Catering to the aspirations of frontline workers to ensure water security for rural India

The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the need to create jobs locally. This intersects with the water sector's need for local management. How do we create meaningful opportunities to address the aspirations of the local talent pool and make them discoverable?

Most community resource persons (CRPs) working on water issues across the country today are engaged either on a contractual or voluntary basis. They are not recognized for their knowledge and skills and have to struggle to get a secure and stable livelihood opportunity and are not compensated adequately. Also, a clear career progression does not exist.

Since most of their aspirations are not met, these first-mile workers are constantly on the lookout for other opportunities to earn a better livelihood, costing the water sector a sustained and dedicated water cadre, which in turn impacts the quality of outcomes of the programmes and interventions they are part of. Juxtapose this against our water situation - 600 million people facing water stress every day and our water supply is expected to meet less than half of demand by 2030 and we have a real problem on our hands.

To solve this conundrum, it is important for the water sector to identify and cater to the aspirations of the CRPs who form the backbone of all water-related interventions across the country.

Insights from programs

Currently, most programs – be it government or donor-supported engage CRPs in their work by selecting them from the communities based on predefined criteria. Some programs provide an honorarium to the CRPs and others engage them as volunteers. Necessary training is imparted to them through resource agencies/experts from CSOs, state and central institutions and other training providers. These efforts are time and resource-intensive and crucial in building capacities of the CRPs and achieving the program outcomes. Every new program invests time and resources to do all of the above, leveraging very little of what already exists leading to inefficient use of the already scarce resources in the sector and eventually delaying program outcomes.

The increasing water stress across the country has brought with it an increased focus on water management from the government, the philanthropic sector, not-for-profit, and for-profit enterprises. This has created an apparent demand for skilled human resources in the water sector. For example, the announcement of the Jal Jeevan Mission has paved the way for engaging CRPs in all villages across the country. However, there is a lack of availability of a trusted supply to cater to this demand creating a skill gap in the sector. 

The issue of a skill gap is not alien in the Indian context and the government has set up a skill development ministry and other independent subsidiary bodies to help bridge such skill gaps across different priority sectors.

There is a need now to bring focus into the water sector and create mechanisms to consolidate demand and make available the requisite supply. This would need multiple stakeholders to be energized and working together for a common goal. 

What needs to be done? 

For the sectoral skill gap to be addressed, programs and other employers in the sector need to come together to quantify the demand across sub-sectors and geographies and collate the skills necessary to perform various functions under them.

There has to be a consensus to address the issue of ensuring a stable income for the first-mile workers and a commitment to mobilize funds necessary for the same.

The regulators for skill development in the sector and the government need to prioritize work on the water sector and create an enabling environment for all stakeholders to contribute. There needs to be a concerted effort to map the skill needs of the sector and create courses and training programmes to address the needs with the help of training providers. 

Training providers need to collaborate to define a common curriculum and create courses to impart the skills that the employers find necessary. They may have to then repurpose existing content or create new content with the focus on learners - first-mile workers in this case. There needs to be a mechanism for training providers to link their trainees to the demand from employers for job opportunities post-training.

Training centres need to be affiliated and accredited by the regulators to conduct the approved courses. The regulators may need to make appropriate policy changes for the sector in order to involve relevant experts and cater to the dynamic capacity building needs of the water sector.

Women being trained in solar engineering at Barefoot College Tilonia (Image: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh; Flickr Commons; CC BY-SA 2.0)The trainees participating in such courses need to be certified and recognition of existing skills and knowledge for practitioners needs to be enabled. The assessment criteria may have to be defined by the regulators with the help of training providers. 

All this needs to be done keeping the learner’s needs at the core such as making practice-oriented content available in easily consumable formats such as videos in relevant contexts and languages. This has to be done in a way that enables building capacities at scale with increased frequency of interactions between learners and experts/trainers and increased transparency through timely, trusted, and verifiable data.

There has to be a trusted, digitally verifiable mechanism for all employers/programs to discover a trained cadre; for the trained cadre to assert their qualifications and keep track of their skill development, and for training providers/regulators to provide proof of training and certificate of skills acquired to the trainees thereby making them discoverable.

What is the pathway to achieving this?

To achieve this, National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) and the designated Sector Skill Councils (SSCs) for water-related work (ASCI/Green Jobs SCI) need to anchor the work and understand the mapping of job-roles and skills required across the water sector and develop relevant qualification packs (QPs) and National Occupational Standards (NOS) leveraging information already available with government and non-government actors in the sector.

Relevant courses and standard curriculum and content then need to be created/ collated from what is being used currently. Assessment criteria for certification also need to be defined next and affiliation/accreditation criteria for experts/resource agencies in the sector need to be drafted. Then, the employers/programs in the sector need to be convened to define the skill demand and agree on a framework for providing a sustained income to the first-mile workers. 

The increased focus of the central and state governments on managing springshed areas across the country provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the value for engaging with the aspirations of the CRPs and enabling local jobs. Leveraging the work of resource organizations that are part of the Springs Initiative on curriculum and content and the interest of the states in the Indian Himalayan Region can lead to faster outcomes.

Similarly, for groundwater management, large scale programs such as Atal Jal (Atal Bhujal Yojana) or the Jal Jeevan Mission provide the enabling environment and the framework for engaging with CRPs. Building on top of the program guidelines to systematically build skills of the CRPs and provide local jobs will ensure the success of these programs and the ones to come after these.

There is a need to reimagine the landscape of engaging CRPs in the water sector. To put their aspirations at the centre, provide them with local jobs, formalize them and build their capabilities to excel at it leading to better water management at the community level and eventually to water security for all.

The current situation due to Covid-19 has shown us the need for creating local jobs and the impact CRPs can have in responding to disasters as well as in managing community-level interventions. This provides a perfect opportunity for the sector to act and demonstrate how multi-stakeholder collaborations can create sustainable impact.

 

Gurudutt Ramchandra is Manager Solutions at Arghyam and has over 5+ years of diverse experience across for-profit and for-impact sectors. Prior to Arghyam, he has worked at Mu Sigma helping evangelise data-driven decision making in client organisations; at Samagra helping transform skilling and employment ecosystems in the Indian state of Haryana.