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India's Working Age Population Growing in Size, Lacking in Education and Skills

Even as India emerges as one of the world's major economies, it is still struggling to achieve widespread literacy among its people, and officials say there is a massive shortage of skilled labor. VOA's Steve Herman reports from New Delhi that a large labor force by itself is not enough to offset the economic damage from a failure to educate.

India has 320 million people between the ages of six and 16. In a decade, India will be home to 800 million people of working age. All that available labor is touted as a competitive advantage over the rapidly aging populations of the developed world.

The equation, however, is not as simple as it seems.

A report by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the World Economic Forum has emphasized that India's burgeoning economy needs not just more workers, but more skilled workers. The experts agree that failure to educate its people is hurting India's economy.

Chaly Mah is the Asia-Pacific chief of Deloitte, a global consulting company. He says there is a widespread misconception that India and China have a lot of people available for hire.

"I think that's a myth, because when you talk about skilled labor and skilled professionals, there is actually a massive shortage. And I think the core of the problem is you've got to start from the very beginning, and that is, ensure that you have a solid education system," said Mah.

India is still struggling to achieve nationwide literacy, especially among girls and the rural poor.

Some two-thirds of Indians are now believed to be literate, compared to less than 20 percent in 1951, when the first census was taken after independence. But critics complain that literacy is often defined as merely being able to write one's own name. And one-third of a billion-plus people, those still illiterate, is an awful lot of people without basic education.

Education became a fundamental right for children in India only at the beginning of this decade. But many poverty-stricken parents feel compelled to have their children work, rather than go to school.

Shamsher Mehta is director-general of the Confederation of Indian Industry.

"A very high percentage don't go to school, an even higher percentage are dropping out of school. And therefore, while it looks like a demographic advantage today, if you don't do something about it - both in public and private - then I'm afraid this risk might just slip out of our hands and might become a liability," said Mehta.

Mehta was among those speaking about the country's development challenges and risks during the World Economic Forum's India Economic Summit this week in New Delhi.

Shekhar Dutt is a former top education official in the state of Madhya Pradesh, and is now a deputy national security advisor. He told business leaders at the event that while India's state and central governments are serious about the goal of universal education, it is not just a matter of having higher enrollment.

"If you try to enroll girls into rural schools and if there are no toilets, it's a difficult thing. So when we take up things like larger enrollment, we have to also see that the infrastructure of the schools are improved," said Dutt.

Many villages do not even have a primary school and, frequently, those that do are poorly funded and might not even contain blackboards or desks.

Another significant problem is that teachers are poorly trained and many, especially in rural communities, do not show up for class regularly. The report says many of those who do show up do not have an adequate curriculum and will discriminate against students who are from poor families or members of lower castes.

International organizations, including the World Bank, have contributed funds for expanding primary education in India. The country does have a number of high-quality convent schools, a legacy of the British colonial era. Private schools, most of which were established after independence, remain - with token exceptions - the provenance of the elite.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the forum it is urgent for India to narrow the gap between rich and poor if the country's education and manpower needs are to be met.

"Because it creates these issues that others have talked about, in terms of lack of education, lack of sanitation, bad usage of resources and the whole way of how to include the vast number of people within any society within the legal framework," she said.

The industrial confederation and economic forum joint report says India should improve the training and discipline of teachers, to ensure better education.

At present, nearly all of the money allocated for education by the central government goes to pay teachers' salaries. The government has financed various state-run schemes, including free textbooks for girls and the underprivileged, with varying degrees of success. In some states, critics say, money that is allocated is not being spent.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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