A critical element in India’s 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) is the generation of productive and gainful employment on a sufficient scale. The aim of such planning is to systematically absorb the growing working population in the unorganized sector of an expanding economy. This sector contributes about sixty percent of the country’s GDP. Infact, it employs workers in micro enterprises, unpaid family work, casual labor and home based work on a mammoth scale. In addition, it also absorbs migrant laborers, farmers, artisans and more importantly out of school rural youth.
In the last decade, the Indian economy has witnessed a structural transformation from agricultural activities to manufacturing and services oriented activities. A distinct feature of this transition has been a substantial decline in the absolute number of people employed in agriculture. However, according to the Planning Commission, a crucial factor in the migration of the labor force from rural to urban areas is its temporary nature and occurrence only in lean agricultural seasons. Besides, this large chunk of labor force is not available to participate in the manufacturing or the services oriented activities due to severe lack of appropriate skill sets. According to the Commission, the latter reflects rural distress, driven by the fact, that more than eighty percent of India’s farming households are small and marginal, tilling only less than 2.5 acres of land.
In the above backdrop, more than 700 million people are estimated to be of working age (24-59 years) in India by 2020. This indeed is a ‘demographic dividend’ that will also lead to a low dependency ratio compared to the rest of the world. Of these, approximately 500 million workers (including those who temporarily migrate from rural to urban areas in lean agricultural seasons) will require some kind of vocational/skill training. Besides, about 50 to 70 million jobs to be created over the next five years, (with more than 75% falling largely in the unorganized and informal stream) will too require capacity building in basic expertise.
High growth areas such as manufacturing, automotive, retail, trade, transport, construction, hospitality and healthcare have the ability to provide the required expanded employment. Public private partnerships in the country are already in the process of strengthening of rural infrastructure such as Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs), polytechnics, community polytechnics and vocational education in secondary schools. Workers such as technicians, welders, fitters, paramedics, tourist guides etc are to be skilled with a twofold objective- first, to close the skill gap of an already qualified workforce and second, to provide formal vocational training to those who have acquired skills informally. At the same time, maintaining the efficiency and competitiveness of those of the working age group living in rural areas and depending upon agriculture is equally critical. Hence, the need also to create employable skilled opportunities in labor intensive industries and sectors such as agricultural food processing as well as allied value chains in livestock, floriculture, horticulture etc.
No one doubts the veracity of the overarching national framework to give a jump start to the above agenda through the government driven National Skill Development Mission and the National Skill Qualification Framework. An excellent initiative is the setting up of Community Colleges based on the North American Modular Model that will impart vocational skills aligned to occupational standards determined by employer led skill councils. However, what needs to be aggressively pushed, converged and monitored on priority is sustainable livelihood creation at the grassroots in rural areas. The National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) funded by the World Bank aims at the laudable review of the entire portfolio of livelihoods of each poor household by providing handholding support through livelihood collectives. Besides, it promises supplementary creation of opportunities for both wage employment and skill development for the rural youth.
Such a review under NRLM will, first and foremost, requires suitable decentralized convergence of skill development programs run by multiple central ministries including the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC). Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), especially the last mile tier of these local bodies in villages- Gram Panchayats, should be adequately empowered to provide information to the rural youth through skill inventories and skill maps on a real time basis. Herein, the Gram Panchayats’ will need to have effective synergy with grassroots civil society organizations and online local employment exchanges to provide access to such information. This synergy (dovetailing with school curricula is also possible) will enable the youth in the middle and secondary school stages, to access information on labor market and skill development possibilities. Such access, infact, is crucial to the sustenance of Resource Community Development Blocks that are envisaged to act as live workable model at the grassroots under NRLM.
The Union Ministry of Panchayats Raj provides funds to local bodies in rural areas through national programs such as The Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Yojana (RGSY) and the Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF). These should be targeted to strengthen and plug crucial gaps in the rural local bodies’ institutional infrastructure such as the critical requirement of broadband connectivity for providing real time information on skills. Such connectivity needs to be taken up on priority in populous states like Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. These states comprise 80% of India’s population including the youth from low income families in whose case low quality of educational standards coupled with a high dropout rate beyond primary school stage is a major challenge. Besides, such youth have minuscule information about or access to various options in relevant skill training and are often also unable to pay the admission fees for such training.
Infact, need based experiential skill learning supported by public sector banks/organizations in rural areas is the key to strengthen the Rural Self Employment Training Institutes (RSETIs) being set up in all districts under NRLM to assist such youth. In this regard, the Government of Gujarat has innovated to introduce the Skill Voucher Scheme wherein a private sector agency or a government department can purchase a pre-paid voucher from the Gujarat Skill Development Mission to train the youth, including those from rural areas, in required skills. In addition, the scheme incentivizes and mobilizes the rural youth to possess the freedom to select the skill course or institute they opt to get trained in. The institutional approach herein is more market and demand driven with less stress on supply and allocation driven mechanisms. Infact, it would be a challenge to incorporate such an approach under NRLM through the institutional matrix of the National, State, District and Sub District (Block) Mission Management Units in poorer provinces of the country.
Another key challenge in the support structure of the Sub District Level Mission Management Unit under NRLM (with PRIs especially Gram Panchayats and civil society organizations as critical stakeholders) is the effective implementation of Knowledge Management, Strategic and Operational Communication Strategies envisaged. The latter are absolutely essential for both a qualitative/quantitative review and assessment of measuring the outcomes in providing access to skill development opportunities. Reaching out and involving vulnerable sections amongst rural youth in poorer states such as the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, women, disabled, migrant labor, isolated and communities living in disturbed areas is a must.
Use of Dedicated Digital Grids for organizing management information systems in the above regard may take some time to start off due to broadband connectivity constraints in rural areas. But strengthening the project facilitation teams at the Sub Block Level through use of interpersonal communication and Information, Education Communication (IEC) activities especially locally viable social media such as Community Radio can be extremely useful. The liberalized 2006 Community Radio National Guidelines of the Government of India provides licensing for civil society and voluntary organizations to assist marginalized communities especially youth in rural areas to manage, own and operate radio stations. The aim is to focus on locally relevant socio-economic development, events, businesses, services and skill employment opportunities. Besides, fifty percent of the content is to be generated in local dialects with the participation of the local community for which the station has been set up. Thus, with a transmitter having an effective radiated power of 100 Watts, the community radio station is expected to cover a range of 10 kilometers (6 miles). In addition, non-profit organizations are eligible to seek funding from multilateral aid agencies.
It would be extremely beneficial to dovetail, in NRLM‘s communication strategy plans, setting up of community radio stations under the above mentioned innovative 2006 National Guidelines. These community run radio stations could develop a sustained linkage with the already operational livelihood collectives i.e. self help groups (SHGs) in addition to project facilitation teams active at the grassroots. Community driven programming in these radio stations could offer ‘jobs’ solutions. This could include identifying the unemployed in resource blocks, providing specific information about skilling and re-skilling opportunities, post placement support, counseling/ mentorship and leveraging an alumni network.
Such an information rich rural space supplemented by other social media would truly create a sensitive network support for skill development of rural youth and check their migration to urban areas under conditions of distress.
(Views expressed are personal)