India has the potential to be the "world's human resources capital", Prime Minister Narendra Modi said yesterday as he launched a campaign to provide skills training for millions of job seekers.
While ambitious, Mr Modi's drive to educate young Indians faces major challenges, not least the vast numbers of people who need to learn new skills to propel Asia's third-largest economy forward as it competes with China.
To underscore the scale of the challenge, the government plans to train 400 million Indians by 2022 under the National Mission for Skill Development. That is more than the entire population of the United States.
Part of the scheme involves a skills card - a government certification of skills - and a loan scheme providing 50,000 rupees (S$1,077) to 150,000 rupees for poor students to take on technical training.
Mr Modi said 65 per cent of India's 1.2 billion people were under the age of 35. That represented a rich resource for economic growth, if properly harnessed. But if they "don't have skills, they will become a challenge for us rather than an opportunity", said Mr Modi.
"The boy who cleans the car slowly tries to learn how to change a gear. We take a risk and let him drive. Can't we provide him with a certificate for that skill? We are making arrangements to provide them certificates for their skills which will be no less that an engineering certificate."
Under the new policy, the government will focus on improving skills of labourers in the construction sector, train former military servicemen to work as trainers in technical institutes and create skill centres with help from the private sector.
The country faces a lack of skilled workers in many areas, such as construction, retail and healthcare and it is expected to get worse. According to estimates cited by the government, only 2.3 per cent of the workforce in India has undergone formal skill training compared to 52 percent in the US, 80 per cent in Japan and 96 per cent in South Korea.
Since coming to power, Mr Modi has set up a skills and entrepreneurship ministry to coordinate the government's skills-training initiatives. Yet, analysts feel that providing quality training will continue to be a major challenge in a country where vocational education does not get the same respect as a college education.
Technical institutes have outdated course material, with Mr Modi noting that in the past he had found instances of car mechanics being taught technology that was no longer in use by the automobile sector.
Also, the jurisdiction of technical institutes lies with the states and much depends on how seriously the states take the mission.
"The problem is there is a huge gap between demand and supply. If you want to improve productivity and expand the industrial sector it is very important to improve skills across segments. The private sector, too, needs to invest in skill development," said Professor N. R. Bhanumurthy at Delhi's National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.
The plans to improve skills are also tied to Mr Modi's "Make In India" policy, which seeks to convert India into a manufacturing hub.
Since Mr Modi came to power, his government has launched a series of high-profile campaigns.
Many wondered if the high-profile launches would be accompanied by equally efficient execution.
"People will want to to see execution on ground. But the focus on improving skills is important and a good initiative," said Mr Rishi Sahai, managing director of Delhi-based consultancy Cogence Advisors.