The pandemic has exposed just how vulnerable India's labour force is. An estimated 450 million internal migrant workers make up 92 percent of the labour force in India - with the majority of them hailing from rural India.
The turmoil caused by the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown resulted in a mass exodus of millions of these workers, most daily labourers who'd lost their livelihood, in a reverse migration back to their villages. Several months later, many have returned to the cities in the absence of employment in the villages - a recent studyfound that nearly two-thirds of migrant workers, who had left for home due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown, have either returned to cities or wish to do so due to economic pressures and the lack of livelihoods.
The key question therefore is how should we alleviate the plight of this largely unskilled migrant workforce from rural India? How can we prevent such a situation from arising again?
Exactly how skilled is our Labour Force?
The proportion of formally skilled workers in India is extremely low at just 4.69% of the total workforce. Compare this to 24% in China, 52% in the US, 68% in the UK, 75% in Germany, 80% in Japan and 96% in South Korea.
Given that the rural workforce accounts for 70% of the total, it is therefore vital for India, to prioritise rural skill training - making quality skill training more accessible to the rural youth in order to prevent their joining the ranks of migrant workers.
The penetration of vocational training in rural India is abysmally low - 93.7% (2017-18) of rural youth have not receive any vocational training. Current skill development programmes and vocational training being imparted have met with limited success with youth often unable to find work. Additionally, there is high attritionâ€”one in five candidates tend to drop out of jobs within the first three months.
As a result a vast segment of informal workers (more than 390 millionindividuals), have acquired skills informally - through self-learning, on-the-job learning, observation or a transfer of skills from a master craftsperson to an apprentice. This 'unskilled' labour force ends up working in the unorganised sector and is often exploited. Those who find their way into SMEs often learn on the job and have low productivity. The overall lack of formal training is an economic loss not just for the 'unskilled' labour force, but for the country as a whole.
How Should We Skill Rural India?
To address this massive gap, it is not enough to merely ramp up the number of skill training institutes in rural India; it is the quality of the skill training that is equally important. Skill training programs need to be aligned to local employment opportunities, designed in partnership with potential employers, keeping in mind the demands of specific jobs. Apart from the technical skills, the rural youth also need to be trained in cognitive and interpersonal skills to adapt to a technology-enabled rapidly changing world.
The pandemic has focused the spotlight on some opportunities. Our poorly equipped public healthcare system and the shortage of frontline workers i.e. Nursing cadres, lab technicians, paramedics and ASHA workers has meant that, in the coming years, there is expected to be spurt in demand for these professions, one that, the skill training institutes need to respond to by offering a greater number of healthcare courses.
Other priority areas for training is in skills relevant to the rural economy; newer opportunities are emerging in information technology (IT)-linked Agri-extension services, food processing, Agri-based e-commerce, solar technicians, amongst others. A key part of such a push would be to create awareness and aspirations for these vocations, and their potential to offer a fulfilling career.
Additionally, encouraging and financing the setup of micro-enterprises among the rural youth, in particular those who have some prior work experience, needs to be the thrust area. The Banking sector and financial institutions have a major role to play here, by providing loans for setting up microenterprises.
Skill Training In A Post Covid World
Skill development centres have been physicallyshut since late March, compelling most of these institutions to impart education remotely. This could well be a 'blessing in disguise' as remote learning has the potential to revolutionise the vocational training landscape in rural India. For one, it would dramatically enhance access to skills training in the remotest rural parts of the country, where the need is the greatest - and in particular to girls, who have often been denied such opportunities.
Remote learning would also allow for greater access to quality content and trainers. India has seen explosive internet growth in recent years, driven by rising smartphone penetration and inexpensive mobile data - we now have more rural internet users than urban ones. But to make e-learning truly universal we need - a broad band revolution in rural India accompanied by the availability of affordable devices such as tablets and PC's, learning platforms, a pedagogy adapted to remote education and the preparedness of instructors and learners for online learning.
Rural migrant workers are engaged in casual employment without formal guarantees and largely deprived of any social protections to ensure basic standards of living. Due to the seasonal nature of their work, this floating population remains undocumented and invisible. This has highlighted the need to invest in rural skill training, to build a skilled labour force for the future, that does not need to turn to the informal sector and migration, for livelihood opportunities. COVID-19 could well be the 'blessing' in disguise, having brought this issue into sharp national focus, and the catalyst for the emergence of a new paradigm of skill training and livelihood opportunities in our rural areas.
 The collaborative study on 'How is the hinterland unlocking' was carried out by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India), Action for Social Advancement, Grameen Sahara, i-Saksham, PRADAN, SAATHI-UP, SeSTA, Seva Mandir and Transform Rural India Foundation.
 Centre of Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) household survey