Unleashing the Forgotten Billion of India


A saying in Hindi goes, Pehle darshan dhari, phir gun vichari. We initially judge something by its appearance than by its quality. The boot space 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 human nature to accord such status to anything that does not seem important or is out of sight or perceived as inferior – until some extraordinary experiences make us question some of our deep seated assumptions. They got rid of my blinkers. They made me “see” the world of Forgotten Billion.

 Fourteen months that I worked at National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) in 2010-11 made a deep impact. It allowed me 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.

NSSO 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 Ustads, individuals with extraordinary motivation to self-express, to seek their calling in life. They may be poorly educated and born in families with little resources but they looked beyond those hurdles. Actively sought teachers, if there were none around they learnt seeking any resource they could lay their hands on. They learnt less formally, more intuitively. In Mahabharat, Eklavya hoped Dronacharya would become his teacher but when it did not happen efforts grew manifold and he learnt by himself. Ustads belong to the clan of Ekalavyas. NSSO suggests that 1.7 in 100 people are Ustads, of the 400mn workforce in India there are more than 6 mn 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 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, echoing Einstein’s sentiment, play is the highest form of research.

 This conversation I was having alongside Niranjan’s teacher at school, Baby didi, in Kavale village of Goa. She recalls, “Niranjan had little interest in studies. I thought he was a dull student. But while pursuing the diploma he approached, asking me to teach him some Class IX and X Physics, later also 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 also reached his point of gnawing dissatisfaction. Enough is enough, and he set about to self-express and discover himself. Once he realised his passion floodgates opened and was soon seeking lessons from teachers, books and any learning source – also going back to didi for lessons which did not interest 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 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 clean 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 mechanic after that but I guarantee they will make good helpers to mechanics earning more than Rs 8,000 per month right away.  In 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 across the country. Ansari, the barber of Katwaria Sarai in Delhi, Sukant, the mobile technician in the small town of Pattamundai, Odisha, Chintu, the welder in Chilamakur village, Andhra Pradesh or Ramesh, the fitter in Bharuch, Gujarat. None were much educated but the finest in their trade and keen to teach others. Pitamber, a retired ustad plumber, did not study after class VII, asked if I would fund him to setup a plumbing school in his remote Nodhabasant village in Kendrapara Dist, Odisha. After more than 25 years in the trade he had retired and returned back to the 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 twenty easily”, said Pitamber.  To the youth I asked, “Why would you be interested to learn in a village 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 them to be placed with a top construction company, but by then they had left for their new jobs.

 Reminds you of Ustad-Chela system? 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 right 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 a refurbished and its modern manifestation. I brought him an industry certified standard syllabus. He knocked off 50% of it as unnecessary and wanted me to get a lot of 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. Students 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 50%-75% of plumbers in India are “Odiya plumbers”. Little do they know that these plumbers mostly come from a small region in Kendrapara Dist, less than half the size of a district. I visited homes which had even five plumbers in their household and they said it was common in the region. Kendrapara region is crying for many such plumbing schools, atleast a fifty are needed. Many retired Pitambers are available in the villages across the region. Kendrapara, 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. While 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 talking to many workers and supervisors in my travels this was pieced together. A Skills Map of India is waiting to be uncovered.

 Talk to plumbing experts and they will say 6 months full-time is the minimum duration to learn and the student better be high school pass. Plumbing is almost like an engineering profession, they argue.  Probe them and you realise they have little hands-on experience, their experience is mostly in managing the tradesmen, sometimes supervising. The narrative is similar across trades. “Welding takes a minimum of 6 months”, told me a highly respected industry expert. Yet such a “village skills school” in a Jajpur 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. 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 and he endorsed the Ustad-view – “a motivated youth needs just one month to learn the fundamentals of welding”. Steve’s video tutorials on welding are most popular in the world.

 Atanu Dey, an economist from University of California, Berkeley has thought deeply about learning. He says, “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 broke. Hence most of the Forgotten Billion have poor access and are never formally trained – wasting away valuable potential. 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 very few Mercedes, mostly in urban centres, many times poorly utilized and are mostly show pieces. But what people are demanding is an Alto right in their village panchayat.

 And such an Alto was encouraged to be setup across 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. Majority of them voted for masonry and setup Community Skills Schools for Masonry right in their village panchayat. There were also others 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. An agency came to assess and found 85% were work ready. The agency operates across the country but had never seen such a school. What got them charmed was to see a good number of women enrolled. In a few districts these 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 attraction amongst these schools was one operated by Kannan to train handicapped person including a few who are mentally challenged. Over a year 285 people with disability from across Tamil Nadu were trained to repair home appliances, laptops and TVs, all in 30 days at his CSS in Sivaganga. More than 80% of them earn between Rs 3,000 to Rs 12,000/month today. What were seen as “liabilities” by their families were now converted into “assets” by Kannan, a 2.5ft polio infected wonder.

 50% of India’s workforce still gets sustenance from agriculture, 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, calling it Community Farm School (CFS). The poorest of the poor have little assets and they depend mostly on rearing goats, which requires low cost to maintain. Across three districts of Tuticorin, Virudhunagar and Sivaganga thirty CFSs for goat rearing were launched, 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 problems and challenges in rearing goats, devised a syllabus accordingly and taught the Sparks to overcome them every weekend for 12 weeks. 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 brought down under 5% across the four districts within a year. The animals showed appreciable weight gain too. Doubling of farm incomes of the very poor does not seem impossible in a year.

 The expertise of Dr Mohan Balasubramanian has been magnified manifold by 60 Sparks, they are now capable of scaling it up across the entire three districts with only a little support from him.

 The garments hub of Tiruppur faces a shortage of 20,000 people. From my travels across Tamil Nadu I estimate that these number and more are scattered across villages. Women after working for 3-4 years in large garment exporters of Tiruppur are sitting at home. After marriage their familial responsibilities forced them to leave their jobs and go back to their villages. 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 such village women. The project helped them with funding, introduction to large garment companies in the region and mentored them for 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 5,000 Community Skills School and Community Farm School 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 catalyse large number of small enterprises is also being taken up.

 I argue that catalyzing and unleashing Ustads and Sparks (tomorrows’ Ustads) India can be a transformed country in five years. How to locate them? Ask the community and they will revert 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 it started is very hard work but once it has it will pick up its own momentum and go ahead full speed.

 He should know.

 Steve Jobs travelled to Indian villages in his days of youth and made an observation. He says,

 “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.”

 My lessons have been similar.

 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.

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