Creating sustainable livelihoods for the rural poor

SkillingIndia on December 5, 2012 Comments
Manish Kumar, Expert - Jobs & Skill Development, Aajeevika - National Rural Livelihoods Mission chats with Excerpts of the interview:

“India has the potential to become an agricultural powerhouse.” Manish Kumar

SkillingIndia: What are the current trends in rural farming and non farming sectors in India in terms of skill development and sustainable livelihoods? What are the changes that India has witnessed at the micro and macro level in the last decade?

Manish Kumar: In the last decade or so India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth and livelihood creation is lower than its potential. The Indian economy recorded a fairly high GDP growth rate of 7.2% during 1998-2008. However, this high rate of GDP growth has not translated into inclusive livelihood opportunity for the rural poor. Actually, it adversely impacted the rural poor due to various structural changes in the last ten years. Our economy has gone through structural transformation from agriculture to industry and service sectors. The share of primary sector in GDP declined from 26% to 17.5% between 1998 and 2008, even as the share of rural population, which was dependent on this sector remained nearly stagnant. This has adversely impacted the livelihoods of the 98 million small and marginal farm households.

India added more non farm jobs than farm based jobs in the last ten years. Farm based jobs have remained stagnated due to structural changes in the Indian economy. There is uneven growth in terms of skill training providers because majority of training opportunities are in retail, customer service and various other service jobs whereas there are few training opportunities in food processing and other areas related to agriculture.

It is important to ensure that those who remain in agriculture are made as efficient and competitive as possible. It is equally important to promote occupational mobility of the rural poor, which is dependent on agriculture and allied activities to attain more gainful non-farm enterprises or employment. So, there is a tremendous opportunity to unlock this segment in terms of skill development and job creation. India has the potential to become an agricultural powerhouse.

In the skill development area, Indian planners have created an enabling ecosystem for skill development for the rural population in five years or so. We do have a robust policy support from the government to strengthen skill development in the rural sector, but there is a lack of integrated approach to tackle this issue of skilling people, which is engaged at the primary level of agricultural activities.    

SkillingIndia: What are the issues and challenges in Indian rural poor’s growth and development?

Manish Kumar: The rural poverty situation in India is highly complex and greatly differentiated by geography, demography and social class. It is multi-dimensional and influenced by systematic as well as structural changes in the economy.

Vast majority of poor are engaged in low skilled jobs in agriculture. These are low skilled jobs and belong to the unorganized sector. Due to low skills it doesn’t offer mobility in terms of income hence livelihood opportunities have remained stagnated for this segment of people. Their labour conditions are also exploitative and majority of these workers belong to socially deprived classes.

A predominant proportion of these households are engaged in agricultural labour, even as agriculture sector has been experiencing a relative decline in GDP. In addition, the rural poor have a limited skill base that restricts their occupational mobility to benefit from the urban centric growth process. Poverty denies the poor households access to a wide range of markets and services, including credit. Lack of access to last-mile services further intensifies their poverty and affects their food security, health and nutritional status.

One of the major policy challenges India faces today is how to provide skilling and up skilling opportunities to low skilled and unorganized agricultural worker. 

SkillingIndia: What kinds of support systems from different stakeholders are enabling the rural poor to build a sustainable livelihood for themselves?

Manish Kumar: There is a lot of interest and effective work going in the area of skill development and livelihood creation of rural poor, but they miss the power of network and hence end up working in isolation or duplicating works. For example, we do have some excellent CSR initiatives on skilling and livelihood creation, but these are quite small in terms of scale. We also have many government level initiatives in the country, which have produced sustainable livelihood opportunities for the rural poor. However, I would like to highlight some of the issues arising out of different stakeholders in skill development and livelihood creation for the rural poor. 

Lack of interest by private industry in training rural population: Success of any skill development program depends upon active participation from the industry, training providers and the government. Our existing system is supply driven where private industry is less keen to invest in skilling of their workforce. Industry needs to transform its training agenda and put cost on training as investment. Government is funding lots of money into the skill development program in this country, but unfortunately it’s all supply driven i.e. the government is paying for the training costs and infrastructure, but this is not resulting in creating a robust demand from the industry. This is due to the quality of the skilling programs and unwillingness from private players to invest in enhancing the quality of the program. For example, a rural youth from my village in Bihar goes to Delhi and gets a job as a security guard and earns Rs.6000/- per month. Now compare this to someone who has done training in security by using government grants of Rs.14000/- and still gets the same job, so where is the value addition.  

Lack of convergence at government level: We are living in an age of convergence, but it’s challenging to actually implement and practice convergence for the government program at the ground level. For example, the central government in the domain of skill development has more than 17 ministries at central government level doing skill development programs in the country, but this resulted in producing so many serial trainees.   

SkillingIndia: Today, what are the priority areas that need support to enhance rural growth in India?

Manish Kumar: I identify building robust community institutions, skilling for low skilled agricultural workers and job creation in secondary and tertiary level of agricultural activities (food processing and labour intensive high level of work) as three main priorities that need support to enhance rural growth in India.

Building robust community institutions is the first step. It requires a multidimensional approach to enhance rural growth since poverty in our country is influenced by many factors. I think building grass root institutions based around livelihood issues of the poor by mobilizing them into a group is one of the important priority areas  because these grass root institutions enable and empower the poor households to build up their human, social, financial and other resources, solidarity voice and bargaining power. Government needs to invest heavily in building these community institutions. These community level institutions must focus on livelihood-oriented interventions such as promotion of training, household assets and income.

Secondly, it’s important to upgrade and up skill low skilled workers engaged in agricultural and unorganized sector jobs because India will be the only country, which will have a deficit of high skilled and secondary educated workers, but a surplus of low skilled workers in the next two decades. In other words it will have too few high skilled workers in the next decade, but too many low skilled workers. Of course, all these low skilled workers will belong to the rural India, so it’s really important to create comprehensive systems to address this skill deficit of rural India.

Thirdly, we need to address the challenges of the labour market. It is essential that policy makers refocus on educational systems towards up-skilling, while simultaneously creating more jobs for medium and low skilled workers. This can be done by increasing employment in labour-intensive manufacturing in our economy by moving from raw materials to finished goods, in sectors such as food/agro-processing apparel.

SkillingIndia: How can we strengthen local governments’ capacity to identify local priorities to get the desired outcomes?

Manish Kumar: The local government has a very significant role to play in this area of skilling rural youth. Our training partners face enormous challenges in finding the right candidates for their training programs, local government can help in finding the needy and the right candidates. This can be done through integrating the power of community in the local government to identify the needy youth for the training programs. One example of it is where participatory identification of youth is done through community meeting with the help of local administration. The outcome of this process is to get robust mobilization in terms of getting the right kind of people to the training program and this also helps in tracking career pathways of trainees, once they join the labour market. Another important area where we can work is in strengthening the capacity of local government in terms of providing resources (in terms of manpower, and capacity building training) for capturing labour market information. Just think about a scenario where every block and district has a job manager and required capacity in terms of job bank, skill gap knowledge. Every employment exchange in villages should be model job center where local government can act as a facilitating centre for rural youth to enter the world of skill development and employment.

SkillingIndia: What are the upcoming initiatives by Aajeevika – National Rural Livelihoods Mission to increase the income of rural poor for a sustainable livelihood?

Manish Kumar: Aajeevika is a unique mission which will transform the way livelihoods issues are tackled for the rural poor in this country. It’s a mission which tackles the issue of livelihood in a multidimensional manner.  Its time consuming, but its robust approach which envisages that the poor move gradually on the continuum from consumption → debt swapping → enhancement of existing livelihoods → diversification. The major focus of NRLM is to stabilize and promote existing livelihoods portfolio of the poor, in farm and non-farm sectors.

NRLM would look at the entire portfolio of livelihoods of each household and facilitate support for the activities at the individual/household level, or in a collective, or at both levels. As agriculture is the mainstay for livelihoods activity for a large proportion of the rural poor, NRLM will lay special focus on sustainable agriculture and allied activities like animal husbandry, non-timber forest produce and fisheries.

Under this program we are not reinventing wheel rather we are committed to use the power of existing networks and scale up some of the successful models of comprehensive livelihood programs across the country. Mainly we have three types of interventions which target farm based non farm and entrepreneurship for rural India respectively. Our approach is to reduce vulnerability of the poor and enhance their livelihood through deepening/enhancing and expanding existing livelihood options and tapping new opportunities within the key livelihoods that are virtually universally practiced like agriculture, livestock, fisheries, forest produce collection.  Our second intervention is for wage employment, which links business opportunity to entrepreneurial youth who are interested in starting their initiative. 

Our third livelihood intervention is ‘Skilled wage employment’ for rural youth which focuses on building skills for the job market. Our vision is to have a program which is inclusive, demand driven (locally and globally) and should focus on outcomes, consumer choice and competition.


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