About 1.7% of India's 400 million
A saying in Hindi goes, Pehle darshan dhari, phir gun vichari. We initially judge something by its appearance rather than its quality. The boot of our car, the rear of our house or the back of our teeth are usually accorded second-class status. I had accorded the same status to the ‘poor and poorly educated’ billion people in India – the ‘forgotten billion’. It seems a part of human nature to accord such status to anything that seems unimportant or is out of sight or perceived as inferior– until some extraordinary experiences make us question some of our deep-seated assumptions. These experiences removed my blinkers. They made me ‘see’ the world of the forgotten billion.
The 14 months that I worked at the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) in 2010-2011 had a deep impact on me. It allowed me an unforgettable Bharat Darshan, to understand Bharat, the informal and traditional India. With hope in my
The NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation) 2011-12 data says that 89.2% of Indians did not receive vocational training, a desperate picture. But there is another piece of statistic which informs that 1.7% of Indians have learnt skills themselves. They are ustaads, individuals with extraordinary motivation to self-express and to seek their calling in life. They may be poorly educated and born into families with modest resources but they look beyond those hurdles. They actively seek teachers and, if there are none, they learn by seeking any resource they can find. They learn less formally and more intuitively. In the Mahabharata, Ekalavya hoped Dronacharya would become his teacher but when it did not happen his efforts grew manifold and he learnt by himself. Ustaads belong to the clan of Ekalavyas. NSSO implies there are more than 6 million of them. I met a few hundred across India.
Niranjan’s teacher at
“A significant fraction of children who drop out may be those who refuse to compromise with non-comprehension - they are potentially superior to those who just memorise and do well in
Could Niranjan teach interested youth to become a car mechanic? He had already trained many informally and on-the-job over the years. But could he do it ‘formally’, turning his mechanic shed into a neat and safe training school? After some
I had many such conversations with ustaads of different trades during my travels. Whether it was Parista-bai the health worker of Jaitaran village in Rajasthan; Ansari, the barber of Katwaria Sarai in Delhi; Sukant, the mobile technician in the small town of Pattamundai in Odisha; Chintu, the welder in Chilamakur village of Andhra; Ram Sharan, the farmer of Daulatpur village in Uttar Pradesh; or Ramesh, the fitter in Bharuch, Gujarat. None were very educated in the formal
“Yes, if you could mobilise 20 interested students”, I promised. Fifteen minutes later he had assembled 10 students, mostly poorly educated but also included a graduate. “It is mid-day and many have gone to work in the fields, else I would have assembled 20 easily”, said Pitamber. I asked the youth, “Why would you be interested to learn in a plumbing school run by Pitamber?” “If we learn
After two months of running his bootstrapped school in a village
Does this remind you of Ustaad-Chela parampara? The big merit of the Ustaad-Chela system is its very low cost. The finest learning theory suggests that imparting of skills in an informal setting and at the place of work is critical for good learning outcomes. These two robust ingredients are already present in the model. Its big disadvantage is the ad-hoc processes and inconsistent outcomes. The model also suffers a poor perception in the eyes of the industry as it is seen as chaotic and its presentation does not help.
Pitamber’s school was refurbished and is a modern manifestation of the Ustaad-Chela system. I brought him an industry-certified standard syllabus. He knocked off 50% of it as unnecessary and, instead, wanted me to get product catalogues of sanitary ware. “The pictures and diagrams in the catalogues help in easy understanding”, he said. He would not compromise on the tools and kits and got a complete set - only of the best brands. One day a plumber was visiting his village and dropped by the school: “I got my diploma at the State Institute of Plumbing Technology but the tools and materials you have here are very good. All get to freely use them”. Another visiting plumber asked
The trade estimates that at least 50% of plumbers in India are from Odisha. What is not well-known is that most of these plumbers come from a region of Kendrapara district. I visited homes which had as many as five plumbers in their household and they said it was common in the region. The Kendrapara region is crying for many such plumbing schools; atleast 50 are needed. Many retired Pitambers are available in the villages across the region. Kendrapara becoming the ‘plumbing capital of India’ in two years is not far-fetched.
The adjoining district of Jagatsinghpur is known to send out a large number of cooks. Masons of Malda in West Bengal are considered the best; same with welders and fitters from Gorakhpur and northern Bihar or riggers from Rajasthan or bar benders from the border districts of Jharkhand-Odisha. And the list goes on. Tamil Nadu is not a big supplier of construction workers to the rest of the country but the district of Tiruvanna
If you talk to plumbing professionals they will say six months full-time is the minimum duration to learn and the student should be at least a high school graduate. Plumbing is almost like an engineering profession, they argue. Probe them and you realise they have little hands-on experience, and their experience is mostly in managing tradesmen, sometimes supervising. The narrative is similar across trades. “Welding takes a minimum of six months to learn”, a highly respected industry expert told me. Yet a ‘village skills school’ in Boodha Ghat, Odisha, run by Diganta, trained youth part-time in welding for a month and Thermax, the reputed engineering company, assessed them to be ready to work at their site. This school also attracted two youth from the best (ITI) Indian Technical Institute in the state. In all, more than 50 students were trained across four schools and each paid Rs 1,750, covering most of the costs. Their supervisor said, “On day 1 at work, all these kids will be better than the bottom 25% of my team of 110 welders. Such is the desperation and shortage of skills.” I spoke to Steve Bleile of Idaho, US, and he endorsed the Ustaad-view – “a motivated youth needs just one month to learn the fundamentals of welding”. Steve’s video tutorials on welding are popular all over the world.
Atanu Dey has thought deeply about learning. “Education is all about loading the bootstrap programme in the brain of a child. And after you have done that, the child himself/herself is capable of loading the other bits of software required to do everything else - or what we call learning. The important point is that the bootstrap programme has to be loaded first and it has to be very small and very efficient”, he says. Ustaads know this intuitively. Observing Pitamber and Diganta teach over extended periods I saw this theory in action. Their focus is never on completing the syllabus, but rather the individual learner. Ustaads have much to teach, I tell my teacher-wife.
If skill development were a 10-step ladder, India’s ladder has only the top few steps - the bottom ones are either missing or broken. Majority of the forgotten billion have poor access to skilling and are never formally trained – wasting away valuable potential. The construction trade is estimated to employ about 20% of India’s workforce and mostly attracts villagers. If skill development for construction were a car, we see only a few Mercedes, mostly in urban centres; these are often underutilised and are show pieces. But what people are demanding is a Maruti Alto right in their village panchayat.
And such an Alto was encouraged in Tamil Nadu in a grand experiment by a free-spirited bureaucrat, P Selvarajan, under a World Bank-funded poverty alleviation programme. They called it Community Skills School (CSS) - setup “by the community, for the community and of the community” to solve their own livelihood problems. The majority voted for masonry and set up CSS for masonry right in their village panchayat. There were also other schools in trades like four-wheeler and two-wheeler repair, welding, home appliance repair, etc., and traditional ones like silk saree weaving, pottery, bamboo basket-making, roses’ nursery, etc. What was meant to be a four-district pilot, spread virally across 15
The star amongst these schools was operated by Kannan to train disabled person, including a few who are mentally challenged. Over the course of a year, 285 people with disabilities from across Tamil Nadu were trained to repair home appliances, mobile, laptops and TVs, all in 30 days at his CSS in Sivaganga. A friend reminds me that a course to learn to repair a mobile phone runs for 30 days. More than 80% of them earn between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 12,000 per month today. Those who were seen as ‘liabilities’ by their families have been converted into ‘assets’ by Kannan, severely handicapped from
Vivek Wadhwa, a globally renowned thought leader says, "These people could also be building robots and flying delivery drones. The possibilities are exponentially greater with new technologies." Having spent long hours with Kannan I think he may belong to this category. Ustaads learn differently; they also solve problems differently and uniquely.
Fifty per cent of India’s workforce still gets sustenance from agriculture, which is dominated by women. There is little training available to enhance their livelihoods anywhere in the country. The initiative was extended into farming as well, through the Community Farm School (CFS). The poorest of the poor have little assets and they depend mostly on goat rearing, which requires
An expert veterinarian,
The expertise of
The garments hub of Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu faces a shortage of 20,000 workers. From my travels across the
In all, a few thousand households moved to better livelihoods in a short time. It has now been planned to scale-up to 5,000 CSS and CFS across Tamil Nadu to skill and facilitate employment of about 300,000 people. The Virudhunagar model of tapping into dominant value chains of the state to catalyse
I argue that by catalysing and unleashing ustaads and sparks (future ustaads) India can be a transformed country in five years. How do we locate them? Ask the community and they will come up with an answer in no time. The investment I foresee should not exceed Rs. 150 billion over five years
Can the investment of Rs. 150 billion be reduced and the model made simpler? Yes, by getting down to first principles.
Shubhashis Gangopadhyay says, “Instead of focusing on the infrastructure in the ustaad’s schools why not focus on the outcome of these schools. These are marketable skills so the government need not worry about how they learn.” Once early schools across different trades are setup by ustaads they can be standardised and shrink-wrapped into ‘school in a box’. Assessment centres can be setup in every district. The ‘box’ will suggest guidelines for interested ustaads to setup the schools. Once youth are skilled, ustaads will bring them to these assessment centres for certification. The investment and focus
Further, Shubhashis suggests: “Why not tell the employers that they cannot construct a house without certified masons, plumbers, carpenters, or electricians. That will galvanise the youth to acquire certified skills and the ustaads’ schools can immediately be in business.”
Steve Jobs travelled to Indian villages in his days of youth and opined
We are not a country of illiterates; we are a country of ‘informal literates’. And informal literates may, in some ways, be superior to ‘formal literates’. If we combine the best of both, ‘magic’ can happen.
Jim Clifton, Chairman of Gallup, an American management consulting company, in response to the ideas in this essay, remarked, "America was built much by informal literates. It would be good if as individuals we knew whether our tendency was to pursue wisdom through formal or informal literacy-I am surely informally literate."
What I have shared in this long essay, a Chinese poem puts it tersely and well:
Go to the people,
Live among them,
Learn from them,
Start with what they know.
Build on what they have.
- 400 million is the size of our workforce. An average blended cost of Rs. 3,000 per person is envisaged for CFS and CSS, lesser than what
a MNREGA(Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) worker earns working 20 days/month. Will the poorest of poor be willing to pay? They do not exceed 25 million people and let’s assume they will not (Rs. 100 billion). But the others would easily be willing to pay for a better livelihoodthat they will attain in just 1-3 months mostly learning part-time. The early CSSs and CFSs will prove this promise and an outlay of Rs. 75 billion is envisaged for the start-up phase when only small costs will be recovered from students.