Driving empowerment in ‘Ruban’ India

The rural sector in India needs bold initiatives from all sides. 

McKinsey Global Institute, in its February 2014 Report titled, From Poverty to Empowerment: India’s Imperative for Jobs, Growth, and Effective Basic Services, introduced a new and more holistic measure of income deprivation – the Empowerment Line. While the poverty line measures only extreme poverty, the Empowerment Line estimates the minimum economic cost for a household to fulfil eight basic needs: food, energy, housing, drinking water, sanitation, health care, education, and social security. This can be a realistic measure for India, because of its focus on the country’s booming ‘vulnerable’ class, caught somewhere between subsistence and sufficient standard of living.

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MGI estimates 509 million rural residents (or 61 percent of the rural population) to be living below the empowerment line today. But it holds out a promise: India can bring more than 90 percent of its people above the Empowerment Line in just a decade by implementing inclusive reforms.

This is not an impossible scenario. Inclusive reforms – powered by the job creation engines of skill development and entrepreneurship – can unlock investment, job growth, and productivity that will raise incomes. But is rural India ready to take up this challenge? Do they have the talent, entrepreneurial spirit, aspiration and access to technology required to fuel these engines?

The stereotypes of rural being backward, uneducated and change-resistant no longer hold true. One can witness the deep transformation that has happened in rural India and the terminology to describe these new breed of Rural Indians is the ‘Rubans’ for the emerging Rural-Urbans. There are four things that are particular to a “Ruban”:

First, Rubans reflect raw, hungry talent looking for opportunities. Companies such as Head Held High Services run talent transformation programs across 22 taluks across Karnataka and have found that Rubans are committed to skilling themselves. Till date, Over a 1,000+ rural youth have transformed themselves into English speaking, computer literate knowledge professionals in four months or less. 25 percent of them were zero-educated or school dropouts. Today, 90 percent of them are placed, across a range of sectors from healthcare, retail, hospitality, financial services etc., with positions ranging from Centre Managers to Customer Service Executives to Cashiers to even Caregivers. Several of the school-drop-outs have completed their class 10 through the Open Schools and many of them have gone on to complete their graduation. Around 35 of our trainees are employed in our own Rural BPO & Rural Surveys team, handling complex processes as insurance claims, marketing lead management, etc. It is worth noting that 100 percent of them have paid to join the program, demolishing another myth that rural youth depend a lot of Government support for skill development.

Second, Rubans also demonstrate aspirations, similar to the aspirations of their urban counterparts. The general perception is that students from urban areas have a higher Aspiration Quotient (AQ) compared to their rural counterparts. This can be taken with a clear basis that the awareness, opportunities, skills available to this population puts them in this advantageous position. But what if this perception was wrong? What if the Rubans have same levels of AQ if not better than their counterparts? In a recent aspiration survey conducted by HHH, among those the trainees currently enrolled, it was discovered that the top 3 aspirations of zero-educated/school dropout trainees were to become entrepreneurs, teachers and corporate professionals. Almost all of their parents were zero educated, and no one from their families had ever taken up these professions.

Third, Rubans have an entrepreneurial spirit. The need for creating a robust support structure to expedite entrepreneurship in rural India has been a major focus for most Government policies for quite some time now. However, a lot is to be achieved on the ground. Despite their ambition, innovation and passion, rural entrepreneurs are limited by a number of factors – some of which were highlighted in the 2011 Impact Assessment Report on Rural Entrepreneurship Development Programme (REDP) by NABARD:
One, mostly REDP is based on target oriented approach with little attention to improving the entrepreneurial talents of rural and educated unemployed youth.
Two, selection of activities for imparting REDP was not based on local demands / needs and perceptions of people.
Three, training modules were not designed based on absorption capacity and future requirements of the entrepreneurs.
Four, there was a lack of systematic coordination among partners viz. Bankers, state/central government officials and marketing agents at the district level.
Five, inadequate provision for raw materials, reading materials, field visits, guest lectures to enable entrepreneurs develop their skills.

The solution lies in creating robust platforms focused on learning, sharing and networking among entrepreneurs at the district level. It should bring together local ecosystems, build capacity among entrepreneurs and connect them with global opportunities with access to markets, products and financing.

Fourth, Rubans have access to technology. A common perception is that rural is lacking in technology, but of the 1,000 people HHH surveyed in 4 districts in North Karnataka, 53 percent have used a smartphone and 73 percent of them access internet on mobile. In another E-Commerce survey we did among 100 people, 90 percent of them had heard about online shopping and 47 percent of them had actually tried to order online. This shows the penetration of technology and Rubans’ comfort in using them, even in the rural hinterlands.

The Rubans are everywhere – it only needs a change in lens to recognise it. The Model that HHH has constructed is called ‘Rubanomics’ – a term to understand the economics and business models of the new Rubans. The path to inclusive reforms, through Rubanomics, has to stimulate skill development and job creation through entrepreneurship. In skill development, there is a need for effective models that focus on providing low-cost delivery, innovative transformational methodology and laser-sharp focus on employability skills & confidence. To entrepreneurs, there is a need to provide them with tools and an environment that makes them more than just “self-employed” – they need to become growth oriented job-creators. We also have to bring in new thinking and operational approaches to delivery of services to the rural consumer. The individual person here is the Ruban. The key to unlocking the potential of Rubans is by understanding them, and keeping their talents, aspirations and economic prosperity at the centre. Rubanomics begins from the transformation of an individual, but ends in transforming the whole community and society.

The rural sector in India needs bold initiatives. A recent Rubanomics initiatives at HHH is setting up of Ruban Transformation Centres, a rural gateway that brings together skill development, entrepreneurship development and business opportunities across key sectors to rural areas. Its ambition is to set up these centres in every district, and connect them to each other through video conferencing and other IT-enabled facilities. This would allow for pooling of resources, knowledge sharing, networking and increasing access multi-fold to Rubans. However, the journey is long. India needs to create 115 million non-farm jobs to drive poverty reduction in the next 10 years. Rubanomics offers a dynamic platform for innovation – a range of interesting models and experiments can be carried out tapping the power of the Rubans. The need to act is clear. The time to act is now!

Photo: Abhijit Kar Gupta