Skilling & regenerating Assam for our better future

By Dipok Kumar Barthakur

At the time of Independence Assam’s per capita income was higher than the tiol average. We were pioneers in  the World Tea and Oil industries. In the decades since then our growth has stagted. Despite abundant tural resources and potential, economy of Assam today represents backwardness and despondency. Growth rate of Assam’s has not kept pace with that of India’s; while the Indian economy grew at 6 percent per annum over the period of 1981 to 2000, the same of Assam’s grew only by 3.3 percent. In the post-liberalised era (after 1991), the gaps between growth rates of Assam’s and India’s economy widened further.

While the rest of India is competing for investment, hosting investment summits, bringing in FDI’s and creating job opportunities for their population, we present a sad story where even the tea industry is struggling to survive, trading and dubious industrial practices domite, and our educated youth are leaving the state in droves to settle for employment in other states, sometimes on minimum wages.

So where have we gone wrong: Agriculture accounts for more than a third of Assam’s income and employs 69 percent of total workforce. Assam’s agriculture has yet to experience modernisation in a real sense and is lagging behind. We have not had any genuine investments in developing our supply chain for agriculture from the point of cultivation to reaching the market.

Our tea industry in grappling with climate changes, quality issues, pricing, marketing and labour problems. We do not yet have a comprehensive policy for tea which looks at the tea industry in its entirety.

Apart from tea and petroleum refineries, Assam has few industries of significance. Many of the industries in Assam are facing loss and closer due to lack of infrastructure and improper magement practices. The trend is very common with the Government run public sector undertakings.

Industrial development is inhibited by our physical and emotiol isolation. The Look East Policy which everyone talks about has not seen any real term benefits. Our region is landlocked and situated in the eastern most periphery of India and is linked to the mainland of India by weak transportation infrastructure. The airports in Guwahati and other parts of Assam are yet to be linked with other parts of India and the outside world in terms of trade. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries, which are suitable for vigation does not have sufficient infrastructure for trade and success of such a vigable trade route will be dependent on proper channel maintence and diplomatic and trade relationships with Bangladesh.

Political turmoil, extremism and a legacy of protests against industrial projects over last several decades have also tarnished our image.

Filly a major drawback in Assam is the lack of properly trained and skilled resource pool. Assam today faces a brain drain crisis.

In a perverse way Assam records a higher birth rate than the tiol average. This means that the employment opportunities required to absorb our population growth is simply idequate. The destabilizing political and social effects of a large unemployed population we have all witnessed. The tiol Democratic Alliance government has focused on a core aspect of the employment issue with the Skill India drive. But Skill India, concurrently Skill Assam, Make in Assam and a resurgent Assam are high sounding slogans that will be resounding failures if lawmakers and the Government executives do not take a holistic approach to policy development, passing legislations, effective implementation of policies and programmes, and as importantly monitoring and evaluation.

The Labour Bureau Report 2014 had pegged the skilled workforce in India at a dismal 2%.So you can well imagine what is the status of Assam in such a scerio!

The magnitude of the problem has been alysed by numerous experts: for a country that adds 12 million people to its workforce every year, less than 4 per cent have ever received any formal training. Our workforce readiness is one of the lowest in the world and a large chunk of existing training infrastructure is irrelevant to industry needs.

A evaluation of the various programmes currently running under the Skill India initiatives and Make in India etc show the following road blocks: the need to coordite with multiple ministries all running their own programmes creating bureaucratic red tapes, funding tussles, issues of perception with job-seekers looking down on vocatiol training and job-creators unwilling to fork out a premium for skilled workers and poor strike rate as far as post-skilling employment goes. So as we can see the issues line up right from the time of policy generation, legislations to implementation. Everyone in this swamp of institutions and ideas and bureaucracy functions in independent silos, which has obviously resulted in severe conflicts of ideas and functions.

This is not as much due to lack of monetary investment as it is a predicament about grossly inefficient execution. The government already spends several thousand crores every year on skill development schemes through over 18 different Central government Ministries and State governments. The need of the hour is to improve resource utilisation and find solutions that can address the systemic and institutiol bottlenecks constraining the sector.

As a Government what can we do:–

For instance, we can introduce creative programmes like  for example a voucher programmes that give individuals the freedom to join training programmes of their choice—with the latter receiving government funding and training of manpower by redeeming the vouchers—improve outcomes via market mechanisms and have been found to work within the country and other countries of the world.

It’s also worth remembering that skilling programmes are the end point of employability creation, not the beginning. The education system is the primary incubator—and we are sadly lacking. By some estimates, However, only 25% of India’s graduates, less than 10% of MBA graduates and 17% of engineers are employable. In Assam we face a bouquet of issues in our education system – in both quality and quantity. This is predictable when education models in our schools and colleges are very often redundant and the quality is abysmally poor; nor is there sufficient interaction and integration between educatiol institutions and industry to facilitate internships, mentoring initiatives and feedback loops. Our teachers are poorly paid; corruption is all pervasive in the system leading to disenchantment.  We also need to ensure that technical education, vocatiol education are legitimate and attractive choices for our youth.

The government must also create an economic environment that incentivizes industry players to step up. Labour and land reforms are key particularly for agriculture and allied sectors.

For any skill development effort to succeed, Governments and industry need to play a large joint role in determining courses, curriculum and relevance.

Skilling India is a mammoth task. I would say three things are paramount if we are to achieve any success in skilling and regenerating Assam:

a)    Coordition of efforts between various Departments, streamlining policies and effective implementation. In Assam when I looked up I found the following: Department of Labour, Employment and craftsman Training, Agriculture, Horticulture and Food Processing, Technical Education, North Eastern Council, Department for Development of North East Region, tiol Skill Development Council, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, various Engineering Colleges and Poly Technique Institutes of Assam and one needs to coordite with these multiple departments!    

b)    Tailoring education to meet employment needs; to justify investments, policies must be grounded in hard data. Scheme design parameters, such as sector and beneficiary targeting, curriculum, delivery methods, etc., need to incorporate authentic market sigls. Existing skill gap studies fail to provide agile, actioble data and are rarely used in scheme designs. Our ITI’s have become more or less moribund institutes. One of the main objective is to regenerate these and make them viable altertive educatiol choices for our youth.    

c)    Genuine public private partnerships where in the interests of local youth in education and training should be encouraged. Whilst protecting indigenous land rights we should encourage and incubate local entrepreneurship; crony capitalism and corruption needs to be kept out. Subsidies should not rob the exchequer but genuinely benefit industries. A good Make in Assam product should be able to stand its ground and receive Government support; it should not face competition from sub- standard products from outside the State. Tea industry should not be a victim of market manipulation and cartelisation. Why can’t we build a Tata or a Mahindra locally? Yes I believe if we can if we give the right and genuine incentives and support.

As part of the Skill India Development Mission, the union Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship has embarked upon a special industry initiative.

To attract leading corporate to set up co-branded Corporate Skill Excellence Centres in PPP mode. The Government will provide various tax and non-tax incentives for corporate that set up Corporate Skill Excellence Centres as part of their core business or CSR activities.

The CSR funds can be routed through tiol Skill Development Fund with specific outcomes. MLAs will be roped in to oversee and participate in these programmes.

Central government initiatives make for good slogans—but they are only one part of the solution. Public Representatives can play an active role in bringing together relevant stakeholders (bureaucrats, training providers, employers, NGOs, local people) and resources (local infrastructure, funds) and catalyse skill development in their constituencies.

Local Area development funds could be used to upgrade or provide infrastructure for skill development. But let us not fall back on the old fashioned way of providing a few sewing machines or computers. We need you to engage with us and other stake holders. Legislators can actually transform each one of their constituencies into an investment hub for a resurgent Assam.

As a state we have to really up our game and deliver now. It’s now or never to give our youth a future they deserve and they aspire to and to take Assam on the path of development. All of us have a moral responsibility and a social obligation to fulfil this. Gone are the days of being elected by doling out benefits; today’s citizens are informed; they are aspiratiol. Let us all take a short and long term perspective on much needed skill development issue for generation of young entrepreneur who can make a strong work force for economic evolution towards regenerating Assam in the days to come.

(Dipok Kumar Barthakur is the Vice-Chairman, State Innovation and Transformation Aayog, Assam)

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