we have no control. But from three to six, you are in school. Whether it is gender equality, by making girls and boys work and play together or the idea of using your words and not your hands or standing up for yourself or putting something back after you use it, you have to teach it before the age of six and definitely by the age of 10 and then it becomes a habit for life. That way you create citizens who think of the community and beyond themselves.”
Through modern pedagogy, classes are broken up into smaller groups, responsibilities are given to each child, keeping them engaged and creating a sense of community and ownership. This serves a dual purpose, as children are engaged, dropouts are lower and at the same time, children learn to become responsible members of society. Instead in India, if you visit any government school, you will see packed classrooms, desks facing the black board and a teacher writing on the board or dictating from a text book. That is what we don’t need, blind followers who learn by rote. It is no way to build a demographic dividend.
Wilima Wadwan, head of statistics at ASER, is blunt in saying the Indian system doesn’t teach children to think. “We never ask our students what they think or take a stand and defend it,” she says. “They are taught to mug up and that is why India was ranked 74 out of 75 countries in the 2009 ranking of student assessment across the world. The RTE has brought in automatic promotion till Class VIII, so there is no testing or quality check. What makes things worrying is that about 40 percent of our labour force are dropouts who have had schooling only till Class VIII.”
The present orientation of our education system is towards a dreaded, make-or-break, final exam. Even if you sleep through class all year, you can cram at the eleventh hour and pass or even get a 90 percent. But that gets you nowhere in the real world.
According to Professor Tarundeep Singh Anand, who heads the faculty of strategic management at the Universal Business School, Mumbai, a country like India needs to focus on experiential learning. “Students join B-Schools with placements in mind,” says Anand. “Academics is not what you need in business, you need practical experience. Here, we still have 80 percent theory and 20 percent practical, so we decided to flip the model and make the majority practical and inject theory where it is required. UBS has divided the 100 marks given to judge a student by leaving 50 for the final exam and dividing the other 50 between assignments, projects, class participation, hands-on things that will get you to do and think.” Through their hands-on approach and real-time working with industry, they have found that they manage to place students in the first few months of college.
But not everyone is so lucky. The recent decades have seen a mushrooming of engineering, MBA and IT institutes, as these are the preferred job options. But they churn out unemployable graduates, so much so that companies such as Infosys and TCS have to train even engineering graduates for months before putting them to work.
THE GLOBAL slowdown has added to the list of worries. The old adage — no matter what, an engineer always finds a job — stand corrected in current times. Some 200 management schools have shut down in the past few years due to poor placement. Of the 1.5 million engineering students in India, over 70 percent are unemployed. The IT sector has also suffered, with 75 percent of graduates going unemployed. Degree holders are being churned out in a factory-like manner by institutions, and there is a genuine skilled manpower crisis for jobs that do exist.
“There is a big challenge to find people at a middle management, executive and senior executive level,” says Tejpreet Singh Chopra, President and CEO, Bharat Light and Power, a Delhi-based alternate energy company. “Because of the sheer numbers in India, the people who are in IIT and IIM are so smart that they can match anyone, anywhere. But the education in the US, produces more rounded individuals, who have the ability to think for themselves, apply themselves, debate and analyse.”
According to a World Bank-FICCI Survey in 2009, only 64 percent of employers are somewhat satisfied with new graduates passing out of Indian engineering institutions. Twenty-two-year-old Sharana D is a typical case of how the engineering dream has gone bust. The son of a small-time businessman, Sharana graduated from the PA College, Mangalore, in 2012 to fulfil his dream of becoming an engineer. “I always wanted to take up engineering. I had done a diploma course after completing Class X, but there was no scope for employment at that stage so I kept studying. Six years later, after having a degree, I found that there is still no scope for employment,” laments Sharana.
Sharana now works as a developer in Bengaluru earning around 8,000 a month. His job is to work on projects for his juniors in engineering colleges. “Finding a job boils down to quality of education,” he says.
“Seventy percent of what we are taught as part of our syllabus is not relevant to the job market. There is no practical or hands-on training. Another problem that I face is that I am from a Kannada-medium background. Even if I have the knowledge, I am not able to compete in the group discussion or HR rounds.”
Most of Sharana’s classmates are in the same boat. G Raghunandan lives with his parents and is still unemployed. “My mother pressured me into taking up engineering,” he says. “It was a safe bet, one that would land me a good job after graduation.” Raghunandan has given a number of placement tests but is still to get a job.
“One of the problems is the number of applicants versus the number of seats available. I have given tests for Infosys, ONGC… there are usually only 40 all-India vacancies. My exam centre itself had over 1,000 candidates. The other problem is of quality, there is a huge gap between what we are taught and what companies expect,” says Raghunandan.
SURJIT BHALLA, chairman of Oxus Investments, avers that this gap between education and industry needs to be bridged. “People want to do computer engineering and not textile engineering,” says Bhalla. “That is not going to work in India because that field is already saturated. We need to look at things that can create employment. Everywhere else, they are trying to increase the ambit of education and are making it more reflective of market needs. We need to follow suit.”
That would work if there were enough jobs for everyone. But is the job market big enough in the first place?
There are only 30 million jobs in the formal sector and unfortunately, the policy focus has been on creating more jobs in this sector. However, based on the figures provided in the Annual Survey of Industry report of 2010-11, there were 1,61,458 factories operating in the manufacturing sector, which employed around 12.3 million people and had a total investment capital of nearly 22 lakh crore. That works out to an investment of roughly 19 lakh per job. India needs to create 20 million jobs a year. Even if half of them want to enter the manufacturing sector, that will require an investment of 19 lakh crore to create the 10 million jobs, almost a quarter of our GDP.
Ashok Khosla, chairman of Delhi-based Development Alternatives (DA), calls it an expensive proposition. “We need to focus on creating smaller jobs. DA regularly creates jobs that cost Rs 20,000- Rs 1 lakh and pays a salary above Rs 6,000. It may seem less, but in a rural set-up, it gives more purchasing power than Rs 15,000 would in a city.”
A feeling shared by Professor Kundu. “The largescale sector will grow but not as much as we hoped,” he says. “The 430 million that comprise our labour force are not very well skilled. We should absorb them in small towns by giving them skills that allow them to improve their productivity in the small-scale sector.”
THIS QUEST for jobs is already assuming dangerous proportions and has driven some youth to desperation. According to a senior police officer in Jharkhand, while the Maoists have been unable to recruit young men on a large scale over the past two-three years, non-ideological extortionist groups have become very attractive for unemployed youth in Jharkhand’s villages. “These militant groups, albeit clubbed as Leftwing- extremists, pay a small share of what they extract from business to the boys as payment. This is becoming an attractive option for unemployed, directionless young boys in villages,” says Pankaj, a ‘militant’ with one of the splinter groups working against the Maoists. “I would have liked to be a farmer, stay home with my parents, but that’s not an option.”
To create jobs and boost livelihood, the UPA government rolled out the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). But Professor Kundu feels that MGNREGS is not the right way forward: “It is a piecemeal, short-term solution and doesn’t address the larger issue of job creation.” While all-India unemployment stands at 5 percent (as even those living hand-to-mouth through menial jobs are considered employed), over the past few years, the number of educated unemployed youth between the ages of 15-29 has been growing and stands at 10 percent for urban males and 23 percent for urban females. The present aspiration is to go to college and get a high paying job, but what is needed much more is a reorientation of our vocational training system.
One of the biggest problems is that vocational degrees are sidelined or looked down upon. That needs to change, and for that the system needs to be altered. Innovative suggestions are available. For example, why not incorporate vocation into the History undergraduate course in Delhi University by combining it with a heritage module that teaches you the history of Delhi and India, so when you graduate, you have a college degree and the option to become either a heritage guide or set up your own tourism business.
“If we make sure that out of eight-odd subjects that make up your overall assessment in Class VIII, 20 percent are slotted for a vocational course, say carpentry, you will see dropout rates falling and the growth of entrepreneurship,” says Tarundeep Singh. “A lot of dropouts are due to economic reasons. Poor families put pressure on their children to work. If you have a vocation as part of your syllabus, a father who may be a carpenter, will see that his child can help him and realise that it is beneficial to keep him or her in school. The same can be done with farming, teach about seeds or irrigation techniques and so on. They will be able to help out at home and also think of entrepreneurship much earlier.”
Only 10 percent of our youth (15-29 years) have received some form of vocational training. “We are trying to create a vocaltionalisation of higher education by bringing in some 360 hours of vocational options/possibilities into the high school system,” says Tharoor. “We are trying to expose kids to vocational options if they are finding themselves overwhelmed by the high school experience.” This could work well for a country where professional skills in vocational training have essentially been transmitted down the gene pool. “We therefore need to create a culture where vocational training is imparted in classrooms,” says Tharoor. “For instance, where master craftsmen come out and are willing to teach strangers and not just their own relatives.” But in a country like India, like with everything else, the big challenge is in the implementation of such a strategy.
WHEN ASKED why our education standards are below par, Abha Adams, director of Step by Step School, put it down to two words: political will. “It has not been in the interest of any government to ensure universalisation of education,” says Adams. “Why would a government deny its people universal education? Because education gives you access to ideas, rights and opens doors of abilities. Education upsets the status quo and if, as a government, you stay in power by virtue of votebanks that you create and nurture, it is not in your interest to ensure everyone gets education.”
In the end, it is this mindset that has short-changed India’s demographic dividend. It has led to millions of angry young men and women taking to the streets for some reason or the other to vent their frustration as the India growth story slips away and they perceive the government has let them down. The price of failure has been heavy. Perhaps India will be paying it for the rest of the century.
With inputs from Virendra Nath Bhatt, Shone Satheesh Babu, G Vishnu, Prakhar Jain and Shonali Ghosal