“Dungarpur seems hotter and more barren than I can remember”, sighed Usha as she looked at the distant landscape. Of course, she was not talking about the impact of climate change but her new outlook post returning to her home after 5 months of working in Bangalore, which enjoys a more moderate climate.
It took strong determination and infallible courage for Usha to take a small step outside the periphery of her house, first, to learn a skill and then to start a job. She is one of the millions of other young girls in the country, who face systematic, social and economic constraints to becoming financially independent. But these girls also flourish with confidence and hope of a better life, once they have the right avenues.
Today, on the occasion of International Youth Day, we are compelled to look at issues plaguing our younger generations. WHOs Global Report on Ageism, suggests that young people face age-related barriers in various spheres including employment. The lack of skills required for employment remains one of the top reasons for youth unemployment. It is critical that India, with the largest adolescent and youth population, address this and maximize the demographic dividend towards its progress.
To focus on disadvantaged youth, the Government of India has initiated visionary skill programmes like Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana (DDUGKY) and Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojna (PMKVY) to help rural youth get employed. These are supplemented by State Government programmes, for instance, the Rajvik scheme launched by Rajasthan Government and the Surya scheme started by Haryana Government. While these schemes are oriented towards the marginalized, getting them to access and complete these courses and start jobs, remains a significant issue, more so for young girls in the age group of 18 to 21 years. This is a crucial time for girls emotionally, physically and socially, and in the absence of information and opportunities, they stand the risk of early marriage and pregnancies. There is no denying that this age group is the key to intergenerational women empowerment and challenges regarding their financial independence should be identified and addressed.
Most skill courses are fully funded by the Central and State governments and run by private training providers. Wherever there is an option, skill centres prefer to run courses only for boys or give preference to boys in their selection process. In other cases, like DDUGKY, where there is a mandatory reservation for girls, the centres tend to limit their outreach to either urban girls or girls within a radius close to their centre. Oftentimes, the skill centres are located at district or block headquarters, considerably away from core rural areas. Distance is arguably the single biggest factor influencing girls' participation from rural areas in these courses. Project Manzil, being implemented in Rajasthan across 6 districts, conducted a primary survey in 600 plus villages and found that close to 90% of the girls between the age group of 18 to 21 years or their parents, did not want their girls to go beyond 5 kilometres of their houses to pursue skilling course. Though this mobility restriction reflects social norms and mindsets, there is also a genuine concern regarding the non-availability of public transport from far-off areas. Further, even if the girl agrees to join a course, there is the next stage issue of having a limited number of trades/categories of skills available for her to join.
Perhaps the most difficult and also the most relevant part of the skill ecosystem is assisting girls to get jobs following their skill training. This is a giant leap in several ways, where, from a relatively (over)protected environment, the girl steps into a world of independence, all alone. There is also enormous resistance from the parents and community to send the girl out to work and in most cases, local opportunities are either non-existent or minimal. Along with the demand side, the supply side too has its challenges. Jobs is where social rural development enters the space of capitalism. Selection in a job is a test for the quality of the course, competency level of the candidate, the market value of the relevant skill set and often, girls who complete skilling courses do not meet the standards of the industries. As a result, only the low-paying jobs and roles are left for girls from these courses. Several girls, disappointed with the salaries being offered either choose not to join or leave soon after joining. In other places, these type of job profiles is left for third-party hiring. These are organisations that work for profit on recruiting individuals, they neither care for participation by women nor about delicately counselling underprivileged girls to help them have realistic expectations.
Given the exceedingly complex nature of ensuring employment for rural youth, it may not always be feasible for the Government to see this through in its entirety. We need more multi-stakeholder investment and involvement in this domain to address the challenges mentioned above. In the context of South Asia, projects like Balika in Bangladesh and Manzil in Rajasthan (India) show that for rural young girls to be employed, soft components like counselling, and life skills training requires as much attention as skill-based technical training. Manzil has shown mapping the aspirations of youth, especially young girls and reflecting on the trade choices is key to improved attendance and job retention. Employability skills training focusing on computer education, communication, and financial literacy can address some crucial gaps that are of value to the private sector. In addition to this, longer skill training that is like diploma courses may address the issue of quality to some extent. Most relevantly, the demand from industries should drive the trades being taught, preferably around the region of its work. Further, industries should be involved as key employers not only for their junior-level workforce but also across other levels.
Having said that, we must also realize that there is certain ageism in our approach to jobs for rural youth. We may not have entirely been able to map out the aspirations of young India and understood the skills/trades that they would value. We also do not fully comprehend their constraints or recognise age-appropriate jobs that would not only be coveted by them but also be a win-win for the employer. Maybe we need to put more thought, have public debates involving the young, to design policies that support them more. While solving the conundrum of youth employment seems like a behemoth task, we also know that in moving towards the SDGs, and as an emergent economic world power, India cannot afford to leave behind its rural youth.