The Political Skills of Dharmendra Pradhan

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Bridging the gap between the classroom and the workspace

ON AN OCTOBER evening, Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan spent three hours listening to tales of youngsters who had undergone training at a beauty and health academy. A young woman narrated her story of how she enrolled after her husband fell ill and was now economically independent; a boy who grew up in an orphanage said after the training he educated his sister; a BCom graduate with an MBA who had worked at ICICI Bank and realised his heart was not in banking had taken a six-month VLCC course and was proud to have become a hair dresser for celebrities in Mumbai; a jobless youth with a double MA who ran a beauty parlour in Jabalpur spoke of how his mother had resented his work before he helped her get a house and made her happy. “I saw that the entire hall was emotional,” recounts Pradhan, “Some were crying. For me, it was an eye-opener. The stories narrated by the students showed how skills are changing lifestyles and aspirations.”

Pradhan was at the tenth convocation ceremony of VLCC-DSYW Academy, a wellness institute in Bhopal, on an invitation extended by Yashodhara Raje Scindia, Madhya Pradesh’s minister for sports and youth. The Department for Sports and Youth Welfare of Madhya Pradesh has collaborated with Vandana Luthra’s VLCC, a beauty and wellness company, to provide job-oriented training to the youth. Pradhan also visited an ICICI set-up in Indore which provides six-month training programmes to small-town youth.

Fifty days before that, the petroleum and natural gas minister was given additional charge of skill development and entrepreneurship ministry. Expectations were high and time was running out. Pradhan had rewound the Prime Minister’s 40-minute speech on ‘Skill India’, taking note of every word.

With one of Modi’s pet projects under his charge and less than 20 months to go for the next General Election, Pradhan has set out an agenda for vocational training to bridge the gap between formal education and marketable skills. His eventual goal is ambitious: half a billion people to be drawn into the country’s skill ecosystem. “We have not set any year as a deadline for it,” the minister says, “You cannot do this through targets, but enabling policy. Create an ecosystem, a mission.”

In India, around one million turn 15, the employable age in the country, every month. This would mean 12 million annually. Of this, 1.5-2 million go in for higher education. The Government’s challenge is ensure that all those who enter the job market every year have what is needed to add value to the economy. Says Pradhan, “That is our immediate target—the meaningful engagement of this [10 million]. The country needs a reorientation from jobs to employment. It is the Government’s responsibility to increase employability, give linkages, provide synergy. An employer needs quality manpower.”

Keeping in mind the Prime Minister’s note of caution that the country’s ‘demographic dividend’ of surplus manpower of 40-50 million over the next decade could either become a challenge in itself or a well skilled workforce for India and the world, Pradhan’s Ministry is considering an out- of-the-box approach. In recognition that it would call for a revolutionary overhaul of deep-seated mindsets and conventions, Pradhan is on a mission that involves synergising education and skills, turning the focus from traditional services to the ‘uberisation’ of human resources, under which skills would go by a dynamic demand-and- supply model apt for an economic scenario undergoing a rapid transformation.

For a minister who sleeps less than five hours a day, Pradhan knows only too well the myriad challenges ahead—and the expectations of his workaholic boss. What needs to be addressed on priority to live up to such expectations, Pradhan believes, is the ‘socio-psychological’ gap between formal education and skill development. “There is a huge caste value system dividing formal education and skill development. We have to make it aspirational. That’s why I suggested that they should not be called a ‘labour force’ but a ‘skilled workforce’ or ‘artisans’,” says the minister who had shepherded the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, the Modi Government’s flagship scheme to provide LPG cylinders to women of families Below the Poverty Line (BPL). Under the scheme launched in May 2016, 50 million cooking-gas connections are to be provided to BPL households over three years. By July 2017, Oil Ministry sources claimed 25 million poor women had been awarded the benefit without upfront charges. The scheme was seen to have brightened the BJP’s prospects in last year’s Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, which had been the biggest beneficiary of the scheme with 5.5 million connections handed out by July last year.

It is the Government’s responsibility to increase employability, give linkages, provide synergy for quality manpower

A first-time Union minister, when Pradhan, then 45, was allotted the sensitive Petroleum and Natural Gas portfolio in 2014 in Modi’s first cabinet, he picked up the threads fast, fixing targets in six months and rising up the Government’s performance charts. Sources close to him recall that a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a pitch for a cashless economy after demonetisation in November 2016, Pradhan went into a huddle with officials of his department to discuss ways of promoting digital payments. What followed was a three-pronged strategy to strengthen the infrastructure for digital payments at fuel stations, run an awareness campaign and incentivise consumers to switch over from cash. Last September, as Modi went in for the third reshuffle of his Council of Ministers, Pradhan was upgraded to Cabinet rank and given additional charge of Skill Development, held by Rajiv Pratap Rudy earlier.

Apart from the Lok Sabha polls, Pradhan will face another test in 2019: Assembly elections in his home state of Odisha. An Utkal University alumnus, it is from here that he began his political journey (as an ABVP activist). Arguably the BJP’s most popular face from this eastern state, he has been devoting his weekends to organisational work there. Naveen Patnaik’s BJD has ruled Odisha since 2000, and with its 21 Lok Sabha seats, it is among the states that BJP President Amit Shah is keen to capture. On December 31st, Pradhan joined voters of five booths of Bijepur gram panchayat at a bus stand to watch Modi’s Mann ki Baat. The BJP had organised its screening in all 270 booths of that Assembly constituency which is heading for a by-poll.

MANAGING ALL THREE roles requires some mastery of complexity, and Pradhan wants to leave nothing to chance. “All three have their own challenges,” says he, “World crude oil prices are spiking. OPEC has managed to reduce its spare capacity, and [the cartel] is intervening [in the market]. Today in the US, the crude oil price is $60 per barrel. Conventional rivals are complementing each other. Prices are rising and that has its own impact. Oil prices have always given [the economy] a jolt; nobody understood why. That is why oil prices, fiscal management, pushing ahead with projects, expansion, quality delivery, so many things are there in the oil sector”

While the oil sector has always been dynamic and demanding, skill development— which is intrinsic to Modi’s ‘Make in India’ dream—poses different challenges. Unlike the Ujjwala Yojana, where the implementation lever was in his hands, this exercise cannot be centralised; it requires the involvement of various ministries, states, corporate houses and institutes. Says Pradhan, “It should be an enabling ministry. Recognise skilled manpower, certify them, and create a synergy. We cannot micromanage issues. We need to create a transparent policy framework. Technology is giving us the scope. We are creating a databank, mapping, identifying areas where there are jobs, bringing in real- time information.”

The Government had launched Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) under the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) scheme of Pradhan’s ministry to impart skill-based training to 10 million people between 2016 and 2020, and assess and certify prior experience and skills of 4 million candidates. Official data released in December claims that since the Ministry’s inception, 25 million candidates have been skilled under all MSDE programmes, of which more than 10 million have been trained in 2017 alone. Under the PMKVY, over 4 million people have been trained. Under the fee-based model of skill development being implemented by National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), launched in 2015, training has been imparted to over 7.4 million. According to Ministry statistics, in 2017 more than 700,000 candidates have been enrolled, of which over half have already been placed in jobs such as masonry, technical support (for household durables), financial literacy, and insurance sales. The NSDC, which has joined hands with public and private sector partners, claims to have trained 450,404 women in sectors including banking services, beauty and wellness, organised retail and food processing.

Sharda Prasad, who headed a panel constituted by the Skill Development and Entrepreneurship Ministry to review, rationalise and optimise the functioning of 40 sector skill councils, advocates a shift from short to longer courses. “Our work revolved around how to reform the system. We should have long-term courses. Right now, the focus is on school dropouts. That does not make for skilled manpower,” says Prasad. The role of Indian industry, the main employer of skilled manpower, also needs to be enhanced, he adds. In a report released in May last year, the committee termed the councils—set up under NSDC—as a ‘hotbed of crony capitalism’, alleging they have tried to ‘extract maximum benefit from public funds’. It also said the NSDC was using government funds without accountability and a monitoring mechanism needed to be put in place.

“We have to make skill development aspirational. Workers should not be called a ‘labour force’ but a ‘skilled workforce’ or ‘artisans’”

The skill ecosystem must play a leadership role in turning the informal sector formal, believes Pradhan, who says education and skills need to be under a common umbrella. “There is coordination between ministries, the Government and industry, the Government and society. It involves educational, socio-economic, psychological, behavioural issues.” Several ministries, including Rural Development, Textiles, Commerce, Tribal Affairs and Surface Transport have a training component; as many as 20 ministries have budgets for it. “Wherever there is Government spending, on-the-spot training should be given.... State governments have started recognising our network. Apart from this, big corporates have their training centres for their requirements and to fulfill their corporate social responsibility,” says Pradhan.

For example, ICICI runs an academy where it trains large numbers; and VLCC runs 10-15 academies that help students get jobs. Philanthropic organisations are also getting involved. During Delhi Metro’s early phases of construction, E Sreedharan’s team gave workers on-the-spot training that is proving helpful across the country. Moreover, 2,800 workers from Karnataka, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Bihar and Odisha have been trained by World Bank-funded projects in masonry, bar-bending and shuttering as part of an initiative of the Ministry of Road and Surface Transport. Japan and India have signed an agreement under which trained manpower from India will intern in Japan for four-five years and also contribute to its workforce. In return, it will raise standards of training.

“There are lots of models. The PM has said we have to bring them together. There are skills in 700 districts. These have to be recognised. There is spending in 700 districts. We have to coordinate it with skills,” says Pradhan. Last month, he announced an initiative to spend Rs 15,000 crore on training labourers working on the construction of national highways.

As he races against time, Pradhan has a long list of ideas: “There is private security for 5 million people. They are all getting skilled manpower, but they need certification. There are projects like the Kochi pipeline. We need to create a skill ecosystem for it and find new areas. The GST falls in this category.” He also speaks of accountancy reskilling for India to adopt world standards in this field.

WHILE LAUNCHING SKILL India in 2015, Modi had said that if the 20th century saw IITs make a name for themselves globally, the 21st century required that India’s Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) acquire global recognition for their trainees. Achieving this, according to Ministry sources, would require upgrading courses to world standards. In 2017, as many as 1.2 million students got ITI diplomas. The Government has initiated ‘New Procedural and Civil Norms’ for the establishment of new ITIs and standardisation of their civil infrastructure; it has also made the procedure for seeking ITI affiliation simpler and started a grading system for the institutes. For long-term training, 13,912 ITIs have been set up and their capacity has been increased by 77,040 over the last year to become nearly 2.3 million. “We need more training institutes. We require at least 50,000,” says Sharda Prasad. The committee headed by him had said ‘skill ecosystem was still emerging and had not taken final shape in terms of positioning and exact role of and responsibility of participating institutions with well-defined functions, considering various best international and national practices in skill domain’.

Meanwhile, Pradhan is wasting no time. He has also visited a camp of Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force with a manpower count of 66,000. A thousand personnel retire each year (aged 45-50), which leaves them with at least 15 years of work life. “If they take formal training, it raises their capabilities. I suggested even family members and children should acquire some skill. If India’s Army gets a place in the skill ecosystem, it would have a multiplier effect,” he says. An MoU was signed last July between NSDC and the Border Security Force to provide gainful employment to BSF personnel—serving or retired—and their families. A similar MoU has been signed with Assam Rifles.

“It’s a very interesting ministry. It involves primary, secondary and higher education, an migration across borders abroad and within. Skill is a dynamic and forward-looking component of the economy. It’s not just a number. It needs research. It needs tying up with the [global] economy,” says Pradhan. He has an arduous task cut out for himself, but seems determined to see it done. The broad problem, as he sees it, was that there was “more education in the factory than the classroom”, and this is what he intends to change. And he believes in speed, skill and more speed.