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 is usually accorded a 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 bestow such status to anything that seems unimportant or is out of sight or perceived as inferior – until some extraordinary experience makes us question some of our deep-seated assumptions. Such an experience removed my blinkers and made me “see” the world of the Forgotten Billion.
The fourteen months that I worked at National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) in 2010-11 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 2011-12 data says that 89.2% of Indians do not have vocational training, a bleak picture. But there is another statistic which shows that 1.7% of Indians have learned skills themselves. They are Ustads, individuals with extraordinary motivation to self-express and to seek their calling in life. They may be poorly educated and born in families with little resources but they looked beyond those hurdles. They actively sought teachers and, if there were none, they learned by seeking any resource they could find. They learned less formally and more intuitively. In the Mahabharat, Eklavya hoped Dronacharya would become his teacher but when it did not happen efforts grew manifold and he learned by himself. Ustads 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 yr old ustad mechanic in Goa, remembers, “School was boring so after Class X I decided to pursue a diploma at a polytechnic. Though I learned little there, I realized I wanted to become a mechanic. My father understood and gave me his old scooter. I took it apart and put it back together and soon I taught myself to be a mechanic.” 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 recalls, “Niranjan had little interest in studies. I thought he was a dull student. But while pursuing a 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!”
In Class XI Niranjan failed in all subjects in the first term. Not only had he failed but he had also reached a point of gnawing dissatisfaction. Enough is enough, and he set about to self-express and discover himself. Once he realized his passion, the floodgates opened and he was soon seeking lessons from teachers, books and any source he could find – including going back to didi for lessons which had not interested him earlier.
“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 memorize and do well in examination, without comprehending very much!” says, Professor Yash Pal, a leading educationalist.
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, “With two batches a day and five students each, I can train 10 students in three months – 40 in a year. They will not be mechanics after that but I can guarantee they will make good helpers to mechanics and earn more than Rs 8,000 per month right away. After two years they will be good mechanics earning more than 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 I will train to tinker and paint. They are all in high demand.”
Such conversations I have regularly had with Ustads of different trades in 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 Pradesh, 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 ustad plumber, did not study after class VII, yet asked if I would fund him to set up a plumbing school in his remote Nodhabasant village in Kendrapara Dist, Odisha. After more than 25 years in the trade he had retired back to the village to tend to his small farm.
“Yes, if you could mobilize 20 interested students,” I promised. Fifteen minutes later he had assembled 10 students, mostly poorly educated with one graduate. “It is mid-day and many have gone to work in the fields else I would have assembled twenty easily,” said Pitamber. I asked the youth, “Why would you be interested to attend a plumbing school run by Pitamber?” “If I learn plumbing from Pitamber my friends and relatives working as plumbers in the big cities will immediately call me for work,” was the unanimous response.
After two months of running his boot-strapped school in a village room, I brought a plumbing supervisor with a leading builder from Bhubaneshwar to assess the 14 students – 12 assessed at B and 1 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 Ustad-Chela parampara? The big merit of Ustad-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 from a poor perception in the eyes of the industry, as it is seen as chaotic. Its presentation does not help.
Pitamber’s school was refurbished to its modern manifestation. 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 now abundant visiting faculty.
The trade estimates that 50%-75% of plumbers in India are “Odiya plumbers.” Little do they know that these plumbers mostly come from a region that is part of Kendrapara District. I visited homes which had even five plumbers in their household and they said it was common in the region. The Kendrapara region is crying for many such plumbing schools, and at least fifty more 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 North 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 but the district of Thiruvannamalai seems to be catering to 25% of Tamil Nadu’s construction activity. There are no published figures or any research done on this beautiful phenomenon, but this was pieced together in talking to many 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 6 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 realize they have little hands-on experience, and their experience is mostly in managing the tradesmen, sometimes supervising. The narrative is similar across trades. “Welding takes a minimum of 6 months,” a highly respected industry expert told me. Yet such a “village skills school” in Boodha Ghat village run by Diganta in Odisha 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 in the state. Their supervisor said, “On day 1, 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, whose video tutorials on welding are among the most popular in the world, and he endorsed the Ustad-view – “a motivated youth needs just one month to learn the fundamentals of welding.”
Atanu Dey has thought deeply about learning. “Education is all about loading the bootstrap program in the brain of a child. And after you have done that, the child himself 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 program has to be loaded first and it has to be very small and very efficient,” he says. Ustads know this intuitively. Observing Pitamber and Diganta teach over extended period I saw this theory in action. Their focus is never on completing the syllabus, always the individual learner. Ustads have much to teach, I tell my teacher-wife.
If Skill Development were a 10-step ladder we have a ladder with only the top few steps available in India, the bottom steps are either missing or broken. Hence most 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, many times poorly utilized and mostly show pieces. But what people are demanding is an Alto right in their village panchayat.
And such an Alto was encouraged in Tamil Nadu in a grand experiment by a free-spirited bureaucrat under a World Bank-funded poverty alleviation program. 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 Community Skills Schools 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 and traditional ones like silk saree weaving, pottery, bamboo basket making, rose nursery, etc. What was to be a four district pilot spread virally across fifteen districts. An agency came to assess the students and found 85% were work ready. The agency operates across the country but had never seen such skilling schools. What charmed them was to see a good number of women enrolled, 30%. In a few districts, there were all-woman masonry schools too. Go across the country and you will not find a woman-mason, they work only as helpers to masons.
The star amongst these schools was operated by Kannan to train disabled persons, 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 repair just a mobile phone runs for 30 days. More than 80% of them earn between Rs 3,000 to Rs 12,000 per month today. What were seen as “liabilities” by their families are now converted into “assets” by Kannan.
Fifty percent of India’s workforce still gets sustenance from agriculture, an industry also 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 thirty CFSs for goat rearing were launched, another ten 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.
An expert veterinarian, Dr. Mohan Balasubramanian, understood their challenges in rearing goats, devised a syllabus accordingly and taught the Sparks how to overcome those challenges 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 between 20 to 45% had been lowered to under 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 it up across the entire four districts with only a little support from him.
The garments hub of Tiruppur faces a shortage of 20,000 workers. From my travels across Tamil Nadu, I estimate that these numbers and more are scattered across villages. Female workers, after working for 3-4 years in the large garment exporters of Tiruppur are sitting at home after marriage. 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 subcontract units have emerged across the district, mostly run by village women. The project helped them with funding, introduction to large garment companies in the region and mentoring for the first three months. These units together now employ more than 200 women, most of whom were previously working either in the farm or as unskilled laborers. You can read more about these incredible women’s journey in a World Bank blog post, Stitching Dreams: In Tamil Nadu, Rural Women Show the Way to Start Up India.
In all, a few thousand households moved to better livelihoods in a short time. It has now been planned to scale-up 5,000 Community Skills Schools and Community Farm Schools across Tamil Nadu to skill and employ or self-employ about 3 lac people. The Virudhunagar model of tapping into dominant value chains of the state to catalyze a large number of small enterprises is also being taken up.
I argue that by catalyzing and unleashing Ustads and Sparks (tomorrows’ Ustads) 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 10,000 cr. The challenge is akin to setting a gigantic and very heavy flywheel in motion. Getting started is very hard work but once it has it will pick up its own momentum and go ahead full speed.
Great practitioners like Madhav Chavan, founder of Pratham, has time and again shown with programs like Read India and ASER survey how to scale rapidly across India and at very low costs. Dr. T Sundararaman has demonstrated it as well in the remarkable Barefoot-doctor program called Mitanins that he took across nook and corner of Chhattisgarh, with fantastic results.
Can the investment of Rs 10,000 cr be reduced and the model made simpler? Yes, by getting down to basic principles.
Shubhashis Gangopadhyay says, “Instead of focusing on the infrastructure in the Ustad’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 set-up by Ustads 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 ustads to setup the schools. Once youth are skilled, ustads 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.
Shubhashis is not done yet: “Why not tell the employers that they cannot construct a house without certified masons, plumbers, carpenters or electricians. That will galvanize the youth to acquire certifiable skills and the ustads’ schools can immediately be in business.”
The private sector has begun to come forward and assist the Government in nation-building. With the large CSR corpus combined with the MPLADs and MLALADs, development funds of MPs and MLAs, a Public Private Partnership can be setup across each of the 700 plus districts of India.
Steve Jobs travelled to Indian villages in his days of youth and remarked, “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their 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.”
My lessons have been similar. We are not a country of illiterates; we are a country of “informal literates.” And “informal literates” are in some ways superior to “formal literates,” and some ways inferior. If we combine the best of both, “magic” can happen – unleashing the Forgotten Billion.
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.
Yuvaraj Galada used to be Vice President at Government of India-initiated National Skill Development Corp (NSDC), which has the Prime Minister’s mandate to skill 150 million by 2022. Since leaving NSDC in 2011 he has been on a sabbatical to explore the question, “How can we Unleash our Forgotten Billion, the poor and poorly educated billion of India?” If he hadn’t been fired by Satyam Computers in 2009, this journey would not have begun. Prior to this stint he had 15 years experience working in the corporate sector across industries and geographies of the world. He is an engineer with an MBA degree based in Chennai. He currently consults for World Bank.