West Bengal’s self-empowerment story: Transforming lives through skill development

Raghunathpur (West Bengal), Dec 20: Two winters ago, 16-year-old Sutapa Mahato of Nodiha village in West Bengal’s Purulia district was disillusioned and distraught after failing to clear her board exams. At 18, she is an empowered, budding hospital management trainee at a premier resort in the state with a promise of a secure future.

Sutapa, who is undergoing extensive six months’ training at the Raichak-on-Ganges, is among hundreds of youths in Purulia district – dropouts, minorities, below poverty line candidates, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – who have transformed their ordinary existence into something special through skill development under the self-empowering Swavalamban Programme.

Conducted by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL), the programme, which started in August as a pilot project that may be replicated elsewhere, trains youngsters in the basics of hotel management for a month and sends them to various hotels and resorts for further skill enhancement. They are then recruited across the country as food and beverage handlers, front desk staff and room attendants.

For some, it signals a job guarantee whereas for others like Sutapa, it is more about enriching the quality of one’s life.

“We are glad she is doing something with her life and is becoming someone. She should lead a quality life. It is not about the money. She needs to be independent and empowered,” Sutapa’s proud father Sudhir told IANS.

Shabnam Jana, manager, Training and Development at Raichak, who looks after Sutapa’s progress, said: “She was very shy initially but within a week she became more confident. It has been a huge leap for her.”

From working at a call centre in Kolkata to quitting and joining the programme back in his village, it was a leap of faith for 22-year-old Sachin Mahato, one of the students of the present batch.

“I quit my job because my salary was not enough. In the hotel industry I hope to earn more once I am certified,” said Sachin.

Echoing Sachin, one of his batchmates, a high school passout added confidently: “I want to be recruited outside of Bengal and then I want to go abroad too.”

Adding to this surge of confidence are the experiences of the former trainees who are now part of prestigious hotels and resorts in locations like Daman and Diu and Vadodara.

Said Kaberi Ponda, the first female trainee from the village, who is currently working at a resort in Diu: “Though my parents were initially very worried, what I am today is beyond their expectations. I am planning to visit my village after three years here.”

Kaberi’s resolve not to bow down after she failed to clear her graduation exam by a few marks led her to take the path the people of Nodiha rarely tread on – leaving the village for better job prospects.

“I was very scared to let her go so far. But I believe in equal opportunities for both my son and daughter. So why should I hold her back from pursuing her dreams? She has proved to the entire village that one can make one’s dreams come true,” said Jaba Ponda, Kaberi’s mother.

Overcoming the geographical barrier was one of the initial hiccups. A major handicap for Sutapa, Kaberi, Sachin and the others was the lack of fluency in spoken English.

Sayid Sachin: “We knew at the outset that we have to adapt to lead a better life. All of us gradually learnt the language. For front desk work and interacting with guests, one must be fluent in English.”

What began as a way to ensure employment has revolutionised the ambitions of the youths.

“Previously it was either farming, or any odd job within the village. They didn’t have many options owing to the fact that most of them were drop-outs. Now they have a direction,” Rahul Akhaury of Vernajyoti, the organisation responsible for imparting vocational training under the Swavlamban project, told IANS.

Ajit Mahato, one of the residents responsible for feeding the students, concurred.

“The youngsters have shown the way and as parents and well-wishers, we pledge our support in their endeavours. The future of our village lies with the current generation. We look up to them. They are our pride,” he said.

(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at sahana15ghosh@gmail.com)

IANS