Till three years ago, K. Surendran and T.P. Leena depended on their not-so-profitable small shop and occasional odd jobs to run their family. Now, they are among the sought-after coconut pluckers in Kozhikode city. They owe this change in fortune to the Swabhiman project, a service-on-call initiative established in 2009 by the district administration to generate employment and provide skilled labour for household needs.

“We are not traditional coconut pluckers. We were trained to operate the plucking machine. Now both of us work daily and there is steady income,” says Mr. Surendran.

The project also provides labour for electrical work, plumbing, electronic goods repair, refrigerator and AC maintenance, gas stove repair and carpentry. The services are available at an SMS or a request on the Swabhiman website. P. Arjun is the youngest of the lot, who juggles his gas stove repairing work and studies. “I take night classes for my polytechnic course and work in the daytime,” he says.

There are 93 workers across the seven services, with the maximum, 40, employed in coconut plucking. They take up projects in households as well as offices. Five per cent of the worker’s payment goes to Swabhiman Trust, which does charitable work. The payment is a minimum of Rs.200 for all work except for coconut plucking, for which the charge is Rs.25 a tree. “There is a severe shortage of coconut pluckers and we are struggling to meet the demand. In other trades, we have enough people,” says P. Chandrasekharan Nair, project coordinator.

But the picture is not all rosy. The website www.swabhiman.gov.in welcomes visitors with a map of Kerala having links for each district, a reflection of the lofty plans when it started out. But barring Kozhikode, clicks on the other districts produce the message ‘Service is not yet started’. What was envisaged as a State-wide model is yet to cross the borders of the district. Even in the district, the service is limited to one unit in the city and another in Vadakara.

“There have been enquiries from four or five districts on the project. But it is yet to be replicated. We have plans to expand our expertise by including painting and masonry,” says Mr. Chandrasekharan.

Workers say that proper marketing could do the project a world of good. “It is hard to make an impact without marketing. The government should take the project to the next level. The members bring in work they get in their individual capacity to the Swabhiman fold. The flow of requests from online and SMS has been less,” says a worker on condition of anonymity.

Mr. Chandrasekharan disagrees. “We did market well within our limited budget, using posters and newspaper advertisements. We got good response too. Swabhiman is now registered as a society. So it has an independent status, even though it was started by the district administration,” says Mr. Chandrasekharan.

With most of our cities experiencing severe labour shortage in recent years, this is one project that is waiting to be implemented on a wider scale.

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