In a booming economy that is crying out for skilled workers, India’s corporates take baby steps in including disadvantaged groups. With a potential work force of 30 million people with disabilities, the challenge is to match up talent and jobs – and fight stigma in the process.

Source: INSP, 20 February 2012

The UN predicts that by 2030 the towns and cities of the developing world will make up 81 per cent of urban humanity. Disparity between rich and poor citizens in these cities is huge, and bridging these gaps will be one of the biggest challenges of the next century. Last year’s official Census of India statistics showed that Bangalore’s district population alone rose a staggering 47 per cent in just ten years, making it the second fastest growing city in India, after Delhi.

Bangalore, January 2012. Photo: Danielle Batist

Bangalore, January 2012. Photo: Danielle Batist

The reason for the tremendous growth in Bangalore is of course its booming information technology sector. The Indian Institute of Science estimates that Bangalore has about 30 per cent of all IT work force in the country. Global corporations like Infosys, with 60,000 employees moving around a high tech campus in golf carts, have drastically changed the city’s – as well as the country’s – image. American Express released a report in 2007, revealing that Bangalore is home to 10,000 millionaires and 60,000 near-millionaires. At the same time, about a quarter of the city’s 8.4 million citizens still live in slums, with 20 per cent living below the poverty line.

Professor of Economics & Social Sciences Chiranjib Sen, who recently retired from the Indian Institute of Management of Bangalore, says the phenomenal growth has not been inclusive. “Prosperity is very much linked with the IT sector. It is giving rise to a large number of well-paid people in the service sector, but it is not able to integrate large numbers. We have got just 11 per cent of people with higher education, and the skilled work force makes up only 5 per cent of the total. It [the boom] has not led to a great spread of equality.”

Bangalore is home to 10,000 millionaires and 60,000 near-millionaires, yet a quarter of the city’s 8.4 million citizens still live in slums.

One of the main problems with Bangalore’s growth is that it requires a large and relatively highly skilled labour force. The IT sector is creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, but employees need to have an education and the right skill set, including speaking English. The low-end jobs here are call centre agents – not factory workers. Access to the right schooling therefore is crucial in tapping into the job market, which excludes large parts of the city’s population – including those with disabilities. According to a 2007 World Bank report, children living with disability are around 4 to 5 times less likely to be in school than all children from the lowest castes combined. The report concludes that “Disabled adults (…) have far lower employment rates than the general population, even in the midst of economic growth.”

In addition to the education barrier, people with disabilities face other difficulties when attempting to get into the labour market. Discrimination and a lack of physical access stop even well-educated youngsters from getting a job. Leading industry bodies like the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Nasscom are becoming more active in pursuing ‘inclusive’ policies. Interestingly, the change of mindset largely came after disability rights advocates started to present their case as purely commercial. “We are telling them: this is not a matter of CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility]; this is simply a larger talent pool from which you can hire”, says Sebi Chacko, Convenor for CII’s Disability Forum and Steering Committee member of the Nasscom Foundation.

With the global recession only leading to more IT jobs being outsourced to cities like Bangalore, Chacko says his proposals to the big, global employers in the field are increasingly greeted with endorsement. However, he is well-aware that a huge increase in suitable training programmes is needed to help at least some of the 30 million people with physical disabilities into the industry.

The story in The Big Issue Japan magazine, April 2012

The story in The Big Issue Japan magazine, April 2012

The Association of People with Disabilities (APD) is one of the few charities to provide these essential skills trainings. With support from Scottish charity SCIAF, the organisation reaches out to thousands of people in the slums as well as some rural areas around Bangalore. But only a small percentage of them can be given a scholarship for the on-site Information Technology and Office Management courses each year. And despite the charity’s track record of placing dozens of students at companies upon completing the training, there is still a long way to go to bridge the enormous gap.

Sheikh Doulath (31) was one of the lucky few to be selected for a funded training programme. The opportunity, she says, saved her life – literally. Having contracted polio when she was just two years old, Doulath could not walk throughout her childhood. “I come from a very poor family in Andra Pradesh state; there was no money for mobility aids or doctors. I desperately wanted to go to school so my brothers used to carry me. Once I arrived, I had to crawl around. The teachers did not know how to support me, for example when I needed the bathroom. No one else in our town was disabled like me. My brother also had polio, but only in one hand, so he could play just like the other kids. I was bullied a lot and I always felt very lonely.”

“I thought my studies and my suffering had been for nothing and that my life was a waste. I often thought about committing suicide.”

Although she received a pair of callipers at the age of ten, there was still no money for an operation on her legs, meaning the walking aids did not fit properly and caused her intense pain. When an aunt decided to fund a place for her at a government college in Tirupati, Doulath took the opportunity with both hands. “I knew I would not be able to do physical work, so I thought it would be my only chance to ever get a job and be independent.”

Despite studying day and night and lecturers telling her that she would find employment, the reality proved to be different. “I applied for jobs every day, and sometimes I got interviews. But as soon as they found out I have a disability, they said no. Most companies there had never hired anyone with disabilities before. They did not believe someone like me could work.” The three years that followed were to be the worst of Doulath’s life. “I became very depressed. I thought my studies and my suffering had been for nothing and that my life was a waste. I did not want to be a burden. I often thought about committing suicide.”

Ironically, it was an accident of her father that got Doulath out of her own misery. He needed crutches to walk and ended up in a recently opened rural APD centre. They asked about his family situation and he told them about his daughter. “When they offered him a placement for me in their training centre in Bangalore, he said no as he could not afford it”, Doulath recalls. “When they said it would be a funded place on the APD campus, none of us could believe it. He had always been the one encouraging me to study and be independent; my mum just wanted me to get married. When he brought me away to Bangalore, we were both emotional. I had been given a new life.”

Doulath’s course in Office Management and a traineeship in the APD office gave her not just skills, but confidence. “Seeing other people with disabilities doing great work made me believe in myself.” Her fast improvements were noticed by the APD staff, who offered her a full time job upon completing the training. With her first savings, she recently managed to take out loan with APD for an adjusted scooter. She now drives from her accommodation to work each day. “Yesterday, I took a friend shopping in the city centre for the first time. If someone had told me a few years ago that I would live independently in Bangalore one day, I would have never believed it.”

As a data entry operator, Doulath is involved in the enrollment of new students to the vocational training programmes. “When I see new girls arriving, all shy and scared, I recognise much of myself in them. To the young ones, I say: ‘I felt just like you, don’t worry.’ To see them grow is the best thing in the world.”