Projections made by the United Nations suggest that India has about 350 million people in the age group 14 and below. This number will remain above 300 million for the next 30 years.
Over the same period, the number of people in the 15-64 age group, those who will be seeking jobs, currently estimated at around 688 million, is expected to increase to about 1 billion three decades from now.
Today's schoolchildren are tomorrow's jobseekers. It is inconceivable that such large numbers of people will ever be catered for by a system of higher education, however efficient and responsive it may be.
The majority of the hundreds of millions of jobseekers will, at best, be armed with a high school qualification; many of them, realistically speaking, will not even reach that far. This category of people should be of the greatest concern for policymakers.
Their productivity will determine the rate of growth of the economy. Their levels of income will determine the level of consumer demand in the domestic market. Their savings will provide resources for investment.
Their ability to educate their children beyond the levels that they achieved themselves will speed up the transformation of India into a developed country. And, their politics will provide the basis for a stable and sustainable balance between growth and redistribution.
A useful starting point for a new paradigm is to identify a set of key objectives for an educational system. The parameters of structure, content, and duration should flow from these objectives. We have become used to thinking about 10 or 12 years as the minimum requirement for people to "qualify" as having finished school.
Apart from the fact that this stigmatises people who do not complete that tenure, it raises questions about whether the content it takes to fill up 10 or 12 years of a child's life is really the best means to prepare him or her for the life ahead. This premise should be seriously questioned.
There are three components in the preparation of a child for the workforce. These might be described as "basics", "context", and "skill". Basics consist of a minimum level of literacy and numeracy skills, which should enable the child to read and understand functional documents and perform simple mathematical reasoning and computation.
In today's world, both would require facility with computers, so a word processor and a spreadsheet are minimum accompaniments to this component.
Context refers to the formation of a robust, credible value system, which the person uses as an anchor all his life. Skill obviously refers to a craft or similar capability the child acquires during his or her years of formal education, which is immediately marketable when he or she enters the workforce.
Every child should have access to a relatively "standardised" programme for the first two components. With respect to the basic component, this has to be defined in terms of certain reasoning and analytical capabilities, which can be measured by standardised tests.
It is far more difficult to measure outcomes with respect to the context component. However, it needs to be emphasised that such outcomes cannot be measured in terms of whether a child has been exposed to a certain set of historical "facts" or not.
The standard of assessment for this component must be based on the child's ability to "live" the values that are deemed important by the society in which he lives.
While exposure to social history may be an important part of this process, it would be far more important to put the child in situations that are reflective of his living environment and provide him guidance on socially acceptable alternatives to deal with them.
Once these two components have been addressed, we move on to the third -- skills. At this point, children are allowed to diversify and follow their inclinations. Those who visualise a path that takes them into university or professional education can opt for a mix of training that will probably resemble quite closely what the standard high-school curriculum consists of today.
However, the numbers provided above clearly point to the fact that the system will have to accommodate very diverse choices if it is to successfully meet the aspirations of such a large mass of children.
We often speak of vocational training as a critical component of our educational system, but the reality is that it is treated as an inferior option to the mainstream high school track. The resources being devoted to it are far too meagre for it to become a legitimate alternative.
More so, the formal institutional structure represented by the industrial training institutes require aspirants to have completed far more years of schooling, learning things that are completely redundant. The productivity of these people would probably be much higher if they were allowed to change stream and receive vocational training of reasonable quality at the right time.
It is in this context that our enormous traditional endowments of craft skills are significant. Viewed strictly from a labour market perspective, the caste system is essentially a mechanism that concentrates specific skills within a group of people, which is then bequeathed to successive generations.
From this perspective, the system resembles the guild system that prevailed in England and France at the onset of the Industrial Revolution and provided a very firm basis to the emergence of modern manufacturing systems in those countries.
This repository of skills is a fundamental resource for the development of a competitive manufacturing sector even today. Our challenge is to effectively combine tradition with modernity to allow these skills to be used with maximum possible productivity.
From our own perspective, the system of bequeathing knowledge and skill from parent to child represents a ready-made educational system. It is people with inherited craft skills who will provide the basic teaching resource.
They need to be supplemented, of course, by other resources that will bring modern technology and systems into the picture, but at the end of the day, the value of the worker will have to be judged by the level of his skill in performing his "core" tasks.
To sum up, we need a new educational paradigm to address the challenge of several hundred millions of people looking for jobs over the next few decades. Properly trained and equipped for both job and life, these people will be a massive force propelling the Indian economy into affluence.
Badly trained and ill-equipped to co-exist productively with their fellow citizens, our population will indeed be the burden that many of us already think it is.The writer is chief economist, Crisil. This article is excerpted from a longer piece published in the Special Commemorative Issue published by Assocham on the occasion of the JRD Tata Memorial Lecture on August 30, 2005. The views are personal.