What’s in a Skill? Read Abby’s article…

Did you know India has 31 skill development councils ranging from aerospace to weaving to sports? Or that there’s a governmental agency focused on skilling?

Before joining Reaching Hand, I’d never heard “skilling” used as a verb nor heard of phrases such as the “skill gap.” However, now I have become keenly aware of the skill lingo and challenges associated with it. This skill gap arises as each year over 15 million Indian youth enter the workforce but over 75% are not job-ready. This will lead a need for over 700 million skilled workers by 2022 to meet industry needs. Each year approximately 7 lakh (700,000) engineers graduate from college in India, however only 5 percent are skilled for employment. In order to overcome this deficit, Prime Minister Modi introduced the Skill India scheme, which includes the National Skill Development Mission and aims to skill at least 400 million people in India by 2022. [1] Skilling in India can range from BPOs (call centers) in rural India that provide customer care for cell phone carriers in local languages to beautician and tailoring services in big cities.

At Reaching Hand, we view the skills gap as not only an employability issue, but seek to create a more gender-just and environmentally friendly society as well. We have three centers mainly focused on English, Retail, Work Skills, and Basic Computers. Recently we have also started Steer to Change, a program to teach women driving and place them in cab services, particularly for corporates and PAC, a paper bag-making program as plastic bags are illegal in Bangalore. Particularly in our women’s driving program, we are defying gender norms and aim to create a society where it is equally common for women to drive for corporates and cab services as it is for men.

Volunteers from Mu Sigma speaking about communication and interviewing skills
Volunteers from Mu Sigma speaking about communication and interviewing skills.
During the past 5 months I’ve been at Reaching Hand, I’ve noticed one of the biggest challenges in skilling is teaching soft skills. While students may have an abundance of technical knowledge and language skills, the most important part is supplementing this expertise by building skills related to self-esteem and confidence. However, these skills are arguably the hardest to teach, requiring the most one-on-one attention and finesse. For the majority of jobs, students will have to attend an interview, which certainly requires a sense of personality development and confidence. In fact, this is a large reason why there is such a large percentage of people who are deemed unskilled. As an effort to help close this gap, I started organizing workshops for our students through corporate volunteers on topics such as interviewing, internet searching, and retail. By merely engaging with students, encouraging them to speak up and express their own opinions, they have grown tremendously.

When teaching and assessing the impact of soft skills on students, one student – Ashwini – particularly stands out. I attended Ashwini’s first interview where she was too timid and quiet to engage with a recruiter. Over the next month, trainers worked with her in order to build up her confidence. Last week, I attended another of Ashwini’s interviews where she demonstrated a much more confident demeanor and landed a job at a large retail chain! I believe centers like ours have a place, particularly for those to whom higher education may be unaffordable or inaccessible. But, unemployment isn’t limited to those who didn’t have the opportunity to pursue higher education. Soft skills and market-aligned training are equally important to those with degrees. In addition to skills centers, I believe India will need to increase their market-aligned training in technical knowledge and soft skills across institutes of higher learning in order to meet the needs of a growing economy.

[1] Duggal, Sanjeev. “Bridge the Skills Gap.” The Hindu, 7 Aug 2016. Web. http://www.thehindu.com/features/education/Bridge-the-skills-gap/article14556912.ece

Poop as a Social Construct: Read Deepa Patil’s article

There is no particularly pleasant word to describe the waste that leaves our bowels after digestion. Faeces. Excreta. Stool. Poop. Composed of varying proportions of bacterial biomass, protein or nitrogenous matter, carbohydrate or undigested plant matter and fat, human faeces is essentially a rich blend of organic solids and water. The remaining solids consist of calcium and iron phosphates, intestinal secretions, small amounts of dried epithelial cells and mucus [1]. Everywhere in the world, it is deplored for the signature foul smell of its odorous volatiles that are derived from the decomposition of sulfur-containing amino acids. And its range of colours, shapes and consistencies are disgusting at best. Poop is clearly a physical, biological construct. In India, it is also a social construct.

The social connotations of poop are a consequence of the country’s lamentable experience with manual scavenging. Manual scavenging refers to the process of manually carrying, disposing and any sort of handling of human waste from sewers and pit latrines. This human waste is often handled with only the simplest of tools (i.e. flimsy brooms and buckets), without any protective safety or sanitation gear. In fact, manual scavengers commonly use their bare hands to empty filled pits and clean clogged sewers and then transport the waste on their heads to dumping grounds. It is an inhuman occupation that people are forced into without any other opportunities for livelihood, exposing themselves to infection and indignity.

But the deepest evil of manual scavenging is its strong correspondence with caste-based discrimination. Generation after generation, members of oppressed castes were employed only as manual scavengers and rejected from any other employment, not to mention any other social participation [2, 3]. Some legislative progress has been made regarding this injustice. In 1993, Parliament enacted the Employment Of Manual Scavengers And Construction Of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. This was reinforced by the more comprehensive Prohibition Of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act in 2013. The reality, however, is that the practice of manual scavenging continues in rural and urban settings around the country today.

While the condemnation of manual scavenging is unquestionable, there is one key disadvantage to the nonspecific rejection of all forms of human management of waste collection pits. Urine-diverting dry toilets (UDDTs), for example, offer an environmentally-friendly sanitation alternative in many areas around the country that lack sufficient access to water or have a high risk of surface water and groundwater contamination. Once the urine is diverted, the solid waste is collected in pits for several months until it is entirely composted. UDDTs are one model of EcoSan toilets, named for basing their design on the concept and movement of ecological sanitation – the desire to close the loop between human excreta and agriculture. EcoSan toilets can reduce water use, effectively manage faecal sludge and even promote livelihoods, lowering compost costs for farmers and providing employment to the people who sell the compost.

What remains is an apparent conflict between environmental progress and social progress. Some believe the connection between EcoSan toilets and manual scavenging is too strong [4]. After all, someone would have to collect and transport the resulting compost. That and the general disdain for human waste may prevent EcoSan toilets from being accepted by the Indian mainstream. Others deny the similarity, since the faeces is processed and treated until it is unrecognizable as such, and EcoSan compost management can require high safety and sanitation standards to protect workers. Moreover, the greatest immorality of manual scavenging is that it forces this work on one specific community, relying on caste-based and religious tradition to validate discrimination. Though idealistic, the burdens of managing and maintaining EcoSan toilets and compost can be distributed fairly within a community [5].

I do not know what is more troubling: promoting a system that is well-intentioned but reminiscent of the human indignity and oppressive reality of manual scavenging, or the environmental devastation and corresponding human suffering that will result without ecologically-sound, sustainable sanitation solutions. Perhaps there is not a generalizable conclusion of what ends to prioritize. In fact, the ends do not appear to have any contradiction at all. It is the means to achieve social justice and ecological sanitation that must be reconciled.


[1] Rose, C., Parker, A., Jefferson, B., Cartmell, E. (2015). “The Characterization of Feces and Urine: A Review of the Literature to Inform Advanced Treatment Technology.” Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology. 45 (17): 1827–79.

[2] A friend recently recommended this Tamil documentary by Divya Bharathi to better understand the caste-based oppression of manual scavenging.

[3] For a background on caste in India, many refer to Dr. BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste. I suggest reading Arundhati Roy’s introduction, The Doctor and the Saint, as well.

[4] At a conference I recently attended, Vishwanath Srikantaiah, director of the Bangalore-based, ecologically-minded design firm, Biome, spoke to the impracticality of mainstreaming EcoSan toilets in India. While undoubtedly theoretically superior to current sanitation systems, he does not think they will stick beyond a niche community of environmentalists.

[5] I heard Santa Sheela Nair, a former Tamil Nadu bureaucrat, say that the environmentalist and sanitation community of academic, public, corporate and social sector leaders have a responsibility to advocate for the potential of EcoSan regardless of what we believe may be acceptable in communities. There is a reason why EcoSan toilets are not banned under the relevant 1993 and 2013 legislation – it is not manual scavenging. Nair urged us not to be disillusioned by what seems in line with community norms. After all, if norms were never questioned and challenged, manual scavenging may have still been legal today.

The article was first published here http://aif.org/2017/04/poop-as-a-social-construct/ on April 25, 2017


A story that can touch your heart. Life is all about giving


Girl child


The date for TCS W 10k is fast approaching. In our own little and big ways, we are trying our level best to raise money for a cause.

At this juncture, we believe this is a story worth sharing. In fact, it is not a story but an experience to cherish. Merlin – one of our team members – It is her story.

One day she was waiting for an auto-rickshaw to go home. She says she always prefer autos which are painted in green purely because they are comfortable. But on that day, she got a rickety one – all tattered. It was then, she received a call from one of her friends in Mumbai. She wants to know about Girls’ Glory and TCS W 10k. Merlin was explaining to her in Hindi.

After a few minutes, she got down in front of her house, paid the man the auto – fare and was about to go to her house when the auto-driver beckoned her. He was about 70.

To her surprise, he held out his hand with a fistful of money. It comprised mainly of coins. It would hardly come around  ₹ 200.

He told her “This is all I have. People do not prefer my rickety auto. Hence, I could hardly earn ₹200 a day.  I have heard you speaking about something where you need money for girls’ education. I have eight daughters and one son. I cannot send my daughters to school because I could not afford it. If this money could be of any help to support a child’s education, I will be gratified,”

Merlin says she was stumped and overwhelmed by the old man’s generosity and tears were rolling down her cheeks. “That’s hard-earned money that came with a lot of blessing. I decided to keep the money handed over by him as my treasured possession. Of course, I will give the equal amount from my money. But this one is mine.” She says with tears in her eyes when she recalled it.

“I asked his name. But he was not even ready to disclose his name,” she adds.

Her experience tells the truth. To give you need a big heart – A KIND HEART THAT EXPECTS NOTHING.

Best of Luck for each and every one who are out there to raise money for a cause.


Women with a Vision: Celebrating International Women’s Day 2017


Article by Abigail Terhaar, Clinton Fellow 

I grew up in a family of pioneering women, in a state, which was ranked as the 49th lowest performing state for women in the U.S. (out of 50). Less than 24 percent of women from Louisiana go on to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher[1] and at 12.5% we have the lowest percentage of women in our state legislature. But despite these indicators, there’s my maternal grandmother who worked as a nurse with her BSN, my paternal grandmother who has her Ph.D., and my mom who ran her own business. I recently learned that my great grandmother was the first person in her family to go to college and later abruptly left her small-town one school district as a teacher when she found out she wasn’t being paid equal to men. It was two women, Ms. Kelsey, my high school English teacher and Dr. Vanessa Bouche, one of my college professors who inspired me work internationally. I even chose my college major because of a woman, Senator Landrieu, who through a chance meeting when I was 8 years old ignited my interest in politics. I was lucky, despite coming from a location where statistically most women don’t graduate from college, for my family it was a priority and I didn’t face obstacles to receiving an education.


Before coming to India, I had only vaguely heard of International Women’s Day. However, upon the first March 8th I spent here, I realized that it was quite the celebration. Here, the women who inspire me most are the ones who may seem ordinary to some but are revolutionary in their families and communities. There’s my coworker, Shalet, who was the first person in her family to graduate from college and became a senior reporter at The New Indian Express before joining the NGO sector. Kalyani*, one of our students who was married at age 11 and has joined our center at age 30 in hopes of taking up her first job. Kavitha*, one of our interns, who despite familial pressures to not work and get married, worked at a large software company and is now pursuing her MBA.

In honor of this International Women’s Day, I was privileged to participate in a “roadshow” or march organized by one of our skills training centers to spread awareness about education women and about our program to develop skills and employ young adults. Carrying a loudspeaker playing Kannada tunes and proclaiming messages of equal education for women, we traversed the neighborhood, distributed roses and received quite a few smiles and well wishes in return. One women’s rights enthusiast we met, Mr. Leslie proclaimed, “Women are the best part of the country, if they are not coming forward, than the country will go backwards. You have to give full respect to women; they are the ones who brought people into the world. That’s the main thing!” Throughout my life and across the world, I have been fortunate to interact with numerous inspirational women and also men who champion the cause.

To see our Women’s Day roadshow in action, watch the video below:



[1] “STATUS OF WOMEN IN THE STATES” Institute For Women’s Policy Research (2015) Web. https://statusofwomendata.org/explore-the-data/state-data/louisiana/

*Names changed for confidentially reasons

The blog was first published in http://aif.org/2017/03/women-with-a-vision-celebrating-international-womens-day-2017/

Volunteering – Pratishtha workshop on ‘ Effective Internet Search’

 “If our hopes of building a better and safer world are to become more than wishful thinking, we will need the engagement of volunteers more than ever”– Kofi AnnanKshitij 1

Kshitij Agarwal is a busy professional working with Intel but his commitment towards a good cause made him a volunteer. To help the students of Pratishtha, the skill development training centre of Reaching Hand, he volunteered to lead a workshop called “ Effective Internet Search” on March 18, 2017.


The sessions covered tips for Google searching, identifying fake information on the internet and utilizing online tools for daily life such as booking bus and train tickets.

He also showed the students how to edit a ‘Wikipedia’ page and asked not to trust everything they read online. In order to verify information, he told students to check multiple sources and see if they match.

His power point presentation showed live Google searches to refine results and help students find the information they need online. Kshitij made sure of the students’ involvement by asking them to do several tasks online especially, asking them to book a train or bus to the destination of their choice and consult multiple websites to find the fastest and cheapest option. This was done using tablets and students’ smartphones.

The students remarked that the workshop was of immense help as they have now learned to check multiple sources online.