FEATURE STORY

India: Skilled Jobs Help Rural Youth Fulfil Long-cherished Dreams

July 21, 2014

At first, poor rural families were reluctant to send their daughters to work in manufacturing industries far away. Now these working girls enjoy a new respect in their villages and have become role models for others to follow.

Tamil Nadu Empowerment and Poverty Reduction Project
  • The lack of employable skills keeps poor rural youth trapped in poverty
  • The project is helping poor boys and girls build skills and connect with new job opportunities
  • Since 2005, the project has helped place some 240,000 young people in skilled employment; 46 percent of them are girls

Born and raised in a thatched one-room hut in rural Tamil Nadu, twenty-two year old Enita now spends her day amidst mounds of brightly colored lace, sewing fancy lingerie for the high-fashion stores of western capitals.  A hint of jasmine fills the air and lilting Bollywood music keeps time with the gentle hum of machines on the air-conditioned factory floor.   

Enita’s life stands in marked contrast to her mother’s. The older woman still toils under the harsh Indian sun doing strenuous manual labor under a government-sponsored employment program. The vast gulf between the women's lives is a harbinger of the change that is sweeping across large parts of Tamil Nadu in just one generation.

The young woman’s manufacturing job has turned the family’s fortunes around. In four years, she has put together a handsome dowry for her older sister and is now paying the college expenses for her younger sibling. “Had I remained at home, I would have been married by now and had two children,” Enita said.

Instead, she is proud of being the family’s chief breadwinner after her father, a farm laborer, died leaving a penniless wife and three daughters. “Once my younger sister is on her feet, I’ll save for my own dowry,” Enita said brightly. Like her peers, she is certain that the dowry will help her find a better match in the marriage market and give a good start to her wedded life thereafter.

Enita’s story is far from unique in this rapidly growing industrial belt around Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital. It plays out time and again in the lives of the 1,200 or so young women who share the dorm with her at Intimate Fashion, a lingerie manufacturer in Kanchipuram district, as well as in the lives of the thousands of others working in similar garment manufacturing units nearby.

The girls’ wages help fulfil small aspirations and long-cherished dreams. Most families first spend on better food, or replace thatched huts with brick-and-mortar homes. While the younger girls usually hand their ATM cards to their mothers, the older women put aside their earnings to give their children the best education they can, often forfeiting simple comforts like buying a fridge despite the searing tropical heat.

Skilled Jobs – the Best Way to Transform Rural Lives

“Skilled jobs are enabling poor rural families to change their lives forever,” said R.V. Shajeevana, additional project director for the World Bank-supported rural livelihoods project in the state.  “But while landless laborers want their children to move out of penurious lives in agriculture, they don’t know how to go about it and lack the skills to do so.”

This is where the World Bank-supported project – aptly named ‘Pudhu Vaazhvu’ or ‘new life’ in Tamil – comes in. In a win-win situation, the project draws on its vast database of poor rural youth, focusing first on school drop-outs, and links them up with better-paying jobs in the new economy through job fairs and recruitment drives.

It also makes it easier for employers to find steady workers in one of the state’s most industrialized regions, where attrition rates have touched all-time highs. “Earlier, most of our workers came from the villages around, and company buses fetched them from a 30 km radius,” said Malarvannan Fernando, the human resources head at the lingerie manufacturer.

“But since 2005, when industries like Samsung, Nokia etc. set up here, it has become extremely difficult to find good workers because people can get jobs close to home. Our buses now cover a 90 km radius, and our dorm girls come from as far as 350 km away.”

Girls in the garment industry earn Rs. 6,000 a month in addition to free food, travel, medical expenses, plus overtime, bonuses and other small perks – a substantial sum for impoverished rural families.

Once their 3-month period of intensive training is complete, boys with a primary education will have the skills to work as masons on the most complex construction sites in India or abroad using the latest technology.                             

Training the Boys

The boys too have a host of new economic opportunities. At engineering major Larsen & Toubros’s training institute in neighboring Thiruvallur district, twenty three year old Selva Kumar, from a poor tribal family, is undergoing three months of intensive training in masonry.  Once the training is complete, Kumar – who has a primary education – will be able to work on the most complex construction sites in India or abroad using the latest technology. Until then, Kumar is enjoying wearing the first pair of shoes he has ever owned.

Dr. M.V. Venkatesan, the institute’s principal, emphasizes the importance of developing modern-day skills among India’s rural youth: “Skills training is essential if India is to compete in today’s globalized world. The project works by reaching out to the most needy. They are the ones who will benefit the most and are likely to stay on in the 7 trades we teach – carpenters, electricians, bar-benders, welders among them.”

Till date, the project has helped place some 240,000 young people in skilled employment across a broad range of industries; 46 percent of them have been girls. 

Shaping Generations to Come

Most girls in the garment industry who live in lodgings provided by their employers will work for four years or so until they marry and dorm living is no longer feasible. Employers therefore offer spoken English and other classes so that the girls, once used to earning, can continue to work in the future.

The working years change the girls forever. “They are confident, can speak up for themselves, and look back on this as one of the happiest times in their lives. They are also more aware of their health and personal hygiene, and tend to marry later, have fewer children, and space out their pregnancies,” said Shajeevana, explaining how the girls' experience is reshaping social norms and impacting future generations.

Not surprisingly, mothers, grandmothers, and aunts wish they too had had these opportunities when they were young.