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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 |
July 4, 2012 5:24:22 pm

Jaya,22,patiently explains the nuances of controlling a sewing machine to a trainee while at the same time,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. She has a tough task,to train the 10 new recruits under her charge and make them ready for the assembly line.

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 project in 2005 called ‘Puthu Vaazhvu’,which translated from Tamil means ‘A new life’.

Now,poverty reduction projects aren’t new in this country. Schemes are drawn up,funding provided with the hope that the project should show results. Often the cost of administering the project takes up most of the budget,and corruption and maladministration result in targets not being achieved.

The difference with Puthu Vaazhvu is that it has been very effective in achieving the results and at the same time has made several innovations that make it worthy of replication in other parts of the country.

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 having no parallels in other projects in the country,and a fundamental design change.

“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. Make the village identify the poor and form the committee who would work their way towards getting out of poverty. The project design ensures 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 is 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. These SHGs are linked to banks and government schemes to enable them to start livelihood activities and given training.

One woman member is nominated by each SHG to the VPRC. The others nominees are one member who is differently abled,and two youth. The VPRC is chaired by the panchayat leader.

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 usual approach to implementing poverty reduction programmes is to fund NGOs and they do all the organising. We saw that they have a vested interest in keeping people dependent on them. They do not go beyond social mobilisation,” says Muruganandam. “Initially we even faced resistance from them. But the officers in charge of the project were firm and they had the will to give it a chance and allow it to succeed.”

It was a bold decision to then let people organise themselves. “The problem of targeting was addressed and the VPRC,made of the beneficiaries themselves took a keen sense of ownership of the funds and ensured that it 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 petty shop,garland making. The main activity,however has been dairy. The loans carry an interest of 15 per cent,while for the really very poor and widows,it is waived. Loan amounts range between Rs 5,000-Rs 25,000. All accounting is done by the VPRC and books maintained under the guidance of the project officers.

It has shown results. The repayment has been 100 per cent. “Earlier we made Rs 14 per litre of milk when we were selling it independently. Now,under the SHG,we pool our supplies and we get Rs 21 a litre,” says Saraswathi,a SHG member and the treasurer of the VPRC at Mamandur,not far from Guduvanchery.

The project was implemented in Mamandur two years ago. In such a short time,the women genuinely feel a sense of empowerment. “NGOs were working with us earlier. We were only playing by their rules. Ever since the VPRC was formed,it is we who decide for ourselves. Puthu Vaazhvu has truly given us a chance to take charge,” says Mala,the secretary of the Mamandur VPRC.

An unintended benefit of the VPRC idea has been the skill training initiative. “The main idea behind VPRC is to converge all the schemes under the government and ensure better targeting. That we achieved to a large extent,” says Muruganandam.

Government officials have regular meetings with the VPRC on the various schemes available and the eligibility criteria. This has enabled even the poorest to get the benefit of schemes about which they knew nothing and for the state,short of the administrative apparatus to deliver,to reach them.

“At many of these meetings,unemployed youth used to crowd looking for any job scheme that would benefit them. They were mostly Class 12 educated,some even having a degree,but could not find jobs. Which is when it struck us,could not 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. Lately 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. We have to compete for them as the demand is huge and the supply is woefully short,” 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 who imparted training in bar-bending and masonry and then absorbed them in their construction projects. It was intense and several youth dropped out. But those that stayed on resolved to do well and worked hard and today hold respectable jobs paying up to Rs 8,000,a huge boost to their self-esteem,” says Muruganandam.

The government would make the youth assemble in a village and facilitate the interaction by L&T’s officials who would recruit them for training after a stringent test.

This was 2005 and the regime changed in Tamil Nadu. But in a state known for bitter political animosities,it was an act of enlightened statesmanship on the part of the DMK government to carry on with the initiative started by its predecessor.

Under the skills training programme,the Pudhu Vaazhvu project brought in companies such as IL&FS to impart training in soft skills,and signed on Nokia,Hyundai and MRF. “Today youth identified by the VPRC have been trained by these companies and they now assemble mobile phones at Nokia and are expert drivers of cars and trucks after the training by Hyundai and MRF,” says Shanjeevana.

One such compan,driven by the need for skilled workers was Intimate Fashions,whose ex-CEO John Chiramel saw it as a good opportunity to get good workers and also that way contribute to the state’s initiative and signed on in 2009.

“Initially we used to compete for workers (with other companies in the region) within a radius of 30 km from the factory. It has now gone up to 90 km. That is the kind of demand here,” says Rege. That will increase even more for the company plans to grow twice in the next three years.

Currently,out of 2,513 workers working at the company,1,983 were recruited through the Puthu Vaazhvu project out of whom,1,213 are local and 770 from outside Kanchipuram. The Mamandur VPRC has sent 40 women to Intimate Fashions. Qualifications range from Standard 8 to Standard 12.

The company has taken good care of its staff. The outsiders have dormitories while local staff is provided transport. Intimate Fashions even allowed a visit by the VPRC to convince them that the women would be well looked after.

The entry level take-home salary for a trainee is Rs 3,500 a month. After training,which lasts around ten days,it goes up to Rs 4,500. There is a bonus component that is paid to a group of women on the assembly line for excellence in meeting production target and quality. Besides the company has a subsidised canteen and medical facilities. With experience,the women can earn up to Rs 8,000 or more.

“We spend upto 20 per cent of our turnover on welfare benefits,” says Rege.

Jaya is one such outsider,who has come from Mayiladuthurai,a town in Nagappatinam district around 300 km away. Says a beaming Jaya,“I was not knowing what to do. 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 and we saw that as an opportunity,” says Muruganandam.

A poverty reduction project that let people take charge of their lives,coupled with skills training to feed a globally integrated industrial belt has allowed several villages get empowered and do well for themselves. In this age of globalisation,even an essential clothing accessory can bring in empowerment to several women and liberate them,a fact that feminists of the bra-burning vintage would have to concede.

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

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