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‘Barefoot engineering’: How to boost rural development and local youth employment

Shortage of engineers in rural areas has been affecting the quality and effective service delivery of the infrastructure works launched under MGNREGA in India. A training programme, set up by the Ministry of Rural Development with technical assistance of the ILO, addresses the skills gap while providing decent jobs to thousands of discouraged youth and promoting sustainable development in rural areas.

Feature | 20 September 2017
RAIPUR, CHHATTISGARH, INDIA (ILO News) – Sporting her navy blue Barefoot Technician (BFT) T-shirt, and cap, Hemlata Naik, 32 year old, is on her way to start her yoga class at 7 am sharp before completing her assignments, attending lectures and joining an on-site training, at the State Institute for Rural Development (SIRD).

She is one of the few women attending the three-month training programme opened to rural youth who have completed education till grade 10th. The training teaches how to assist engineers in conducting surveys, preparing quotes and estimates, and executing processes for simple works such as farm ponds, farm bunds and other watershed structures.

“I come from a remote district, Balod, in Chhattisgarh. At first I was quite nervous about leaving my family behind to attend this residential course. But I heard that here one is taught maintenance of rural works. I was always a good student at school and had completed my education till grade 12th. But then I got married, had two kids, and I didn’t pursue further education or employment. This is a rare opportunity for me. I learnt doing layouts, measurements, and planning rural infrastructure. I am proud to work as a barefoot technician. I will be working in my village, for my community while improving my family’s economic situation.”

For many rural youth such as Hemlata finding dignified, and meaningful employment in their local environment has become a growing priority. Gewesh Kumar, 28 year old, also enrolled in the programme: “I used to be an aimless youth who was unemployed and unsure about the future. Then, I learnt about the BFT training programme from my village head. I immediately applied. We had to crack three rounds of selection process to come here.”

“Once I graduate, I will have a job and I will be assisting engineers – in my district –helping them construct and maintain good quality rural infrastructure works in my village. I will also be drawing a fixed monthly salary of about 8,000 rupees (INR) (roughly US$125). During this residency training programme, I even received a per diem of INR150 (about US$2.25). I really didn’t have to worry about affording this course – as it is free - or fret about my sustenance”.

Training, decent jobs and rural development

The state of Chhattisgarh has the highest poverty rate in the country. Regional conflict and lack of employment opportunities pushed part of its population on the migration path. As a remedy, the state administration decided to take proactive steps to ensure that rural employment demands are met while local infrastructure is strengthened.

The state has implemented India’s pioneering livelihood security programme the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) – guaranteeing 100 days of wage employment in a financial year to a rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. However, the government faced acute shortage of local engineers and technicians to ensure effective construction and maintenance of the rural infrastructure works, created under MGNREGS. This in turn caused delay in launching rural infrastructure works, and the quality of the works suffered on account of lack of monitoring and supervision.

The Ministry of Rural Development
decided to train at least 10,000 rural youth in basic concept of civil engineering – involving them in planning, doing layouts, measurements and supervision of MGNREGS works in 2500 most backward blocks across India. In 2014, the ILO was requested to step in and provide technical assistance. The ILO developed National Occupational Standards (NOS) and Qualification Packs (QP) and all the training materials for the BFT and the consequent training of trainers programme.

All key elements of the decent work agenda were integrated in the training modules especially those relating to rights at work, equal wages for men and women, occupational safety and health, detection of child or forced labour, crèche facilities at the work sites, provision of drinking water and workers welfare activities.

Back to basics

To be enrolled as a BFT trainee at the State Institute for Rural Development (SIRD), Raipur, the minimum qualification is to be a 10th grade pass and have knowledge in basic civil engineering concepts. More than 360 rural youth have been trained in Chhattisgarh as BFT technicians. The institute also provides soft skills training on personality development, public speaking to instill a sense of confidence. So far there hasn’t been a single drop out at SIRD.

Hariprasad Vishwas, a 34 year old former primary school teacher, says, “I have completed 80 days of training. My perspective on rural infrastructure and development has radically changed. I used to teach mathematics to children in my village. Now I want to train others in appropriate construction and maintenance works, and mobilize them to develop our villages, and contribute to our local economy. I feel a sense of purpose.”

An hour and a half drive away from Raipur- meandering through the lush canopy-like forested roads – is Daryaband block. Here, Krishan Bhakta, a 29 year old recent graduate of the training programme, has now been working as a BFT for the last eight months. Carrying a thick book of records, he narrates how he meticulously catalogues all the rural works and its status. He is prompt to spot a flaw, or advise his community workers and can be reached at any point in time. His supervisor, the Junior Engineer considers Bhakta’s proactive assistance to be pivotal for effective implementation of works in villages.

Next steps

While the state plans to geo-tag the works to enable virtual monitoring, with the support of the SIRD trainees, the Ministry of Rural Development plans to rely on them to upload a detailed documented inventory of rural works across the country for a systematic and efficient monitoring of the infrastructure created under MGNREGA.

As of now, 19 states are implementing BFT training programme in India. After the training, instant job placement is guaranteed in the state at the village level. More than 5,000 BFTs have been trained all over India. The target is to train roughly 8,000 BFTs in India. The trainer pool as of today stands at 519 with a plan to recruit more.