Myths of Skilling India

There is a lot of hype about “Skilling India” these days but are we, as a nation, lacking in skills? The traditional livelihoods, none more so than the artisanal and agricultural ones, have been based on skills developed over centuries and they have also tried to adapt to the changing market situation arising from modern development. However, modern development being predicated on the lesser and lesser use of human power with the help of more and more complicated technology has meant that not only the traditional artisanal and farming skills but also those that are necessary for the modern economy have mostly become redundant. A few highly skilled people are required to run the economy while the rest have to work at a very basic level of skills or just twiddle their fingers. At a time when mechanisation and computerisation have made human labour all but redundant it is farcical to speak of skilling people in large numbers as a precursor to heightened manufacturing. Because even if manufacturing on a large scale does take place in India, to be globally competitive, it will have to be highly automated. Whole plants will be run by a few people. When lakhs of engineers are not getting jobs then where is the possibility of even a larger number of skilled people being employed productively? There is a need to reorient the economy so that more basic skills are in demand in all three sectors – agriculture, services and manufacturing. In fact presently the vast majority of workers in this country, more than 90 per cent, are employed in the informal sector in casual jobs with basic level of skills. There is a need for a better allocation of resources to improve the remunerations, skill level and working condition of the workers in this sector and this can best be done by directing more business to the informal sector, financing and regulating it better and by training of personnel that is on the job rather than institutional.

In fact the informal sector has always faced a resource crunch and it is often acute for activists fighting for the rights of the downtrodden. Thus, as a principle we in the KMCS have always tried to make the most of scarce resources and this leads to serendipitous experiences. Some recent ones have a bearing on the way in which we should be skilling India.  Last year in 2015, Professor Swapan Bhattacharya after deciding that he would stay in the school in Kakrana, wanted to improve the quality of food that the students get. He wanted to put vegetables into the diet every day. However, given that Kakrana is situated 50 kms from the nearest wholesale vegetable market, and that locally on the school farm or on the farms of the farmers not much vegetables are produced to feed  200 odd people in the school daily, this seemed to be a Herculean task. Undeterred, Swapanda, as we fondly call him, asked some friends of his if they could not fund the purchase of an old motor vehicle and got Rs 2,50,000 as donations for the purpose. Since Swapanda had no experience of buying old or new motor vehicles he buttonholed me to act as his guide on the strength of the fact that I had earlier bought a second hand Maruti 800 myself. Buying a sports utility vehicle (SUV), however, was a different ball game altogether.
Initially a friend of Swapanda’s agreed to sell his 15 year old SUV for Rs 2,50,000 and the deal was almost done. But the friend for some reason baulked at the last moment and then we had to go to the internet to find some cars. There was one car that was available for Rs 2,00,000 only but by the time we got in touch with the seller it had been sold!! The others were beyond our financial reach. So then we set off across Indore exploring the various second hand car dealers. Once again most of the cars on sale were out of our financial reach or were in very bad condition. Then at the last car dealer that we went to we found a beautiful red Tata Safari car of 2008 vintage that had a price tag of Rs 2,50,000 which was dirt cheap as it should have been around 6 lakhs at least for that kind of vintage. Swapanda on seeing it immediately plumped for it despite my saying that there must be some serious problem with the car if it was selling so cheap. Enquiries revealed that we would be the seventh buyers of the car in seven years!! We took the car around for a test drive and found that there were indeed various problems. Nevertheless,  Swapanda said that surely it could be repaired at some expense over time and even then it would be a bargain. Here is a photo of the car which will reveal why Swapanda is so enamoured of it!! Of course it is a repaint of the original!!!

We drove the car home and then the fun began. On searching the internet for details of the car we read in one review that it is a “tractor with an AC” – a powerful car that drives well but requires a lot of maintenance which is expensive because the parts are costly. We took it to a Tata authorised service centre for starters. They did a system check of the car with a computer and found that its suspension was almost gone, the engine wasn’t in good shape, the electronics and electricals were not working and the gear assembly needed to be overhauled and gave us a tentative repair and servicing estimate of Rs 1,50,000 that would in all probability shoot up to Rs 2,00,000!! We obviously shot down most of their suggestions and asked them to do some immediate repairs for which they charged us Rs 20,000. While it ran and handled better after this it soon broke down!! After this we decided to ditch the Tata authorised service centre and do what I had done with my Maruti 800 earlier, go to a hole in the wall mechanic in the informal sector. And that is how we come to the main thrust of this story.
My Maruti 800 mechanic, Iqbal, is a self made man. He has studied only up to class seven and has learnt the skills of automobile repair hands on once he gave up studies after reaching adolescence since he was making much headway in them. I had reached him earlier after having had a bad and expensive experience of getting my Maruti repaired at the authorised service centre. True to the KMCS spirit, I had bought the Maruti 800 car of 1998 vintage in 2011, second hand, for just Rs 50,000. We bought it mainly to cart the various props that we need for conducting Reproductive Health camps for poor urban women. With a carrier on top, the car is able to cart all the stuff we need as shown below with Subhadra at the steering.

Whereas the authorised service centre even after three attempts and a lot of expense could not improve the handling and running of the car to my satisfaction, Iqbal at a fraction of the cost was able to fine tune it to such an extent that it runs silently and gives an average of 20 kms per litre currently despite being close to two decades old. He even changed the braking system of the car and made it hydraulic using his ingenuity. Iqbal took on the challenge of bringing the Safari up to the mark with some hesitation in the beginning as he said that he had never worked on one before. However, slowly and surely he began getting it into shape beginning with the suspension. Many parts had become old and were going kaput and had to be replaced. The big problem unlike in the case of the Maruti was that the Safari mostly stayed in Kakrana and when it broke down for some reason either there or on the way between Kakrana and Indore it was difficult to get things right immediately. On one occasion the car broke down enroute from Indore to Kakrana. We had to tell Iqbal on the phone what had happened and he instructed us to open a few things and report and on the basis of that he did a diagnosis and got the parts from Indore and came and repaired the car. On another occasion the car wouldn’t start in Kakrana and once again there was a telephonic conversation between the people in Kakrana and Iqbal followed by opening up of a part of the car to identify that part that has malfunctioned. Iqbal then came down with the relevant spares and repaired the car.
The Safari on one occasion when we were riding it from Indore to Kakrana broke down once again. We were near a place called Manpur some 50 kilometers from Indore and it was early in the morning so instead of calling up Iqbal we sought out a mechanic in Manpur itself. There was some problem with the axle and also with the clutch plate which had become worn. The mechanic, Govinda, opened everything up and then ordered the parts from Indore by bus and fixed up the car and we were on our way again after a few hours. After we reached Kakrana, the car once again began stopping suddenly while running. It was not until the day we were returning to Indore that it became clear to us that this was happening because there was a leak in the water cooling system which was heating up the engine. We couldn’t locate the leak and somehow brought it to Kukshi town some 50 kms from Kakrana by continually refilling the water in the cooling system. A mechanic in Kukshi tried to find out where the leak was but couldn’t. He said that the parts of the Safari are available only in Indore and so if we left the car with him then it would take a lot of time and so it was better that we just filled water continuously and took the car to Indore!! So we did that over a distance of 100 kms and reached Manpur and Govinda’s garage once again!!! Thereafter, Govinda took over and opened up the whole engine which had become damaged due to overheating, found the minute leak in one of the cooling pipes and did a complete overhaul of the whole car. So we have ended up spending about another Rs 1,00,000 on the Safari but now it is in top shape. Other owners before this had not shown the patience that we did and had disposed of the car in quick succession. Indeed one friend of Swapanda’s, a scientist like him, after driving the car the day after it was bought had suggested that we give it back even if it meant incurring a substantial loss because he thought there was no future for it!! Swapanda gave him a dressing down saying that as a scientist he should welcome challenges instead of steering clear of them!!!
Iqbal and Govinda are only two of many such skilled people in this country who have not received any formal training but have learnt on the job and have learnt well. They do a good job and do it cheaply and much better than the authorised service centres which charge the earth for their sub standard services. This is the case in all sectors of the economy. Thus, it is these informal training processes in the vast informal sector that have to be supported instead of setting up institutions which churn out ostensibly skilled people but are actually white elephants that gorge resources without adequate productive output. Iqbal and Govinda make out a living through struggle as their existence is a contingent one as is that of many millions more in the informal sector. Govinda is a high scholl pass out but instead of pursuing higher studies in the hope of getting a job in the formal sector he decided to learn automobile repairing in a garage. He is very tech savvy and when Swapanda showed him the videos that he had downloaded from the internet regarding the assembly of automobile engines he cleaned out all the music from the micro SD card on his mobile phone and filled it up with the videos!! Iqbal works alone in his garage. When asked why he doesn’t employ some help he says that daily wages have now become Rs 300 in Indore and he cannot afford to pay that much to a help. His son is in high school and wants to study further instead of join Iqbal in his garage because he feels that a secure job in the formal sector is both more paying and more prestigious than working in a garage. Thus, if the Government were to provide Iqbal with the money as a training fee then he would be more productive and also train another person or even his son at a much cheaper cost and more effectively than in the many institutions that the Government is setting up under its skilling initiative. Working with the hand as a technician should command respect in society as only then will the youth be freed from their hankering for secure white collar jobs that are anyway becoming scarce and are not that well paying anymore. Our country does not lack in skilled people, it only lacks in respect for these millions of informally skilled people. Instead the crony capitalists who skim off public resources at will without providing sustainable development opportunities are the ones who command respect and that is why despite all the economic growth in recent years, poverty and hunger continue to dog most of the people.

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Rahul Banerjee Written by:

Rahul Banerjee, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (B.Tech in Civil Engineering) and Centre for Environmental Planning and Techonology University, Ahmedabad (Ph.D in Environmental Planning and Management) is a social activist and development researcher. He works along with the Bhil Adivasis (indigenous people) to synthesise their traditional qualities with modern skills and contribute to equitable and sustainable development as architects of their own future. Through the organisations Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, a trade union and Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra (dhasgraminvikaskendra.com), a public trust. He blogs at http://anar-kali.blogspot.in/

One Comment

  1. Avner Pariat
    August 2, 2016
    Reply

    Sweet article. I also had similar issue with my mobile phone just recently. official HTC service centre told me that there was no hope but here I am typing out this comment !!

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