The Skill Valley : Real Entrepreneurs of Odisha

Last Saturday, I got the opportunity to hear Subroto Bagchi speak on the issue of Skill Odisha. I had woken up late and consequently missed school and was looking forward to Mr Shashi Tharoor’s speech at KIIT University in the evening. I was completely unaware of Mr Bagchi’s work and was naïve about his pledge to make Odisha skilled. It was my friend’s father who suggested we go watch him speak and even went to the extent of saying, his talk would be better than my idol, Tharoor’s . More intrigued than interested we decided to get dressed and leave for the venue.

Subroto Bagchi was born in Patnagarh, Odisha and spent his childhood in the tribal villages here. Maybe that explains his resolve for this cause. He started working as a clerk in a government office in Odisha. Things changes when Bagchi joined the then burgeoning IT industry and rose through corporate ranks to head Mindtree a 500 million dollar company. Bagchi is the author of numerous best selling books, notable among them- Go Kiss the World, is an account of his own struggles. The nomenclature is based on his mothers words on her sick bed. When Bagchi was offered an opportunity to go abroad, he sat down by his mother and in a dilemma, kissed her. His mother, who understood his inner strife, asked him why he was kissing her and not kissing the world instead. So was born, the idea of the bestselling book.

Today Bagchi heads the Odisha Skill Development Authority and has relinquished his ties to the IT industry and his Corporate captain-ship. Working for an honorarium of Rs 1 a month, Bagchi is striving to make his home state and its youth skilled and ready for the world.

He began by talking about his experience in Odisha and his long journey across the 30 districts which Odisha comprises of. On his quest to find the impediments that keep Odisha backward, he visited various vocational training institutions mostly set up by the state government. Bagchi says he was in the least appalled by the state of affairs.

In a skill development incubator in one of the backward districts, Bagchi encountered students sleeping on the mud, under a plastic roof. In another location, 12 girls shared one room and a single washroom, both of which were in a dilapidated condition. But in this quagmire of mismanagement and poverty there was hope.

On his visit to ITI’s(Institutes which offer vocational training like mechanics, sewing, masonry etc, not to be confused with IIT’s), the principals boasted about their sprawling campus, about using 3 phase power supplies and about their courses. Bagchi asked them to talk about 10 students, 6 of whom have left Odisha or their home district to find work elsewhere, 2 of whom have set up their own enterprise and  4 girls who had made it big. The principals mostly fumbled and were unable to come up with answers. Some did and those for Bagchi, became the role models of his life

  1. Munni Tigga – Munni Tigga is an adivasi girl, whose father the sole breadwinner died when she was young. Tigga took it up on herself to make ends meet. To do that, she realized she needed to make herself skilled first. Her hunger(literal hunger) drove her to ITI, Bargarh, where she learned locomotive driving. Today Munni Tigga works for the Indian Railways. When Bagchi contacted her, and asked her what she does, she said “ Mun Shatabdi express ku Bhubaneshwar ru Palasa tani kari nie au puni phereikari ane” ( I drag the Shatabdi express all the way to Palasa and then bring it back). Bagchi says he was mesmerized by her willpower and told her “Dine mote Bhubaneshwar ru Berhampur engine re basei anidebu” (Drive me from Bhubaneshwar to Berhampur someday”)(Odisha’s first  woman locomotive pilot)
  2. Nuna Ram Hansda- Nuna was born to parents who were potters and struggled to make ends meet. Much like Muni, Nuna found himself in ITI Rourkela. Today Nuna works as a shift incharge in the insulin assembly line of Biocon in Bangalore. From pots to insulins, Nuna has come a long way.
  3. 6 girls at Deen Dayal Upadhya Skill Center- These girls were learning masonry at the center in Bhawanipatna. Masonry, compared to other skills is arduous to learn and practice. Bagchi presumed they must belong to big families. One of the girls, Sandhya Rani Nimyal, looked him in the eye and said “ Mun Bapa Ma nka gote jhia, jiddi kariki asichi rajamistri kama sikhibi” ( I am my parents only offspring, I came here against their will to learn masonry). Bagchi was startled by her conviction. A few months later, overcome by fatherly love( Bagchi says he has two daughters and he could not contain himself) he asked his office to enquire the whereabouts of Sandhya. Much to his surprise today, Sandhya is a part of a huge project in a metropolitan city and heads a bunch of men.
  4. Surendra Sahu – Surendra Sahu is a small farmer who runs a nursery on one acre of rented land and is quite successful. Surendra came from a humble family, and used to grow flowers in his backyard when he was 16. One day a passerby admired his work and asked him to go sell them at a nearby Biraja Mandira. Any kid at that age would have paid no heed to the advice and would have gone out to play cricket instead. But Sahu obliged. He developed contacts with flower vendors,one of whom asked him to accompany them on a trip to Kolkata to learn grafting, which was widely practiced there. Again any kid his age would have eaten rasogollas , visited the Victoria Memorial, admired colonial architecture and would have come back. But Sahu enquired about grafting at length talked to farmers there and successfully emulated the practice back home. Today Sahu dominates the local market for flowers and vendors don’t travel to Kolkata anymore.
  5. Anita- Anita comes from my home town, Berhampur. Married at 18, widowed at 19, Anita had lost all her identity. But resilience in the face of desprair, is the only strength of the poor. Anita went to ITI, Berhampur and embraced skill training. Today she employs 8 people at her workshop.

The aforementioned stories are not only inspiring, but astounding, says Bagchi. We talk about startups and funding, and here are a bunch of people, whose only funding was hardwork and their only venture capitalist, was skill education. Bagchi also made another crucial point about us upper middle class looking down upon these apparently small achievements of the middle and lower class, who are not fortunate enough to get an academic education. “From where they stand” says Bagchi “these achievements are nothing short of finding a fortune 500 company”.

Bagchi received numerous congratulatory and laudatory calls from other affluent Odias, on his new endeavour. One of then told him he was pretty experienced in this field and could help him if he wanted. When Bagchi asked about his field of expertise, the gentleman said “Arre, all the labour class stuff you are doing”. Bagchi said he would speak to him when he stopped calling them ‘ labour class’ , the gentleman apologized, but the point is our apathy to those less fortunate than us is shocking.

Bagchi says, Skill development is about human transformation, the less fortunate don’t need out sympathy they need our respect and our trust. Let respect be their Initial Public Offering.



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