Poverty & Inequality

Unleashing the forgotten billion of India

  • Blog Post Date 31 August, 2017
  • Notes from the Field
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About 1.7% of India's 400 million workforce learns skills on their own. In this article, Yuvaraj Galada, former Vice President of National Skill Development Corporation, shares experiences from his travels to India's hinterland to meet these ustaads - individuals with extraordinary motivation to self-learn. In his view, supporting and catalysing ustaads to train others can be a rapidly scalable, grassroots approach to closing India's skills gap.


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 heart I proceeded on a sabbatical in 2011 to explore the question - How can we unleash our forgotten billion? Answers have finally emerged. I am sharing my journey and the lessons it has taught. 

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, a 34 year old ustaad mechanic in Goa, failed all subjects in the first term of Class XI. Not only had he failed but he had also reached his point of gnawing dissatisfaction. Enough is enough, and he set about to self-express and discover himself. He recalls: “School was boring so after Class X I decided to pursue a diploma at a polytechnic. Though I learnt little there, I realised I wanted to become a mechanic. My father understood and gave me his old scooter. I took it apart and put it back and soon I taught myself to be a mechanic”, says Niranjan with a grin. He was echoing Einstein’s sentiment that play is the highest form of research. 

Niranjan’s teacher at school, Baby didi, joined me in this conversation in Kavale village of Goa. She remarked, “Niranjan had little interest in studies. I thought he was a dull student. But while pursuing the diploma he asked me to teach him some Class IX and X Physics, later asking if I could help him get some books. His sudden interest puzzled me!” 

“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 examination, without comprehending very much!” says, Prof Yash Pal, a leading educationist. 

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 thought he replied, “Two batches a day with five students each I can train 10 students in three months - 40 in a year. They will not be mechanics after that but I guarantee they will make good helpers to mechanics and earn at least Rs. 8,000 per month right away. After two years they will be good mechanics earning over Rs. 25,000.” But how educated should the youth be, I asked. “If the youth is interested and can put in hard work, it is enough. If he does not pickup electrical work I will teach mechanical. If that too does not interest him I will train to tinker and paint. They are all in high demand.” 

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 sense, but were the finest in their trade and keen to teach others. Pitamber, a retired ustaad plumber who did not study after class VII, asked if I would fund him to setup a plumbing school in Nodhabasant– his village in Kendrapara district of Odisha. After more than 25 years in the trade he had retired back to the remote village to tend to his small farm. 

“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 plumbing from Pitamber our friends and relatives working as plumbers in the big cities will immediately call us for work”, was the unanimous response. 

After two months of running his bootstrapped school in a village room I brought a plumbing supervisor who works with a leading builder in Bhubaneshwar to assess the 14 students – 12 assessed at B and one each at A and C grades. “They are all ready to work as helpers to plumbers”, assured the assessor. After three weeks I had arranged for them to be placed with a top construction company, but they had already left for their new jobs. 

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 Pitamber, if he too could teach a few classes in his school. There is abundant visiting faculty. 

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 first boot-strapped Community Skills School for plumbing in Nodhabasant village in Odisha

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 Tiruvannamalai seems to be catering to 25% of Tamil Nadu’s construction activity. There are no published figures or any research done on this phenomenon, but this was pieced together by talking to several workers and supervisors during my travels. A ‘skills map’ of India is waiting to be uncovered. 

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 costsTheir 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. 

Diganta, a welding ustaad, with a batch of his students

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. 

Welding school – emphasis on safety

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 districts. An agency came to assess the students and found 85% to be work-ready. The agency operates across the country but had never seen such skilling schools. What charmed them was the fact that about one-third of the students that had enrolled were women. In a few districts, there were all-woman masonry schools too. Go across the country and you will not find a female mason; they work only as helpers to masons. 

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 hip that his height is just 2.5 feet. 

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 little cost to maintain. Across three districts of Tuticorin, Virudhunagar, and Sivaganga, 30 CFSs for goat rearing were launched, another 10 CFSs for cow rearing were launched in Pudukkottai district - each run by a carefully selected ‘spark’. A spark is a woman of the community who has an unusually keen interest to learn and teach the trade. Sparks are future ustaads, possibly. 

An expert veterinarian, Dr. Mohan Balasubramanian, understood the challenges in rearing goats, devised a syllabus accordingly, and taught the sparks every weekend for 12 weeks. Each week the sparks went back to their villages and ran the CFS for those interested in their community. The mortality of the goats, which had historically been 20-45%, was brought down to below 5% across the districts within a year. The animals showed appreciable weight gain too. A doubling of farm incomes of the very poor does not seem impossible in a year. 

The expertise of Dr. Balasubramanian has been magnified by 80 sparks and they are now capable of scaling up across entire districts with minimal support from him. 

The garments hub of Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu faces a shortage of 20,000 workers. From my travels across the state I estimate that more than this number are scattered across villages. Female workers, after working for 3-4 years with large garment exporters of Tiruppur, are sitting at home postmarriage. On such a fertile bed another pilot was initiated in Virudhunagar District. In six months, after careful selection of sparks amongst the village community, 20 community enterprise garment sub-contract units have emerged across the district, mostly run by village women. The World Bank project helped them with funding, introduction to large garment companies in the region, and mentoring for the first three months. These units together employ more than 200 women most of whom were earlier working either in the farm or as unskilled labour. 

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 large number of small enterprises is also being taken up. 

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. The challenge is akin to setting a gigantic and very heavy flywheel in motion. Getting started is very hard work but once it starts it will pick up momentum and go ahead full speed.

Madhav Chavan, founder of education NGO Pratham, has time and again demonstrated how programmes like ‘Read India’ can be scaled up rapidly across the country and at very low costs. Dr. T.Sundararaman has shown this as well with the remarkable barefoot doctor programme called Mitanins that he took to every nook and corner of Chhattisgarh, with fantastic results. 

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 is not on setting up skilling centres, but on assessment centres. We may need them in the ratio of 1:50. 

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.” 

Private sector has begun to come forward and assist the government in nation-building. With the large CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) corpus combined with the MPLAD (Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) and Member of Legislative Assembly Local Area Development (MLALAD), development funds of MPs and MLAs, a public private partnership (PPP) can be setup across each of the 700 plus districts of India. 

Steve Jobs travelled to Indian villages in his days of youth and opined that, “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and the intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world… Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.” 

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,
Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build on what they have.



  1. 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 livelihood that 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.
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