Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Meaning of 'Skills'

There is a lot of talk on skills in India. Its Prime Minister and other functionaries keep talking about 'skilling'. Indian policy makers have somehow convinced themselves, based on no other claim than managing to waste the largest amount of money in skills education ever in history, that this is one thing that they do well. They are further encouraged to think that way by the myriad skills education providers from around the world who want a share of the spoils and show up at various conferences to participate in the biggest skills 'mission' in the world. And, in this circus of the absurd, everyone have now convinced themselves that the job is already done and the rhetoric should move to the next level: The claim now is that India has the skills and it must now 'make'.

Yet, if anything, the availability of skilled personnel has reduced, not increased, in India. This is perhaps because the melee around 'skilling' - a quick capsule of training rather than patient accumulation of expertise - has undermined the value of doing a good job. The skills mission has developed an 'anything goes' culture, a sort of lumpen-craftsmen not seen anywhere else in the world, and a decline of the professional culture. The government's enthusiasm about skills, it seems, has managed to 'de-skill' India quite thoroughly.

But there is also another paradox to contend with. The biggest problem that many skills training providers report is in recruitment, which should surprise anyone who cared to look. Why would that be so in a country with millions of poor, young people in stagnant rural economies? One could partially blame some of the other Welfare schemes, the handouts given to those trapped below poverty line. This is an old argument between welfare and skills education, all too common in European countries; however, its persistence in the desperate wilderness of rural India, where the Welfare State only have bare minimum existence (where handouts are available, but safe drinking water isn't), should point to something more grave. One may need to go beyond this standard excuse and start exploring how 'skills' is perceived, by those who want to 'skill' and those who would need the 'skill'.

Looking at the Indian experience, we should be able to see that the word 'skills' has two distinct meanings. In common use, this means the ability to do something well. However, the word has been appropriated  to be the equivalent of the modern workhouse, a churning machine through which one could be fed into some big industrial machine, rescued from the idle pleasures of the desperate village life to the desperation of some urban slum. It is not about doing things well, or doing things one wants to do, but the capacity to participate in the modern economy, being some sort of proto-consumer and canon fodder in the middle class consumption machine! In that sense, it is a tool of social engineering just like the hated Stalinist collectivisation, or the experiments with sterilisation of the poor or the mentally deficient.

In short, there is no fun in being 'skilled'. It is not being 'empowered', becoming the 'subject' and being able to change one's life: It is rather like being acted upon, being told one's pointless existence outside the modern economy must be commuted for the rightful place at the bottom of the urban social chain. It is so because the idea of 'skills' is not coming from ground up, people who are being skilled don't have a say about what they may want. They are rather taken as ignorant, not knowing what they want - and are told what the good life is, for them.

Such an idea would be abhorrent in any other circumstance except when it is grounded, as it is in the 'Skills' missions, on the theory that poverty is a result of innate laziness of the poor and not of the circumstances. Skills is an assault on the inactivity of the poor, which, in an act of symbolic violence afforded by language, has been branded 'idleness' as if to equate it with the excess of rich life.

So, in this construct, skills is not about being good at something, and not even at being good at anything. It is rather about accepting one's station in life and capping one's life chances, in a roundabout way. This is about accepting the hopelessness and deserting the life one is born into, along with the family, the soil, and all that comes with it, and surrendering any intentions to change it. The skills, as practiced, is not about freedom and ability, but about dependence and slavery. It is no wonder that a large part of the Skills programmes, indeed the most effective parts of it, are funded by corporations wanting to appropriate land and resettling the inhabitants, and such funding comes with the condition that those trained must not be able to return to their place of birth. In a mirror image of Khmer Rouge, the skills programme is about creating dependencies and misery, not development.

And, in context, not wanting to be skilled is a resistance worth celebrating. Instead of vilifying people who are voting with their feet against those free training programmes they are enrolled into, this should be seen as a pragmatic rejection of a deeply authoritarian scheme: A cause of reflection and anguish, if we are still capable of such things. And, perhaps, the lesson for the rest of the world is that it is not government largesse that create skills, otherwise India's would not have been such a pathetic failure, but a social consensus built around respect for the individual, a professional society where expertise is valued over pedigree and class, and an inclusive model of development. This is perhaps the only lesson from India's skills disaster: That we failed on all three counts.

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