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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  The country’s quest for scale shouldn’t overlook quality
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The country’s quest for scale shouldn’t overlook quality

Over-reliance on technology to deliver employment outcomes is not a winning strategy

Photo: iStockPremium
Photo: iStock

With 1.4 billion people, India is well on its way to becoming the world’s most populous country, beating China. Our youth population alone is larger than the total population of the US, or that of any other industrialized country. It is understandable then that a quest to achieve scale is among the top priorities of the government’s development interventions.

And what better tool than technology to deliver scale? According to the 2021-22 Economic Survey and Union budget for 2022-23 released last week, technology will help raise productivity (and wages) in agriculture, foster entrepreneurship, deliver education to our children, impart skills to our youth, and more. In the third decade of the 21st century, we seem to have finally stumbled upon the solution that will, once and for all, solve what has long been a perpetual battle to deliver development at scale.

If this sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is. In the quest for scale, we have become accustomed to sacrificing quality for quantity. We pick the convenient metric of unemployment levels being relatively low (even if rising) before the pandemic, while ignoring persistently high informal employment, low quality jobs and deep inequities. We set lofty targets for training youth, thrusting them into three-month training programmes in the hope of long-term dividends. We try to skill at scale, unsuccessfully at that, but can’t provide enough employment to our large and growing youth population. If anyone asks where jobs will come from, we point to gig work. After all, “Gig work is growing exponentially and it will provide opportunities for women to work from home." Though instead of providing stable jobs, gig work thrusts more workers into insecure work arrangements. But at least we’re achieving some semblance of scale.

No doubt, technology has much to offer in enabling scale. But the road between potential and reality is long and arduous. To begin with, there are tremendous disparities in technology access. According to the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations’ specialized agency for information communication technologies, 53 of every 100 inhabitants in India had active mobile-broadband subscriptions in 2020; 47% did not. And this does not account for differences in usage. Only 15% of India’s total female population in 2018 used the internet, as compared to 25% of the male population. The digital divide is real.

In relying too much on technology to deliver outcomes, will we once again trade off quality in favour of a semblance of quantity? Take agriculture, for example. According to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget speech, public-private partnerships are expected to deliver digital and high-tech services to farmers, and kisan drones will aid in crop assessment and digitization of land records, apart from the spraying of insecticides and delivery of nutrients. Perhaps these are worthwhile efforts, but there is little evidence that such interventions improve agricultural productivity, certainly not to the extent needed to initiate a real structural shift. By contrast, at a time of deep distress, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme, the only safety net for the poorest of households, found no mention in the speech. Its allocation of 73,000 crore is lower than the 2021-22 revised estimate of 98,000 crore.

When it comes to education, missing nearly two years of school has resulted in substantial learning losses among our children. What children learn from face-to-face interactions with their peers and teachers cannot be replaced by virtual means. The digital divide only made a bad situation worse for children from economically disadvantaged households. But the proposed solution to make up for the lack of physical classes is even more virtual learning. From the ‘one class-one TV channel’ programme of PM eVidya to the development of high-quality e-content, we are relying on technology to convey content to more children, if not actually deliver learning.

Our skills training system is rife with challenges. Vocational education and training have somehow gotten divorced from education. In the absence of enough formal employment, our pressure to productively engage the youth fuels a skills system that is supply-driven, where skills are misaligned with what the market needs. But rather than addressing these challenges through the much-needed reform of a broken system, the budget speaks of launching a Digital Ecosystem for Skilling and Livelihood (DESH) Stack e-portal to help citizens acquire skills and credentials, and to assist them in finding relevant jobs. Maybe we will finally discover how to impart skills for vocations that require honed physical capabilities without enabling practical, hands-on experience.

At the same time that our demography offers the advantage of a large and growing youth population and a low dependency ratio, the sheer size of our country also poses an enormous challenge for delivering outcomes on such a large scale. But focusing on the size of interventions rather than their efficacy weakens our foundations for economic progress. It pushes us toward sub-optimal solutions. What technology has to offer requires thoughtful deployment driven by a quest to deliver equity and quality, rather than the semblance of scale or quantity alone.

Our neighbour to the north, China, is on track to growing old before it grows rich, but we have a chance to do things differently if we focus on the quality of interventions and don’t just chase size.

Sabina Dewan is president & executive director, JustJobs Network, and senior visiting fellow, Centre for Policy Research.

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Published: 08 Feb 2022, 10:26 PM IST
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