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K Ramkumar, known to his friends as Ram, has an enduring passion for triggering a discussion and joining in with gusto on a range of themes. He believes that every person has an inalienable right to express his/her view no matter how different it is to anyone else. In his book no view is unworthy or big or small. Every view from everyone deserves a consideration without getting caught up with the tyranny of agreement or disagreement.
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Insights into enabling Rural Livelihood

Historically, India’s rural economy has been based on agriculture and related activities, but with increasing population and decreasing land holding, the dependency on primary livelihood is at risk. India’s current education system places overemphasis on cognitive learning for all. Many drop out unable to cope with this by-rote education system. This system does not recognise that everyone is not suited for cognitive education. Many will excel in a system which places a premium on vocational education. Unequipped with education that enables livelihood the youth fall prey to poverty and crime.

When I joined ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth for a project on Sustainable Livelihood, I was keen to understand how we can create sustainable livelihood for the rural folks.

Although the skill development initiatives are being run to uplift and motivate the youth, the trend is to skill them first, then force them into some kind of activity. This has proved to be a lopsided strategy as it is not properly integrated to provide meaningful or sustainable livelihood option. Also the skill training is neither contextual nor demographically relevant. Further its nominal and not substantive nature in many cases hardly fetches sustainable earning.

One of the major reasons, why most of the livelihood interventions have had limited success is that the approach of the livelihood programmes have been without social mobilisation, economic empowerment and divested of earning potential. There seems to be an undue haste to develop some skilling module, without considering if it really agrees with the people and the local economy.

In a typical rural setting, we can identify five kinds of beneficiary segments – farmers, artisans, local small traders, women and unemployed youth. The farmers in India often face issues of high input costs and low yield. When the farmers are not engaged in farming in off season, they migrate for labour work at low remuneration.

While the farmers are engaged in agriculture and labour work, the women in rural areas are engaged in on-farm activities and livestock management. The artisans are far and few and are an endangered community. To trade one needs capital and some amount of credit access. The fragmented and dwindling land holding too constrains livelihood opportunities.

The youth of the villages are not attracted towards agriculture as their potential livelihood option. To them, it is a seasonal, unpredictable, physically intensive job with low remuneration. The village youth thus feel compelled to migrate to the cities in search of employment. The major cities, over-loaded with a bulk of unskilled rural youth offer menial wage labour opportunities, with pitiable conditions of living.

While devising the livelihood strategy for the rural folk, I have found the following factors as indispensable:

The local community all over India, places a lot of emphasis on social customs and traditions. They devote a good deal of their time to occasions like marriage, death, birth and other periodic festivals, therefore it is very important to accommodate and provide a leeway for these cultural nuances in our scheduling of skilling programs. It cannot be the conventional 9 to 5 model.

During the sowing and harvesting season, farmers, women and the youth in the village are solely engaged in agricultural activities. To ensure that skilling initiatives have a meaningful impact, it is also necessary to devise strategies which are in sync with the existing work and free time cycles of that region. Skilling cycle cannot compete with existing commitments.

The target group is largely dependent on their daily wages for their day to day food requirements. If a livelihood initiative interrupts their daily wages, it would be impossible for them to make ends meet. The livelihood intervention program should allow them to continue with their current source of income while simultaneously it upgrades their earning opportunity through new skills.

The rural economy is largely unorganised. There is a severe lack of organised employment channels and hence jobs at the village level. The employers from nearby towns/cities perceive the rural folk as uneducated, unskilled and are biased. When they overcome this bias, they offer low remuneration, making it even less sustainable for candidates to leave their villages. Hence, a system needs to be developed where the employment opportunities are created in the unorganised sectors either by making self-employment a more sustainable option or by forming organised associations of the rural folk for integration with the industries. As long as industry is reluctant to pay a small premium for the skill, skilling programmes will be unattractive.

To ensure sustainability for those who head towards self-employment, finance and credit facilities become indispensable. However, due to low literacy and maturity level majority of the rural people and especially the youth are not able to access bank credit. The bank officials have a perception about rural people that their loans may turn into NPAs. To ensure responsible handling of loans, along with the livelihood programme, promoting financial literacy becomes a vital aspect. It is important to educate the rural folks loans are for earning generating investment and not consumption. Developing credible credit behaviour in rural India is critical for sustainable livelihood programmes to succeed.

It is also of considerable value to analyse before starting a livelihood intervention, how the trained candidates will make use of their acquired skills. While some of them look at self-employment, others are more inclined towards wage employment options. Both require a different set of intervening strategies which should ease their transition from marginal employment to sustainability.

Based on my learning if we keep in mind the following factors we may improve the success rate of the livelihood initiatives:

The first thing that needs to be kept in mind while designing and implementing a livelihoods intervention is the special characteristics of the area of operation. The area study must include studying the socio-economic conditions of the area, existing livelihood opportunities prevalent in the area, the aspirations of the people and the demands of the market and the industries. What is imported from outside into this area, which if made inside provides livelihood options. Equally if we understand the export potential to other places more livelihood options open out. This can be designed as an integrated operation for 15 to 20 villages such that it is self-sustaining. We conducted an extensive Livelihood Mapping study with focussed groups. This gave us a broad yet detailed picture about the ambitions of our target group as well as what trades and skills would work in their area.

Promoting existing livelihood options are always better than changing the entire livelihood landscape of the people. Apart from technical training, there is a need to envision and develop the farmer as an entrepreneur. We have to give the farmer or his family member an alternate livelihood skill to help him with supplementary income. This will help him get through years of crop failure.

The rural women have proved that collectivisation leads to market integration and thus fetches better prices for products/services. At Udaipur, we started out with a project involving formation, nurturing and strengthening of Self Help Groups for sustainable livelihoods. Here too one skill is not sufficient to generate sustainable earning.

We have failed to grasp the changing mores and economics in the villages. We are blind to the requirement of many vocational skills to sustain the village economy and social life. To illustrate a few: The need to repair and upkeep tractors, farm equipment, pumps, mobile phones, basic electrical home appliances, Civil work skills, health worker (not a Govt person), like a para medic a para animal health person etc.

The next step should detail the demand for skilled labour, the competencies required for various jobs and remuneration as per those competencies. Rather than considering our audience as backward, we need to create strategies, which will create a pull for the youth to seek skilling programmes and survive through it without dropping out. The first 2 weeks of handling is the key to eliminating drop outs. The higher the proportion of folks who end up with sustainable earning the lesser will be the drop outs. Skilling cannot be an extra-curricular number flaunting exercise. It should generate within a month of skilling meaningful earning; lest it will fizzle out.

The unemployed youth of the village can be skilled in local demand based trades. However, care has to be taken while selecting the trades for skilling the youth. The trades that we chose were distilled from an intensive Market Scoping study. Our teams contacted employers from a wide range of industries. We scanned the employers’ requirements and analysed what trades can immediately absorb our trained youth. For example, we found out that in Udaipur and Jodhpur the construction industry was on the verge of a massive expansion. This meant there was shortage of skilled masons, plumbers and carpenters. We also sought insights from these employers while designing the course curriculum. The youth should also be encouraged to pick up more than one skill, especially related ones. For example, an electrician should also try to learn motor rewinding and pump repair.

We also wanted to bridge the gap between these youth and the industries by conducting ‘On-the-job’ training. Post training, the OJT not only acclimatises the trainees to actual working conditions but also enhances the settlement ratio as the employers can actually see the work and select the candidates. Even if the youth opts for self-employment we found working for at least 6 months to a year with an employer improves the chance of success as a self-employed.

Although it is definite that no one solution fits all the challenges that the rural poor face, it would be an over simplified notion that skills alone could uplift the rural poor from the depths of livelihood insecurity. The rural unemployed are more likely to stick to their chosen field only when they generate sufficient remuneration from it. In other words, sustainability is directly proportional to the quantum and regularity of earning. It is also necessary to dispel the myth that all those who are skilled desire entrepreneurship activities. In our experience less than 20% graduate to entrepreneurship. It would be wiser to keep the process uncomplicated, and look for the simple solutions that can make earning sustainable and within the district where the youth hails from.

Note: With inputs from K. Ramkumar

PraveenPraveen Saxena began his career in the Indian Navy whose naval rank was Commander. He has specialised in the Anti-Submarine Warfare and served on various ships. Training being his innate passion, he soon got involved with training assignments at various levels. He also underwent prestigious Defence Services Staff Course at Wellington, Ooty, where he earned Master’s degree in Defence Strategy. He later took over as Command Training Officer in Southern Naval Command, wherein he was awarded Commendation from Flag Officer Commanding-in Chief for devotion to duty. In his transition from Navy Blue to Corporate Grey, he took over as Vice President (Sustainable Livelihoods) with ICICI Foundation and is currently heading the Rural Self Employment Training Institutes (RSETIs), Udaipur and Jodhpur. Both the institutes have been declared as the Centres of Excellence and Best Performing RSETIs by MoRD for the Year 2012 – 13.

6 comments on “Insights into enabling Rural Livelihood
  1. Zeenat Hamirani says:

    Dear Friends,

    For enabling rural livelyhood, first and foremost thing is to change the mindset of primary earner, Second earner (wife/youth) in the family. Awareness is necessary in terms of future challenges that are upcoming where survival shall be difficult.
    Only if the mindset change will people look out for alternate options.

    while second earners of the rural families can be upgraded with skill building; why not look at upgrading primary earner by creating awareness on increasing yield, selling at right pricess, taking benefit of government schemes, activities that can generate income in between crops.

    While few villages might have potential for the youth to florish and use his upgraded skill but if not and if migration is required,should be promoted.

    One key thing which has come out in this article is skill building without keeping in mind whether it will lead to income generation is of no use. if we can tie up for placements/marketing channels for the services/goods generated out of this skill upgradation, then only end objective can be achieved


  2. Anirudh Mithal says:

    I feel present Government has got involved on this aspect in big way. Even the previous Government had set up National Skill Development Council. The author has emphasized more on training in rural areas. It is rightly stressed. In my opinion we should learn from Punjab farmers with the government support productivity has gone up and more than one crop is being sown. NEW varieties of seeds,better technique for growing rice, farming,selling directly by abolishing APMC. All this has been possible of with government participation.
    We have to check the influx people from villages to cities but making condition of living better and creating better employment opportunities.There is no or option.

  3. Sai Prasad Somayajula says:

    Praveen, Kudos for articulating an effective strategy for sustainable rural livelihood program. In my view, this article is an eye opener for planners and implementers who pump in billions of rupees into livelihood programs overlooking relevance of the program for the target group. If only the programs were questioned for their relevance to the target groups and desired goals, during the pre-sales (design stage), sales stage (when the program is rolled out to the target groups), and post-sales (whether the program resulted in meeting the desired objectives), these programs become more sustainable. Overall, what you have outlined is a very effective and thought provoking strategy. We seem to revolve a design and implementation around challenges and constraints rather than around opportunities for effective results, simply because it is easy to do so. If we reverse the order and take all the pain in design and implementation, even if it means hundred different prototypes of programs for different target groups, so be it. That should be the approach and that is what I see in your article. Once again, thanks for writing this thought provoking piece.

  4. kamal says:

    Very well addressed,Praveen.Main issue today is not the availability of money/manpower or of initiatevs undertaken by various organisation(pvt/public).Lot of initiavties been taken in the past & more will keep on coming but the challenge is how to take the initiate to next or the next level…all want each scheme to succeed, but this is where most of them failed because approach generally been one size fits all. For example we need to see approach followed by Sulabh or for that Bangladesh micro finance model..identify limited area…make things work & then move to next.

  5. Kanwar Vivek says:

    Praveen, very well articulated, one of the areas which is fast dwindling- and if not restored soon- is the base of our rural artisans who have long been involved in producing one of the finest handicraft items in the world. Their skill is unique, needs to be preserved and multiplied. The sheer range , fineness, use of local material and eco friendly nature handicrafts produced by these artisans has the potential to not only preserved this skill but attract the current generation of youth in this. Another benefit of this skill is that it can be used as supplement to augment income in non sowing & harvesting seasons.
    What is required is to create the demand and market for Indian Handicrafts and eliminate the middle men who tend to eat the bulk of profit margin.
    Switzerland has shown to the world that its hand made & unique skill based products like watches, chocolates, cheese, cuckoo clocks , knives , tools etc not only face the challenge rom machine made competing products but are are considered prestigious to own…..”hand made” is the way to go…..what it needs is the creation of demand and that can be done by effective marketing and distribution.
    This will automatically force rural youth to preserve these skills and augment their earning.


    It has been rightly said in this article that “Rural economy is largely unorganised”. But with the passage of time, all the economists and marketers have actually realised that focus on this rural segment of customer base is the only way of achieving growth and momento in the economy. Reference of Udaipur and Jodhpur, further pursuades me to highlight that in Rajathan the state government have started “The Bhamashah Scheme” along with the central government’s “The Jan Dhan Yojna”. This dual initiative have actually been started to empower women/villagers and promote financial inclusion.
    The success of all the multinationals who have found new consumerism in villages will be now replicated with the success of these government initiatives and private initiatives to provide new skills and income avenues in villages.

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About the Author

K Ramkumar, known to his friends as Ram, has an enduring passion for triggering a discussion and joining in with gusto on a range of themes. He believes that every person has an inalienable right to express his/her view no matter how different it is to anyone else. In his book no view is unworthy or big or small. Every view from everyone deserves a consideration without getting caught up with the tyranny of agreement or disagreement.
Read more »