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India's rural job portals covering new grounds

21 October 2009

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A wide range of rural job portals, offering employment opportunities to villagers, are increasingly becoming popular in India. As part of public-private partnership, these are also providing skill building services to young men and women.

A few years ago, a job portal for rural India would have been unthinkable. Internet penetration was extremely low – even today, there are only 12.8 million Internet subscribers among the country's 1.2 billion people, according to the Internet Service Providers Association of India.

Image credits: BPO Voice/ Local women working in a BPO in India

What's more, a study by market research firm IMRB International found that there were 45.3 million active Internet users as of September 2008, of which 42 million were urban. Even given a growth rate of 30%, the rural numbers wouldn't look very exciting today.

Yet several rural job portals have been launched over recent years. At the forefront was ruralnaukri.com, which began in 2001 by advertising job opportunities at corporate and non-governmental organisations in rural areas (see "Ruralnaukri.com's Ajay Gupta: 'Rural Jobs Can Provide Momentum to the Wheel of the Economy"). Its founder and CEO, Ajay Gupta, more recently went on to launch villagenaukri.com for village youth looking for jobs in urban areas.

These sites are now facing growing competition from established companies such as ITC, the tobacco and fast-moving consumer goods giant.

ITC has partnered with global online employment firm Monster to set up rozgarduniya.com (roughly translated from Hindi as "employment world").

"I believe this market will grow explosively in a couple of years," says S. Sivakumar, chief executive of ITC's agribusiness division, which is spearheading the rozgarduniya initiative. Sanjay Modi, managing director of Monster in India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, adds:

"We believe in the potential of rural India. Its hour has arrived"

"Rozgarduniya will act as a catalyst and play an instrumental role in the government's vision of inclusive growth in India."

Another competitor is Srei Sahaj e-Village, a subsidiary of Srei Infrastructure Finance, which recently launched chaakri.in. (Chaakri means "job" or "livelihood.") "We believe in the potential of rural India. Its hour has arrived," the portal's CEO, Sabahat Azim, says.

For-profit firsts

Rural jobs have been in focus for some time. In 2006, the Union government set up a large programme under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), promising 100 days of employment per year to rural households. The programme was launched in 200 districts and has gradually been extended to the entire country.

In the recent Union Budget, expenditure under the NREGA was increased 144% to US$8 billion and the minimum wage was set at around US$2 a day. According to the Ministry of Rural Development statistics, the NREGA programmes have already provided jobs to 30 million families.

There have been other endeavours involving non-governmental organisations (see "A Fresh Start: How a Public-private Programme Is Helping Rural Job Seekers Find a Brighter Future").

But with rozgarduniya and Srei Sahaj e-Village, this is the first time that the corporate sector is getting into this arena, with for-profit models.

"Charity does not work here," says Azim of Srei Sahaj. "People don't value something they get for free."

"This is a for-profit venture," states Sivakumar of ITC. "We get a share of the revenues generated through the business. Currently, employers pay -- as is the case in Monster's traditional model … for posting job advertisements, access to [our] database and advertisements. In due course, we will also explore delivering certain value-added services to jobseekers and charge them."

ITC and Srei also bring infrastructure to the table. ITC will leverage its large network of e-Choupals, the village-based Internet kiosks that have become a key grassroots component of local supply chain management since they were launched in 2000 (see "Marketing to Rural India:

Making the Ends Meet"). "We have over 6,500 e-Choupals in 100 districts, spread across 10 states," says Sivakumar.

"While we have operationalised 10 districts in the pilot phase [of rozgarduniya], we intend to expand to 5,000 e-Choupals in 80 districts very rapidly, [with] the key states being Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra."

Why the partnership with Monster? "First, our missions match," Sivakumar notes.

"ITC e-Choupal's mission is to improve the quality of life in rural India. Monster Worldwide, the parent company of Monster India, is striving to inspire people to improve their lives. With a local presence in key markets in North America, Europe and Asia, Monster [connects] employers with quality jobseekers at all levels and [provides] personalised career advice to consumers globally…. We are able to build a winning solution for rural India, which leverages the capability of Monster in the employment solution space and ITC e-Choupal in the service delivery space."

Srei's backbone, on the other hand, is a network of common service centers (CSCs) in public-private partnership with the central government and seven state governments. Some 15,000 CSCs are already up and running, more than halfway to its goal of eventually opening 27,000.

"Our scale is huge," says Azim. "This is possibly the largest such network in the world."

Each CSC is run by an entrepreneur who is required to contribute 25% of the US$3,000 start-up costs. Srei provides the communications infrastructure. "To start with, a host of business-to-consumer services [such as railway bookings, banking services, insurance services and prepaid mobile account refills] will be rolled out," Azim notes.

"These will generate quick revenue for a village-level entrepreneur. In the next stage, we will start government-to-consumer services" such as issuing birth and death certificates. Srei has also enlisted the help of banks to provide loans and financial advice to the entrepreneurs.

On the employment front, Srei starts by finding vacant jobs. Next, it locates the candidates, helping them to fill any skills gaps through its Sahaj Academies. The customer-facing operations of the academies are run from CSC premises.

"We are building an ecosystem in education"

Some 50 academies are ready to go, while another 50 CSCs are moving to larger premises to accommodate the demand for these services.

The centres enroll students, collect fees and provide the infrastructure. (Often, the CSCs have the only computer and Internet connection in a village.) The model is based on e-learning: From a virtual studio, teachers provide lessons which are broadcast to the CSC classrooms. Students then receive hands-on training through, for example, local apprenticeships.

"We are building an ecosystem in education," says Azim.

Ruralnaukri.com focuses heavily on training. The portal is partnering with training provider Franklin Covey South Asia to offer programmes teaching a wide range of soft skills, including basic English and etiquette.

Then there is the Ruralnaukri Institute of Agribusiness Management, which aims to increase the managerial capacity of agribusiness professionals in rural India, targeting a different audience than Sahaj centers.

Rozgarduniya has similar plans. "ITC e-Choupal will partner with appropriate service providers to bring … skills-building services to rural India to complement rozgarduniya," says Sivakumar.

The website, which has just been launched, "will be run as a pilot for about three months to refine business processes, after which we're planning a rollout across all the e-Choupals. At this time, we hope to source 10 candidates with relevant qualifications for every job. And every job seeker should find at least one relevant job suiting his profile."

What will keep these portals going are both demand and the fact that they are in the business to make money. Azim notes that without a focus on making a profit, people lose enthusiasm -- as can happen, for example, with government programmes.

"Each activity of ours must be profitable. The offline revenue is earned by the entrepreneurs, while Srei earns from online revenues. This joint sharing makes the system sustainable and widens its influence for the benefit of all. A number of the Sahaj centers earn more than US$1,000 a month."

Srei's initial plan was to invest US$60 million, with the final half currently being spent. At least another US$100 million will be invested over the next three years.

The numbers are impressive. At Srei, some 25,000 rural youth have been placed so far in jobs in cities. That may sound like a lot for a business that is still in launch phase, but Azim points out that, with 15,000 centres, that's barely two per CSC.

Parallel Universes

But even if the employment exchanges have failed, isn't the government doing enough through the NREGA? "They are servicing parallel universes," says Sabharwal. "The NREGA, in its current form, is only applicable and attractive to unskilled labour."

Yet neither the NREGA nor the job portals are an answer in and of themselves for India's rural unemployment problems. "Ultimately [the solution] would be in sustained long-term growth of the economy," says Chakrabarti. "If India grows at 9%-plus rates for two decades, benefits just have to spread out and the rural-urban divide will be largely gone in 10 to 15 years.

People will have to move away from agriculture, but that should happen voluntarily rather than by land grab of cultivable land by industry and special economic zones (SEZs). That spawns unrest."

Meanwhile, the state has "to create opportunities through incentives for setting up SEZs and agri-based industries in rural areas," says Balakrishnan of Adecco. The Union cabinet approved a National Policy on Skill Development on February 23 this year, which, too, could go some way towards alleviating rural unemployment.

"But all these initiatives need to be sustained over the long term to bear fruit."

"The only long-term solution is to make rural areas a better habitat for job creation," notes Sabharwal of TeamLease.

"In the short run, we can't take jobs to people so we will have to take people to jobs -- migration. The current infrastructure deficit reinforces an already skewed geography of work by amplifying job clustering to existing cities rather than creating new ones. India has only 34 cities with more than one million people but has 600,000 villages, of which 200,000 have less than 200 people. The only sustainable, long-term solutions lie in an integrated approach to the 3Es -- education, employability and employment -- that will arise from the reform of current regimes in infrastructure, education, skill development and labour laws."

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