Meera Shenoy works with rural, tribal and differently abled youth. She is founder of Youth4Jobs (www.youth4jobs.org) which helps companies build an inclusive workforce. She is known for her work in setting up the country’s first Jobs Mission for the poor in AP. She has consulted for World Bank, ILO and UNDP across South Asia. She is currently working on a book featuring entrepreneurs who have disability and businesses with disability as their core.
Meera’s Guest Post is the text of her Convocation Speech at Sadhana Centre for Management & Leadership Development, Pune (SCMLD) on May 01, 2011.
Seven years back I took a decision to work with youth – youth around 17-18 years old, full of hope, full of aspirations. But there is a difference – they all came from remote rural and tribal villages and now I work with youth who are differently abled. Their fathers are agricultural labourers. This means if there is no rain, there is only one meal. And if father or grandmother falls ill, you have to take a loan from a moneylender at high interest. So all are permanently in a debt trap and this in management terms is called “the vicious cycle of poverty”. And this is Bharat. And what do they see on TV. Shining India, youth like you with jeans, T-shirts, motorbikes and cars… and the frustration deepens. Thus you see newspaper headlines of the spread of the Naxal belt and rise of theft and crime.
I like telling stories; real stories. Ramiah painted walls. But what he wanted to do was study and get a different kind of job. His first attempt at writing the twelfth class exam never happened as the teacher ran away with the hall ticket money. Finally, with the paper certificate he knocked at several doors for a job. Six months later, not a penny in pocket, he was back to painting walls. He entered our short term training and at the end of three months, he became a white collar McDonald’s employee. When I go to his upmarket Banjara Hills outlet, he is teaching new alumni how to please the customer, giving some Hindi coaching and sending home Rs. 24,000 a year to educate his younger sister.
Then Rama. She was born normal like you and me. When she was two year old, with high fever, her father took her to the local doctor. The injection given paralysed her limbs. She came to our training class and refused to speak.
I found her singing softly in the garden (we have an open air classroom). Her story…her father wanted her to study since her legs did not work. So he carried her on his shoulder to the bus stop. She had to take two buses and sometimes only one came. Then her tricycle to go to college would get stuck in the mud and there was no one around to push it in the torrential rain. Years of sadness because, even after the struggle and a degree, she could not get a job. We showed her and others videos in the class room where disabled dance the Mahabaratha, told them nothing is impossible. We taught them English inspiration songs like “We can overcome.” It hardly sounds like the original singer but what happens is a shift takes place. “I cannot” shifts to “I can”. Today Rama works in HDB Finance, drawing Rs.96,000 a month. Recently a disabled youth from an MNC wrote to me if I could find him a girl like him. I told him I do not know any rich girls but poor yes. So we are match making…..And who knows, Rama may just reach Austrian soils.
In this journey, as initially head of a state government Jobs Mission for the underprivileged which I set up from scratch, we trained 280,000 youth linking 70% to organized sector jobs. I built an IT architecture for transparency so that the data could be seen by the villagers and the minister. We did many innovations because no one had looked at this space, six years ago. I set up the country’s first rural retail academy with the help of industry; then I set up the grassroots English, work-readiness and computer academy in the heart of the Naxal area. … short, market-linked trainings which close the loop giving them an organized sector job. And now, we are doing the same for the visually, hearing and orthopedically impaired. The transformation of the rural, tribal and disabled youth when they get a job and stand on their own two feet can only be described in one word, “Magic”. Caste is not important, they tell me stories of rich relatives calling them, of village landlord asking if his son can get a job, and thus social and economic equations change. Girls who taste the working world want a career; so child marriage goes out of the window. And yes, I find, in many places where my alumni stay, beauty parlours are springing up for this new customer.
And these boys and girls will bring up their children into a different world – a world with education and health – a world closer to us. So, when you all fly from this college, degree in hand, remember be in the attitude of gratitude that you have received so much – from the founder, teachers, friends, parents, grandparents…And we must Give as we Get. So look around you, wherever you are, in the workplace or at home, and experience the joy of giving…To remove this Bharat-India divide and help create a young vibrant tomorrow.
Let me end with an anecdote. To receive any award I always make the youth speak. So I had taken Shekhar, a tribal boy with me to receive a South Asian award. His father had drunk himself to death and four children were brought up by a mother who earned her living by sweeping the school. We put him in a telecom company. He taught himself the intricacies of the stock market and moved to a large financial company. Shekar was speechless when he saw all the video cameras and the huge auditorium. He forgot his speech and said something from the bottom of his heart, which I want all of you to remember, “I, Shekhar, do not want your money. You have been to better schools, colleges and countries. I need only your time to grow my knowledge.”