India’s Workforce Growth and Education Challenge

Amy Kazmin has a very interesting FT piece about the promise and peril of India’s rapidly-growing workforce which, thanks to major differences in demographic structure, will soon far exceed China’s. The challenge, like in Brazil, is to provide enough upgrading of the workforce’s skill level to make an employment expansion that matches possible. Otherwise in a country that’s still very heavily rural, you just have a bigger burden on the existing stock of land:

The problem is acute for those from rural areas, where government schools — often staffed by poorly trained, absentee teachers — produce low learning levels and high drop-out rates. But even privileged youths whose families have paid for private education can emerge ill prepared for the modern environment. “Unemployment to a large extent is because people are unemployable in the absence of a significant, urgent dose of skills upgrading,” says Mr Aziz.

Close to one in three of those aged 15 to 35 is functionally illiterate, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation’s most recent data. States with the fastest-growing young populations tend to be the poorest, with the weakest schools and lowest literacy rates. Even rural youths who achieve basic literacy rarely have any vocational training.

India seems to be putting its hopes in a recent Right to Education law that “guarantees free education from six to 14 and mandates a maximum teacher-pupil ratio of one to 30” while the central government and the states quibble over the costs. My worry here would be about the supply of well-qualified teachers. Small classes are probably better than giant ones ceteris paribus, but if you already don’t have enough good teachers then reducing the number of students who can have access to them may be counterproductive.


That aside, it always strikes me that trying to do more to help India should be a higher priority for US foreign policy. It’s all well and good to point out the massive bad faith of those who backed invading Iraq on “democracy promotion” grounds, but the fact is that we had all this rhetoric about democracy promotion in part because the idea of democratic solidarity sounds good to people. Well there’s this giant democratic country over in Asia that’s growing pretty rapidly but is also stricken with poverty and all kinds of continuing problems.