Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fondness for alliteration is no secret. At New York’s Madison Square Garden, before a euphoric audience of overseas Indians, he extolled the virtues of the “three Ds.”
“India has three unique Ds — Democracy, Demographic Dividend and Demand. These three things are present in one country… this is not there anywhere in the world. And on the basis of this India will cross new heights — it is my belief,” he said, speaking chattily in Hindi.
It is hard not to agree.
Drawing attention to India’s young workforce, Mr Modi said this country can supply workers to the world and suggested that it export talented teachers and nurses.
But can India afford to export its nurses, teachers and other skilled workers to the rest of the world as Mr Modi suggested?
The vast majority of Indians are indeed below 35. This gives India’s workforce a potential edge over other countries with an ageing population. But India trails behind its peers in education and healthcare. None of the grand plans that this government and previous governments have announced about radically improving India’s score on both these fronts can be implemented without enough trained people.
Take basic education, which enables children to acquire foundational skills and core knowledge. Despite several government schemes, India still has millions of children who are out of school. Worryingly, many of those who are in school are not receiving quality education as the latest Annual Status of Education Report points out. Tellingly, the proportion of Class 5 students who can read a Class 2 text has plummeted 15 percentage points since 2005. There are many reasons for this sorry state of affairs but one key factor is the shortage of trained teachers.
Those who can afford to send their children to expensive, private schools buy their way out of this mess. But not everyone is lucky to have the opt-out option. What about those who can’t afford quality education?
Good teachers have been leaving the country for quite some time now. This can help the individual and the family, it brings in money, provides exposure. But “emigration of qualified teachers from developing countries is a double loss for the source countries, not only leading to emigration of high-skill labour but also affecting their future developmental base when these countries are already struggling to meet the millennium development goals (MDGs) in education,” points out Rashmi Sharma, a researcher at the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, in a 2013 essay titled, Teachers on the Move: International Migration of School Teachers From India, in the Journal of Studies in International Education.
Why is this happening? Ms Sharma says the emigration of Indian school teachers is “driven by rising demand in the destination countries, their dissatisfaction with the Indian education system and desire for a better life”.
Her essay notes that “developed countries facing shortage of teachers, are actively recruiting from the developing countries like India to fill the gaps in the demand and supply of teachers. …While India is considered a labour-surplus country, it has serious shortage of teachers especially in the rural areas. The shortages have been projected to rise after the enforcement of the Right to Education Act.”
Shortage of teachers is now a country-wide problem and specially affects the teaching of math and science. A February 2014 report in the Indian Express pointed out the stark situation in Gujarat: “The second attempt at filling vacant posts for Mathematics and Science teachers for government primary schools turned out to be a futile exercise, as more than 1,200 positions are still lying vacant at the end of the recruitment process.”
The problem is not confined to just elementary education. According to a July 2014 statement by the ministry of human resources development, there are approximately 36.5 per cent to 40.8 per cent vacancies in teaching positions in 16 Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and 30 National Institutes of Technology (NIT) respectively. The faculty famine is due to a host of reasons — retirement, resignation, increase in students’ intake and non-availability of qualified candidates for taking up teaching assignments. The NITs are now using contract and adjunct staff as well as using the online mode of teaching to overcome these shortages. The statement notes that the faculty in NITs has now been given pay parity with faculty in IITs with a view to attract quality faculty.
Much of the current shortage can be attributed to a massive growth in the higher education sector in the past seven years. In 2006-07, the country had 387 universities. The number stood at 700 in 2012-13.
The situation of nurses is no better. The demand for nurses is rising worldwide. “While India does have a large potential labour pool that could be trained as nurses, at present India does not have enough professional nurses to meet its own domestic health services needs… India is faced with the double challenge of producing more nurses for emigration and at the same time filling vacancies within India. Currently, there is virtually no discussion of the difficulties this dual challenge poses,” says Indian migration expert Binod Khadria.
Former Union minister for health and family welfare Ghulam Nabi Azad conceded earlier this year that India faces an acute shortage of doctors and nurses. “There are around 80,000 Indian doctors in the US and 75,000 in the UK. But there is acute shortage of doctors and nurses in India,” Mr Azad said.
The government has changed the Medical Council of India and the Nursing Council to increase the supply of nurses within the country. But the shortage persists, affecting patient care across the country.
In the short run, a labour export policy can help reduce unemployment. But in the long haul, there are costs as well as benefits. Migration and remittances help households, communities, the economy and alleviate poverty. But as the example of the Philippines, a major labour exporter, shows, there are psycho-social costs and brain drain also affects human capital of a country and its long-term development.
Mr Modi is right in flagging India’s demographic dividend. But to leverage its potential, we need a fourth “D” — Discussion, on how to expand the pool of skilled workers in the country, how to retain talented teachers, nurses and others, and how to bring back some of those who have left the country. Better pay, better working conditions and more incentives for professional development will help. We also need more research on the subject.
Only then will the potential of demographic dividend translate into performance.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at email@example.com