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23 Jan 2018 7:11
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  •   Home > News > Politics

    Mechatronics challenge India's government as a million people look for work each month

    A million Indians are starting to look for work each month, but as automation eats into factory jobs, the government is facing a vast surplus of unskilled workers.

    "This is the robotic hand, which is actually controlled by me through these sensors, they're called flex sensors," mechatronics student Subhankar Singh explains proudly.

    'Mechatronics' is a combination of mechanical and electronic engineering, and Mr Singh, together with classmate Narendra Kandori, are tinkering with a robotic hand, controlled by sensors wired into a glove so it moves as they flex their fingers.

    "This can be used in the future for bionic arms, so in the medical industry, or the entertainment industry," he said.

    "Even for industrial automation."

    These students are the future hope for an economy that India's government is desperate to steer away from bureaucracy, and into the innovation business.

    "I see 800 million entrepreneurs, who can work towards making the world a better place," India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi said last month, referring to the staggering number of Indians 35 or under.

    He has been exhorting foreign companies to "make in India" and encouraging Indian entrepreneurs to start businesses at home instead of travelling abroad to make their fortunes.

    The stakes for India are high.

    Around 2022, the country is set to eclipse China as the world's most populous nation.

    Government figures suggest a million people a month join the workforce.

    They should be what's called a "demographic dividend" — a boost to the country's productive capacity.

    But while India has ample labour supply, demand is another question.

    Frederico Gil-Sander, an economist with the World Bank, says unless there are businesses willing to employ them, the young people who should power India's future could instead weigh on the economy.

    "They (unemployed people) place a huge burden on the state — it has to spend huge resources on redistribution," Mr Gil-Sander said.

    The prospect of this is real, because India's workers face two critical problems.

    Manufacturing jobs are drying up, and this country lacks the means to skill them otherwise.

    One World Bank study warned two-thirds of the jobs in India today were already under threat from automation.

    "Automation in manufacturing in particular and even services, it's a force, it's a wave to be ridden, not something to be fought," Mr Gil-Sander said.

    And finding alternative fields?

    "That is the the trillion dollar question," he said.

    Mechatronics could create jobs

    The Government's pivot to business must overcome the inertia of a school system aimed at producing knowledgeable bureaucrats instead of dynamic entrepreneurs.

    The entrenched rote-learning culture has attracted the ire of government.

    "Students are taught the answer, they're not taught to question," India's Education Minister Prakash Javadekar said.

    "Unless our students rebel, how can they innovate?"

    Those who have "made it" themselves agree, but also see opportunity in providing (for a fee) the practical training that schools and most universities do not.

    Pavan Pongnati founded the academy running a holiday robotics workshop after trying to hire workers for start-ups of his own.

    "Recruiting, I was able to clearly see the difference between people who were coming with this practical hands-on experience, of project-based learning and problem-solving," he told the ABC.

    "They could think beyond textbook answers."

    Back in that lab, Mr Singh is keenly aware of the irony in building a robotic hand capable of doing the tasks millions less-skilled would otherwise perform.

    "I agree that the numbers will be less," he said.

    "But it will also create jobs for those skilled enough to handle these repair functions.

    "It's good for those who run the company, but its bad for those who work for the company.

    "But I guess this is where we're moving."


    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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