A spanner in the anthem

Imagine seeing young men and women from all over the country, waking up with a look of square jawed determination on their faces as they put on their construction helmets, laboratory coats, overalls and even spectacles in the slow, deliberate manner in which soldiers supposedly wear their body armor before going in to battle. Imagine these scenes, set to an enthusiastically rendered, if somewhat unimaginative anthem of chalo kaam karein or ‘lets work’ and being seen-off, in the most auspicious of ways by doting elders in the family.

These scenes from the Skill India advertisement created for the Ministry of Skill Development in India, where the recruitment strategy for such a large and diverse population seems to be a motivational song. The anthem itself is rich with all its rousing qualities save one, its lyrics. Constructed around a lexicon of skill and work, it remains safely tucked away in a world uncontaminated by poetry. Being literal is a part and parcel of government-issue campaigns and instruction is its mother tongue, in that this piece of Skill India communication stays well entrenched in tradition. What follows these initial scenes can be either seen as the usual descent into the ridiculous or even, a matter of some intrigue. As young and now uniformed workers begin to stride out on the streets with purpose and determination, they pick up their new tools — a spanner, screwdriver, spade, stethoscope (in case you haven’t noticed they all start with ‘s’) and here comes the sucker punch, these aren’t your ordinary tools, they are giant versions, twice the size of the skilled worker carrying them on their shoulders. It’s one of those moments when you have several thoughts that burst in your mind simultaneously. Till now what was literal, just became literally a joke. How does someone expect people to take this seriously? Is making people carry around giant spanners the best way to foster a culture of respect for labor? Have we been transported to a revisionist socialist era in some parallel universe? And lastly, is a spanner all you got after that rousing Bollywood version of an anthem?

Skill India is probably one of the most ambitious projects to be taken on by the current administration — which makes this piece of communication along with some recent indications that the initiative may be struggling to deliver results — an interesting platter of tidbits to pick on. Pieces of communication such as these, while serving their primary purpose of message delivery often allow us a glimpse of how problems, tasks and audiences are imagined.

The Skill India commercial in the process of imparting value and recognition to different forms of labor ends up with a model where workers have access to a legitimate social identity, only when they reduce themselves to skillful handlers of tools and equipment. In what seems like a socialist twist gone wrong, tools tower over people, individuals lose themselves in a mass gathering of workers and we are left staggering by what seems to be a policy of trying to make very little look like a lot. People have recently argued in newspaper columns as to how the government has bitten off more than it an chew as making this program work requires high level of on ground commitment to deliver meaningful learning, employability and an improvement in earnings. This requires basics such as a wide network of recruitment and training centers, local pool of skill trainers, standardized course material that is updated to industry standards and a standard system of certification. Instead it’s been short duration training workshops, through PPP that have created intermittent employment opportunities for a few. In most cases, the hiring organizations have provided basic training that has limited value in the open market and offer very little in terms of growth prospects or further learning. Training centers of a more permanent kind that were set up through the PPP model, have over time struggled to recruit, the course fee to be paid commonly cited as the barrier to more people signing up. Over time the courses offered have seen a shift from being soft-skills centric to more hard-skills, labor oriented vocations. The real issue that very few want to confront here is the whole on-ground reality of the initiative has till now been far from convincing. How can any policy initiative guarantee a meaningful life and livelihood through some paltry weeks of training in an ever-shifting landscape of training centers?

People today are motivated to upgrade their skill sets, abilities when they are able to imagine themselves in new ways. All over India’s small towns we see institutes of a different persuasion that have sprung up, surfacing to fill the void between conventional lines of professional qualification and the expanding imagination of skill among the new generation. English speaking classes have morphed into soft-skills and language proficiency centers, often equipped with desks and headsets that simulate call-center set-ups. At one point, air-hostess training academies were the most visible of this emerging set of institutions. Reading into some of the images on display in their signage and office spaces, it was obvious that much of this training was in fact directed at the body. In a society where respectable occupations for women and any overt acknowledgement of their bodies were often seen as a contradiction, these institutes represented a new imagination — where with the right kind of grooming one’s body becomes a vehicle to access a desirable trajectory. This transformation of the body from a site of ‘cultural control’ into a symbol of order and authority forms an important part of the appeal of the growing ‘services’ sector. There are mobile engineering institutes, which are not engineering institutes on wheels, as the description might suggest, but places of training that produce technicians who are proficient in the intricate art of repairing and refurbishing mobile phones. At one level, a mobile technician may simply be seen as an updated version of the ubiquitous electronics technician who saw to the well-being of our TV and radios sets in another era. The difference however, is that back then we never really encountered a privately run electronics repair training institute. Like so many motor mechanics of formidable repute, electronics’ repairmen literally came out of a fog, blessed with an unnatural talent of sussing out faulty IC’s and bringing those precious possessions back to their delightful best with a sizzle of their soldering irons. If yesterday a technician’s pedigree was a function of years of skillful work and a gradual establishment of a clientele, the emergence today of institutes convinced by their own significance, suggests a desire to go beyond the securing of livelihoods and embarking on a quest for distinction.

The Skill India initiative seems to be founded on the numerical assertions of India’s potential demographic dividend, that has in recent years tipped the population discourse from disastrous to intriguing. The result of this large-scale numerical imagination of the opportunity reflects in the communication and deeper in the policymakers minds. While policy thinkers seem to have delved into the unmet demand for skilled labor at length, identifying sectors, regions and even projected numbers for a global demand in the near future, there is a notable absence of any attempt to ascertain the mood and aspiration of the people being discussed. While the think tanks that draft these policies are sharp enough to acknowledge the changes taking shape as the caste system loosens its stranglehold on the vocational space, there seems almost no acknowledgement of the change that has come about in people’s imagination of work and progress as a result.

Ideas like demographic dividend turn people into energy sources to be harvested with minimum input. While its stated agenda is to deliver greatest good for the greatest number, it is important to understand what people recognize as a marker of true progress. Is it merely employment in any form and at all costs? Or are their other ideas that need to be acknowledged today? After all, as we have seen time and again, people are more likely to follow other people who are role models, rather than policies. A narrowly imagined skill policy, based on a projected surplus of low cost labor, does not seem to recognize that even in the smallest of towns individual aspirations have long crossed the line of minimum requirements. It is likely that by the time the Skill India policy translates fully on the ground, its core promise would have further lost its draw and that spanner would have shrunk, back to its actual size.

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