Originally Published 2015-06-05 00:00:00 Published on Jun 05, 2015
To enjoy its demographic dividend, India must stop looking down upon low-skilled workers and treat them with dignity. Examples and experiences from other countries are there to learn from - Japan is one.
Japan shows how to respect all labours

Successive Governments have highlighted the importance of skill development in India, especially to raise the employability of the 12 million job seekers entering the market ever year. Various steps have been taken to propel skill development and vocational education, yet the effort of skilling the nation seems to be crawling at best.

The National Skills Development Council was perhaps one of the few tangible achievements of the previous administration. The realisation that India needed skills to take advantage of the demographic dividend, and that skill development in India was far below any international standard, was a glimmer of hope in the otherwise disappointing performance of the UPA Government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi too has talked about the importance of skill development. However, while skilling remains a hot topic for the political class, its impact on the ground has been poor.

The first reason for this is that the pride in employment, a fundamental component of skill development, has been ignored. There is a social taboo on employment (apart from white collar jobs), which creates a hierarchy within the job market. While the hierarchy exists all over the world, other countries, unlike India, do not look down upon people employed at the 'lower end' of the spectrum.

The respect Indians give to those performing so-called 'menial' jobs, such as sweeping, cleaning, plumbing, garbage collecting is so low that the workers have no pride in the job they are doing. It is merely a means to an end. It is for this reason that while careers in IT, medicine and finance are encouraged, those taking up jobs in plumbing, electrical repair, healthcare and sanitation are shunned.

This is where India must learn from Europe, Canada, the US — but most importantly from Japan. What India lacks and Japan treasures is the unified consciousness towards the collective. In Japan, unlike Western and Indian ideologies, the source of pride is not the self but in the work one does for the collective good.

Each person knows that the job they have plays into the larger development of the collective whole and, thus, the importance given to each job, inspires the individual to perform the task to the best of their abilities. The knowledge and social acceptance that each job is a fundamental part of the system, provides respect and pride, irrespective of whether one is a sweeper or a software engineer.

The common argument against this would be that such jobs would be low-paying in India and, therefore, not sustainable while in an advanced economy like Japan they would fetch better pay. But one must realise that in Tokyo, for example, the difference between the incomes of the highest-paid and lowest-paid are comparable to any pay structure in the world. Low skilled workers in Japan don't own cars or fancy houses. In fact, the lack of space in Japan even restricts high-earners from the 'lavishness' that exists in India.

Critics of vocational education say that families employed in a vocational profession will always look to do better in the next generation. In Japan, a plumber's child who becomes a doctor holds the same value as the other plumber's son who continues with his father's profession. Generational economic advancement exists everywhere but the fact that no job is less than the other, allows the Japanese to consider any profession that they may like. And so it is that in Japan store clerks bow before their shops before ending their workday and street cleaners ensure that not a single speck of trash remains on the streets.

To make the most of India's demographic dividend, the country needs employment opportunities and vocational training, but it also needs to incorporate respect for all labouring tasks in. If we continue with the current system, where there is little respect for labour, then we will be limiting the reach of skill development programmes. India needs to break this social taboo, or else it will quite easily waste the demographic dividend it so prides itself on.

(The writer is Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, and Visiting Research Fellow, Japan Center for Economic Research)

Courtesy: (The Pioneer) 5 June, 2015

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