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To serve with love: Companies are inviting applications from those interested in training as waiters and stewards

In east India, three Calcutta companies — Kenilworth Hotels, Woodlands Hospital and Highland Woods, a construction company of the Poddar group — advertised a month ago inviting applications from those interested in training as waiters and stewards, nurses and masons. So what’s the big deal' The advertisements were targeted at people from the scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST). Kenilworth will train 40 people and Highland Woods 20 masons.

In west India, Hindustan Lever Ltd has started the process of recruiting 100 SC and ST apprentices for a programme that will start early next year.

And in the south, Infosys BPO has employed a sizeable number of candidates from the backward classes over the past year (the company won’t divulge numbers).

With the government having threatened to introduce a law to introduce job reservations for SC and ST in the private sector, it certainly seems as if India Inc. is doing its own little bit for these disadvantaged groups.

So why is Dalit activist Chandrabhan Prasad a deeply disappointed man' “Barring a few exceptions, the industry is still very vocal against any kind of affirmative action,” he laments. This was the same Prasad who had saluted the CII-Assocham Action Plan on concrete steps by Indian industry on affirmative action for SC and ST (the J.J. Irani Committee report). Now he feels industry is either stalling for time or dragging its feet.

That’s not quite true, say CII and Ficci officials. Industry is still trying to grapple with the issue and the action it can take. “A mindset change is needed, new systems have to be set up. All this cannot be done overnight,” says a chamber official.

The plan on concrete steps by Indian industry had set some milestones for the first year:

• Adopt a code of conduct (to be drawn up by CII/Assocham)

• Create 100 entrepreneurs from SCs/STs

• Establish coaching centres for SCs/STs in 10 universities for 10,000 students

• Establish 10 coaching centres for 5,000 SC/ST students for entrance exams to professional and technical courses

• Establish 50 new scholarships for SC/ST students in IITs, IIMs and five scholarships for studies abroad

• Disclose progress on proposed concrete steps in annual reports of companies

The Irani Committee report was ambitious enough to set out targets for industry to achieve in the first year, but some of them do appear too ambitious to be realistic.

CII and Assocham were prompt in drawing up a code, which sets out statements of intent about not discriminating against particular groups and encouraging people from disadvantaged groups. It’s not clear how many member companies have signed up. The adoption of the code is voluntary and though the Irani Committee report does talk about “appropriate action” against defaulters, that’s easier said than done. “At the most, a member can be expelled from the chamber,” says K.L. Chugh, chairman emeritus of ITC and Assocham’s representative on the Irani Committee. “What purpose will that serve' For any effort to be long lasting, it has to be voluntary.”

A major point of difference between government and industry is a caste survey of employees. “Companies will need to ask about caste affiliations,” insists J.J. Irani. The industry opposes that, saying that it will be seen to be divisive. Irani and Chugh feel this is an exaggerated fear. “These are realities and we can’t put blinkers on our eyes,” says Chugh. Irani points out that a recent survey in a large company showed that fewer than one per cent of new entrants asked this question chose not to answer. Most companies are getting around this by putting this question only to new entrants.

The commitment to create 100 entrepreneurs in one year appears to be a tough call. Entrepreneurship development, a chamber official admits, requires hand holding for at least two years. Not much movement appears to have been made on this.

In Raipur, CII has tied up with the Entrepreneurship Development Institute to conduct, from January, a three-month entrepreneur development programme for 25 SC/ST youth, whose fees will be paid for by the chamber. A more concrete measure would be to encourage companies to involve larger numbers of SCs/STs in their supply chain, through which they are already helping develop entrepreneurs. “Wherever this has been done, the results have been most gratifying,” says Irani.

But feelers have only just gone out to one Dalit entrepreneur organisation — the Pune-based Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Prasad laments that his efforts to identify activities that companies could outsource to Dalit entrepreneurs have been cold-shouldered. So could the creation of 100 entrepreneurs become a mere cosmetic target-meeting exercise'

“We certainly hope this will not be the end result,” says Irani. The figure of 100, he says, was put as a measure of the private sector’s seriousness in attempting to develop entrepreneurship.

Another route favoured by industry is to establish labour-intensive industries in areas with high SC/ST population. Ficci has identified 27 districts in 13 states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa and the seven northeastern states — where the SC/ST population is above 40 per cent and listed the local resource-based industries that could be set up there. But sceptics doubt the sincerity of this proposal since this comes with a request for India Inc’s favourite lollipop — tax sops.

Though industry seems to be more comfortable partnering with the government in education and skill development, movement has been slow here as well. CII has tied up with coaching institutes in Ranchi, Patna, Bhubaneshwar and Chandigarh to help SC/ST youth for entrance exams for medical, engineering and management institutes. Such initiatives, notes Irani, have already been tried successfully by companies like Tata Steel.

Industry is also more comfortable with extending corporate social responsibility initiatives to cover disadvantaged groups. Telecom major Bharti’s Bharti Foundation, for example, runs the Satya Bharti schools in SC/ST dominated districts of Punjab and plans to extend these to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal. Chugh admits that existing social responsibility initiatives are limited. “We need 20, 30 times more work in this area. A lot of sub-systems need to be created.”

Meanwhile, the government has been turning the heat up, saying that the Irani Committee’s targets are too small. “Yes, it is. It is just a starting point,” counters Chugh. “We may fail in the first year but will succeed in the second.” Now, if only politicians see it that way.

What’s being done

• ITIs being adopted by industry to convert into centres of excellence

• Crompton Greaves, Forbes Marshall, Tata Motors, Zensar Technologies, Cummins India among 70 companies that have given commitments

• CII helping SC/ST women grow and sell jatropa seedlings to the Mineral Foundation of Goa

• Memoranda of understanding being signed by CII with the Goa Institute of Management, AgnelEngineering College and Farmagudi Engineering College to support SC/ST/OBC students

• Tribal women in Almora district of Uttaranchal being trained to weave and supply pashmina shawls

(Additional reporting by Shubhobroto Ghosh in Calcutta and Varuna Verma in Bangalore)
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