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Driving Change

Author: Ullekh NP
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: September 1, 2013

Introduction: Maruti Suzuki along with the Gujarat government is training tribal youth to get behind the wheels of cars & heavy vehicles

Now I eat well,” says 23-year-old Vasva Jituvbhai Rameshbhai from Vadodara’s Haripura village. He had never used a toilet until last year when he joined the All Gujarat Institute of Driving, Technical Training and Research (AGIDTTR) at Waghodia, 30 km from the heart of Vadodara city. He had never before eaten a sumptuous meal — which for him means eating both wheat and rice or both dal and vegetables in a single meal. And he had been in a car once, many years ago, when there was a wedding in the family.
   
At the gates of the institute which was set up a few years ago through a public private partnership (PPP) between the government of Gujarat and Maruti Suzuki India, India’s largest carmaker, Rameshbhai was told to quit chewing tobacco. “I haven’t used any form of tobacco since then,” declares this confident young man who currently works with the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) as a driver, earning close to 6,000 a month. The salary he says “is a great source of relief” for his family of daily wagers — which comprises his mother and father, sister and her daughter besides grandparents.
   
Rameshbhai knows he isn’t rich, but he isn’t poor any more even by “normal standards”. Well, according to India’s controversial economic benchmark, only those who earn less than 22.42 per person per day in the countryside and 28.65 in urban areas are below the poverty line. By that yardstick, Rameshbhai is virtually set for life.
   
“The centre gave us the skills to stand on our own feet,” asserts Rameshbhai. He has not only learnt driving at the institute, but has also picked up “how to talk to women”, basic English and, most importantly, the courage to face the world, he adds, emphasising that he now wants to save some money to build a toilet in his home. “I didn’t know the value of sanitation until I came here. Back home there was no other choice,” he recalls.
   
Rameshbhai is one of the more than 3,200 trainees to find a job after passing from AGIDTTR’s scenic 25-acre campus, which caters exclusively to students belonging to the scheduled castes of the state who have passed class eight. The rest, of the total 4,200 trainees, returned home to work as labourers, farm hands and so on.
   
“That’s a success rate that beats our expectations,” says Avinash Kumar, a Maruti executive who was in charge of operations at the institute until recently. Ajay Gupta, who has replaced him, is glad to work in “an atmosphere where the trainees are aspiring and enthusiastic about job prospects following completion of the course”.

Modinomics on Display?

Despite the great Gujarat growth story under chief minister Narendra Modi, the pain of existence is excruciating in the state’s southeastern tribal region, known for poor social indicators.
   
In fact, a few months ago the Gujarat high court asked the state government to extend better health facilities and infrastructure to tribal districts of the state, saying, with a tinge of sarcasm, that the tribal-dominated districts — such as Sabarkantha, Banaskantha, Panchmahals, Dahod, Narmada, Navsari, the Dangs, Valsad and Tapit — were also a part of Gujarat. The court was referring to an official report on preparedness to handle swine flu cases.
   
According to news reports, this official report showed that almost all the better health facilities were available mainly in urban centres such as Ahmedabad, Surat, Rajkot and Vadodara.
   
Perhaps it is important for Modi to showcase the Waghodia training centre. The Gujarat chief minister had talked about the institute in several of his speeches to highlight it as a unique PPP model targeted at disadvantaged groups.
  
The Gujarat chief minister — who is also the poster boy of his party in the race for the prime minister’s seat in the 2014 polls — sees the centre as a burnished showpiece of his government’s commitment to the tribal cause, agrees a BJP leader from the state. This leader, however, dismisses talk that Modi wants to use the centre to pull in the tribal vote. “It is a Maruti initiative and we helped them find land easily thanks to our good governance practices that cut red tape. Don’t blame us for corporates coming to our state where they see respect for entrepreneurship,” argues the local BJP leader.

Better Life, Of course

Whatever the politics be, it is helping us in a big way, says Ratva Kishorebhai Ramanbhai, a tribal youth who passed out of AGIDTTR and found a job at the General Motors plant in Halol. “I used to do long-distance driving to make money as soon as I finished my course. And then I got this job at GM on contract,” says Ramanbhai who has passed his 12th standard.
   
Well, he could be a breakaway from the usual mould of drivers the institute churns out. “I developed confidence thanks to the training here,” he tells ET Magazine, seated comfortably in a chair answering questions about the story of his “struggles so far”. Now he works as a quasi-mechanic at the Halol plant earning much more than his driver-colleagues do. There are some others who have even become entrepreneurs, making up to 12,000 a month, says Kumar.
   
Mahesh Rajoria, chief general manager at Maruti Suzuki, says he is happy to see students from the institute take up well-paying jobs, be it that of a driver or a mechanic. “They get a lot of exposure at the facility. They have high aspirations and want to contribute to their family and their own growth. This gives us a lot of pleasure.”
   
Rajoria adds that Maruti gets “very good” support from state officials to scout for trainees across Gujarat’s tribal belt. “Many of them live in the jungles and it would have been impossible for our [Maruti’s] representatives to reach them without such help,” he notes.
   
At the end of each course, Maruti, which offers instructors and prepares the syllabus in Gujarati, organises “job fairs” on t h e Wa g h o d i a c a m p u s o r elsewhere inviting corporates from different parts of the state. “Many students are hired on the spot,” Rajoria says.
   
While the institute has begun to cater to demand from the state’s industry for heavy vehicle and JCB drivers on a small scale, Rajoria hopes to scale up such efforts over the next months. “This has been a good start, but we want to restructure courses and offer more specialised skills,” he says.

New Skills, High Hopes

Maruti representatives go on a hiring spree every few months — for nearly 200 students for a 45-day course — and most tribal youths who come to local recruitment centres set up in schools and so on are those who had heard of “the new job-giving facility” through word of mouth.
   
Sandeepbhai Narasimbhai, 22, a graduate in history who hails from a village in Dahod — some 150 km from Vadodara — says the first time he touched a steering wheel was at the institute. He rode a motorbike earlier — something that made his classmates a bit jealous, he laughs. He adds that he got “used to” better sanitation, including toilets, after joining AGIDTTR.
   
“Until I came here I didn’t know how to speak to people with respect, how to treat women with respect,” says he. He enjoyed the stay, especially the “activities” in the evenings which include playing cricket, badminton, local games and carrom. “I picked up some English and also good etiquette. I have the skills to earn a living,” he adds.
   
Such excitement among tribal students has prompted Maruti to look for replicating the “experiment” elsewhere in the country, too, Rajoria discloses, adding that the carmaker is in talks with the government of Odisha — a state with a sizeable tribal population — to set up a similar training facility. One of them will come up in Guwahati and the other in Maoist-hit Koraput. Each of these facilities will be on 15-acre campuses. These centres will also cater to non-tribals in the region.
   
Besides, in Bihar, Maruti has already signed a memorandum of understanding with the state transport department to set up a new skilling institute in Aurangabad.

Plans Afoot

“We take pride in giving personality development and soft skills for the underprivileged,” declares Rajoria. Thanks to what he calls “allrounder” skills that trainees pick up from the Waghodia centre, they now work as auto dealers, run workshops, work with manufacturing companies such as JCB, Welspun Group, GM and so on. Several others are self employed as taxi or small goods carrier drivers.
   
Maruti officials point out that the inspiration for setting up such an institute for the underprivileged came following what they call the “overwhelming success” of its six institutes of driving, technical training and research (IDTRs), all commercial ventures. Currently, the company operates IDTRs at six locations in the country — two in Haryana, two in Delhi, one in Uttarakhand and one in Gujarat — which are equipped with driving tracks, simulators and so on and where instructors offer theory classes for a fee. Besides, the company also has a network of neighborhood schools called Maruti Driving Schools at over 310 locations across the country where it has till date trained over 15 lakh people.
   
Meanwhile, Rajoria expects the Aurangabad training institute in Bihar, which will have capacity to train over 20,000 students per annum in driving across vehicle categories, to be operational by the end of 2014. After all, when Modi’s Gujarat does it, can Bihar, led by his staunch political rival Nitish Kumar, be far behind?

 
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