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Physical labour is no longer dignified

Thursday, 16 May 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped


A mass is not a force. Unless we are taught to apply the knowledge we gain and the information-based education we acquire, such learning is of no use

The old gentleman asked, “But what does he actually do?” He had worked hard on the shopfloor all his life to educate his son and send him to university. And the son had repaid his faith, finding work in a boutique advisory firm. One day his father asked him to explain what he did. He tried, unsuccessfully. Till the old man simplified the question to — “What do you make?”

To that generation, it was inconceivable that the service economy would be paid so much more than the manufacturing — where you could physically see value being created — machines out of metal, cloth out of yarn, or grain out of agriculture. Manufacturing growth led not just previous centuries, but has proved the saviour of Germany in the current crisis. Indian youth, though, do not necessarily seem to want to labour with their hands. The 2011 census revealed an alarming drop in the absolute number of people working in rural areas. Vocational and professional colleges report that demand is skewed — most applicants want a desk job (with air-conditioning), and many engineering colleges report a fall in demand. Which makes one wonder: Why do many of our youth not want to ‘do' things?

One look at the curriculum will tell you why, because students are neither taught nor incentivised to anything other than academic examinations. There have been periods in Indian education history when vocational education was a part of the curriculum but that was seen as unsuccessful. There is an attempt to revive that, but with little conviction. One does not need to look beyond the ‘last mile' to understand one of the key reasons it may not succeed. Vocational courses are very dependent on local assessments, which in turn are based on observed skills. The system works only if the assessors are honest. Without honesty, there is no trust and the system collapses on itself. We see this in many skill-based assessments — example — driving licences. What proportion of those who hold driving licences have undertaken a rigorous driving test? And an honest one?

‘Unemployable!’ is the cry that rises from the companies that seek to hire. The demographic dividend turning to demographic disaster is something this author spoke of even three years ago. Unless we focus on creating doers, our people are not a resource. A mass is not a force. Unless we are taught to apply it, our knowledge and information-based education is of no use to anybody. The question should not be — ‘How much do you know'. The question that underlies examination design should be — ‘What can you do with what you know'. The current — ‘Show us what you know' needs to move on to ‘show us how you can create value'.

Where is the time for it? ask some teachers. Our children are already overburdened with projects, say the parents who may even outsource and pay for these activities. “If they keep doing, when will they learn?”, said a parent. Read that again. The emphasis on hollow theoretical learning can take one through a hierarchical process within educational institutions and no further. Since the ladder itself is becoming steeper and access scarce, it seems important. But this ladder is not life. The learning is of no use if it does not translate to a living.

This is not just about the curriculum, though that is an important part of the solution. It is about national attitudes to work. We may have given up the caste system in theory but in daily practice it is deemed a mark of superiority to not do any work with our hands. Contrast this with the work attitudes of the nations that are faring better in the economic storm — Germany, New Zealand etc. Working with one's hands is a natural part of being an economically active person. Be it building a shed over the weekend, laying paving stones, painting one's windows, cooking or cleaning.

This is not the Gandhian self-sufficiency argument, though that seems to be a popular narrative to build a working culture. This is about diversified paths for adding value to national and personal income, and about national attitudes to manual labour. It is reflected in wage rates too — a person working with their hands not only gets paid less but also suffers from bad working conditions and worse, a lack of respect from those who were brought up to do little with their hands. Is it not a shame that often it is only those privileged to go abroad for higher degrees are the ones who learn life skills of cooking, cleaning and buying their own essentials as well as earning them?

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