The state of affairs in rural Bengal continues to be a sad commentary. Joblessness, poverty, trafficking, illiteracy, and so on, are all-pervading. Out of almost the nine crore people living in West Bengal, six crore reside in rural areas. According to the Union ministry of labour, there are, approximately, 64 lakh people awaiting a call from the employment exchange in West Bengal. Besides, there is also a huge section of unregistered, unemployed and under-employed youth.
The hallmark of the erstwhile Left Front government was the three-tier panchayati raj institutions — the grass-root units of self-government. It was perceived to be the vehicle for bringing about socio-economic transformation in rural Bengal. The plan, borne out of well-thought-out intentions for all-round development, gradually lost its focus and got deviated from the trajectory of development.
In the process, a vast section of children and youth — considered to be the most precious human capital not only for the state but also for the country — has been neglected. This has crippled future generations instead of enabling them. It is a separate matter that successive governments remained indifferent to this systematic process of dehumanization.
In rural Bengal, 85 per cent of children aged 15 years and above drop out of schools as a result of the shoddy implementation of the Right to Education Act. This vast segment of adolescents helps swell the number of the unskilled and landless labour force. A significant number also strays into cities in search of livelihood while another section resorts to criminal activities.
Lack of education and training, poor or stagnant agricultural growth owing to small holdings and fragmentation of land, ignorance about scientific and modern means of agriculture and absence of subsidiary and other village industries have aggravated the situation further.
West Bengal’s districts bordering Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan are porous. Consequently, the North 24-Parganas, Nadia, Murshidabad, Malda, North and South Dinajpur, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar are prone to illegal migration. It is learnt that the state home department is mulling skill-development programmes particularly for the people from these districts to prevent their involvement in illegal activities like drug trafficking and arms smuggling. The Central government has already allotted Rs 160 crore for the purpose under the Border Area Development Programme scheme. However, the initiative seems to be a short-term, piecemeal solution, given the complex nature of the problems in poverty-stricken rural Bengal.
However, the crisis in Bengal’s border districts should not be considered in isolation for two reasons. Firstly, information about and physical communication among such places have become much easier. Secondly, the degeneration of the social development apparatus is apparent across the rural belt, albeit in varying degrees.
The Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry in association with the government of West Bengal announced its mission to set up skill-development programmes in the state a year ago. The entire project, reportedly, is still in the midst of a consultative process and, therefore, is yet to be firmed up. Various measures advocated and adopted earlier through vocational education, skill development, and so on, primarily focused on employability of the urban youth and not so much on the rural folk. Unfortunately, a significant section of Bengal’s population even in the 21st century believes that physical labour suits the lower strata. Academicians feel uncomfortable while dealing with such issues. Besides, there seems to be a planned strategy to discourage certified individuals from vocational institutes. This is evident from the fact that builders prefer unqualified masons over certified members of the community as the former is easily available and charge a much lesser price. Untrained mashis are preferred over trained ayahs for the same reason. Hence, most of the attempts mentioned earlier yielded little or no result.
It is an established fact that the organized sectors can hardly absorb 10 per cent of the workforce. Apart from inculcating requisite stream-specific skills, the youth would also have to hone courage and confidence for the optimization of opportunities. This is where education comes into play as it helps foster attitudinal skills in the youth.
Under the circumstances, the solution lies in a thoughtful analysis of the critical manifestations of the problem. This has to be followed by the drawing up of precise measures and holistic action promoting social inclusion and justice.
The remedy to the ills of rural Bengal could be found in building up youth power for promotion for rural agricultural, industrial and service enterprises. Given the large number of the rural population, its geographical spread, the diversity of culture, language and local resources, the panchayat emerges as the only institutional framework with the potential to implement the programme, ‘PRAISE’, in collaboration with the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education or the West Bengal State Council of Vocational Education & Training. This partnership is important to facilitate learning opportunities for the youth, more so in an era of expanding technology and ever increasing demand for skilled manpower.
Structure of PRAISE: The first and foremost task is to create an enterprise-based learning facility in every panchayat. Village enterprises could be of three types, namely land and water based (a green house and soil testing facility will help promote agriculture), engineering-service based (a fabrication workshop and motorcycle-service laboratory will find a market within the panchayat) and social-service based (computerized accounting facility and community health care). The duration of each stream-oriented course at the learning facility centre should be of two years. Each stream will include a set of generic skills along with necessary supportive inputs for initiating an enterprise. Accreditation to such vocational courses from the state board or council is important for wider acceptance and financing institutions and employers.
Three panchayats will form a cluster to provide training in all three learning streams, with students choosing one according to his/her aptitude. Since enterprise training requires hands-on experience, the panchayat should provide that opportunity for mutual benefits. The centre ought to run an enterprise with marginal support from the government.
Requisite resources: Each panchayat will require a high school with a well-designed workshop, and at least one trained person to provide direction for a balanced growth of cognitive and motor powers. This should not be difficult as much of the infrastructure already exists and individuals could either be trained further or hired on a contractual basis.
The laboratories could be built by non-government organizations committed to rural youth development through corporate social responsibility. Public-private partnerships could also be explored so as not to burden the state exchequer.
The curriculum should be drawn under the guidance of the National Vocational Qualification Education Framework and of institutes like Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India (Ahmedabad), Society for Rural Industrialization (Ranchi) and Pradan (New Delhi). Each centre is to earn for material, tools and stipends for trainer-helpers from services rendered through the panchayat.
Joint effort of panchayat and WBBSE or WBSCVET: The course should be included as a subject in secondary education. Students can opt for a core or an additional subject within the rules of the board. Dropouts can opt for only one stream of enterprise learning and receive a nationally-approved certificate of competence. Being in school gives students an identity. Such efforts will inspire the youth to continue with their education. The panchayat will also get quality support for development
Outcome: Trained youth will be able to take advantage of the work opportunities coming their way. The project would help in poverty alleviation, leading to an improvement in the law and order situation. It would also help fortify panchayat functioning. Finally, the proposed initiative coupled with infrastructural support would lead to an environment enticing corporates to invest in panchayat areas.
An attempt has been made to throw light on the roots of contemporary social and ecological problems. Ways and means, such as the ones delineated above, are not exactly unknown. But they have not been applied on account of barriers inherent in the system. However, a number of ideas have germinated across the forum. The state government must act on them for the advancement of the rural population to stave off the hideous possibility of explosive situations.