The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal skirts labour reform thorn

New Delhi, April 25: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee steered clear of contentious labour issues in his address at the Shram awards function this morning, prompted by the electoral compulsions of his party and the National Democratic Alliance government.

Vajpayee avoided mentioning the controversial package of labour reforms recommended by the National Labour Commission and made no reference to the tussle between the finance ministry and the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation over the rate of interest. He, instead, focused on the immediate need to upgrade workers’ skills.

The Prime Minister held out a word of reprimand for the captains of industry. “Till now, the industry’s participation in skill training initiatives has been limited. I urge the industry to substantially augment its efforts and invest more in human resource development.”

On such occasions, the Prime Minister usually pushes labour reforms and advises workers to rise to the challenges of globalisation and a competitive market economy. However, this was not the case today, as he is under pressure from the Sangh parivar and organisations like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh as well as a section of the BJP to jettison liberalisation and go slow on privatisation.

Vajpayee has publicly maintained that his government will clear labour reform recommendations only if there is a political consensus. This possibility seems remote with a majority of Opposition parties, including the Congress, refusing to support the proposal to amend the Industrial Disputes Act to facilitate retrenchments and closures.

“I believe that one of the toughest challenges before us is to train the new entrants in the Indian workforce. If we can do this, it will give us an opportunity to create wealth and eradicate poverty,” asserted the Prime Minister.

“It argues that developed countries will experience large-scale shortage of manpower in the coming years. This would require them to attract the right kind of skills. India is uniquely placed to take advantage of this situation by exporting its professional services,” Vajpayee quoted from a study by the All India Institute of Management Association.

He emphasised that India could become a “preferred destination for medicine and tourism, educational services and leisure activities”.

Another point underscored by the Prime Minister was the need to develop vocational skills. “On the one hand, the educational attainment of the existing workforce is very low. On the other, educated persons without professional skills constitute nearly 70 per cent of the total unemployed,” said Vajpayee.

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