A new direction

When a Tamil Nadu government project allowed the rural poor to take charge,they did well for themselves

Written by L RAMAKRISHNAN | Kanchipuram | Published:June 17, 2012 1:53 am

Jaya,22,explains the nuances of controlling a sewing machine to a trainee while she also monitors the progress of another trainee learning the art of stitching in a curve. Jaya has been working for three years at Intimate Fashions,a 100 per cent export-oriented unit at Guduvanchery,on the outskirts of Chennai. Her job is to train the 10 recruits under her charge. Intimate Fashions specialises in making lingerie for two high-street labels,Victoria’s Secret and Pink. All the products have to be manufactured to exacting standards. There can be no margin for error. Which is why all of Jaya’s wards have to perform well.

For Jaya herself,and many like her at the company,it has been a giant leap—from poverty and obscurity in rural Tamil Nadu to playing an important role in running the wheels of production for the global economy. Life changed for Jaya and others when the Tamil Nadu government began a poverty alleviation project in 2005 called Puthu Vaazhvu (a new life).

It all began in 2005,with a funding of Rs 717 crore from the World Bank to the Tamil Nadu government. “It was meant to be another poverty alleviation project. The difference,however,is that we spent a lot of time in getting the project design right,” says N Muruganandam,who was associated with the project during its inception and is presently joint secretary for ports in New Delhi.

The core component of Puthu Vaazhvu is the Village Poverty Reduction Committee (VPRC),a unique concept that involved a fundamental design change from other poverty alleviation projects. “Most poverty reduction projects are flawed from the start,because the targeting is not done properly. In this project,we sought to address this anomaly,” says P Amudha,the current project director.

Fixing the anomaly required a simple step: making the village identify the poor and form a committee. The project design ensured adequate representation from scheduled castes,widows and even the differently abled. “The mistake usually made is in fixing the eligibility based on a number,such as income or poverty line. Now people above the line are not necessarily well-off compared to those below. We wanted to ensure that the maximum possible beneficiaries are roped into the project and the best way was to make the village identify the poor,for they know their surroundings best,” says Amudha.

The selection for the VPRC is done through a participatory approach. The women among the poor in each village are first organised into a self-help group (SHG) of 10-15 members. The decision to organise at the community level and allow people to take charge of their lives was also to wean them away from the influence of NGOs.

“The problem of targeting was addressed and the VPRC,made of the beneficiaries themselves,took a keen interest in ownership of funds and ensured that money reached the right beneficiaries for the right purpose,” says B N Shanjeevana,who administers the project.

With the funds received from the state,the VPRC gave loans to the beneficiaries to start economic activities such as setting up a shop,a dairy,garland making,etc. The loans carry an interest of 15 per cent,while for the very poor and widows,it is waived. The repayment has been 100 per cent. “Earlier,we made Rs 14 on a litre of milk when we were selling it independently. Now,under the SHG,we pool our supplies and we get Rs 21 for a litre,” says Saraswathi,an SHG member and the treasurer of the VPRC at Mamandur.

Government officials have regular meetings with the VPRC on the various schemes available and the eligibility criteria. “At many of these meetings,unemployed youth would ask for job schemes that would benefit them. They were mostly educated up to class 12,some even had college degrees,but they could not find jobs. Which is when it struck us,couldn’t something be done to make them employable?” says Muruganandam.

Kanchipuram is one of the industrial hubs of Tamil Nadu,with a cluster of automotive manufacturers such as Ford,Hyundai,TVS,Ashok Leyland and a number of associated companies such as MRF. Of late,international companies such as Nokia and Saint Gobain have set up facilities here.

“This is a booming hub and for us,labour is the prime worry,” says Prasad Narayan Rege,the general manager of Intimate Fashions.

Tapping into this demand,Puthu Vaazhvu drew up a plan for skills training. “The first company to sign up was Larsen and Toubro which imparted training in bar-bending and masonry to the youth and then absorbed them in their construction projects. It was intense and many dropped out. But those who stayed on now hold respectable jobs,with salaries of up to Rs 8,000,a huge boost to their self-esteem,” says Muruganandam.

Under the skills training programme,the Puthu Vaazhvu project brought in companies such as IL&FS to impart training in soft skills,and signed on Nokia,Hyundai and MRF. One such company,driven by the need for skilled workers was Intimate Fashions,whose ex-CEO John Chiramel saw it as an opportunity to get good workers and signed on in 2011. Currently,of 2,513 workers at the company,1,983 were recruited through the Puthu Vaazhvu project,of whom 1,213 are local and 770 are from outside Kanchipuram.

Jaya,who came from Mayiladuthurai,a town in Nagappatinam district around 300 km away,says,“My parents were trying to get me married. After working here,I am now sending money back home and helping my younger brother get educated.”

The success of Puthu Vaazhvu has got other governments interested. “Bihar is showing interest. They have different challenges. Our advantage was that there was a thriving industrial belt here and we saw that as an opportunity,” says Muruganandam.

(The correspondent’s visit to Tamil Nadu was organised by the World Bank)

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