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Why formalised training and placement for plumbers is a must

Bibek Debroy
Skilled training for plumbers is a must (Illustration: rohnit phore/ File)

There was a case in Calcutta High Court in July 1947, an appeal. One Dinesh Chandra Guha is alleged to have effected alteration in the water pipe of his house by persons who are not plumbers licensed by the Municipality. Hence, Mr Guha violated the provisions of municipal laws. The learned Magistrate trying the case has found that the alteration was effected by Dinesh Chandra Guha employing certain Ooriya mistries. The Magistrate also found that the Ooriya mistries were not licensed plumbers. At least in Kolkata, plumbers from Odisha are not a new phenomenon. Migration studies for Kolkata, around the time of Independence, report Oriya workers employed in plumbing, gas and electrical works. There is a suggestion that Muslim plumbers emigrated to East Pakistan after Independence and the vacuum they left was filled by Oriya plumbers. I can t figure out if this was statistically large. In any event, there have been plenty of Oriya plumbers in Kolkata and there are plenty of Oriya plumbers everywhere in India now. Every plumber you encounter seems to be from Odisha. Indeed, one can refine further and say every plumber is from Kendrapara, refine further still and say every plumber is from Pattamundai.

Pattamundai is a tehsil, a block (meaning revenue block) and also an urban local body/municipality. The population of the notified area committee (for our purposes, synonymous with town) of Pattamundai was 36,528 in 2011 Census. Pattamundai tehsil, with 155 villages, had a population of 219,063. There are figures floating around, suggesting 100,000 plumbers from Odisha work in different parts of India, not including those who work abroad, such as in the Middle East. It seems implausible that all of them are from Pattamundai. Indeed, they are not. They are mostly from Kendrapara, but also from tehsils like Aul (population 139,628 in 2011), Rajkanika (140,807) and Rajnagar (163,450). There was a 2015 outmigration study for Odisha and for Kendrapara district, it gave an outmigration rate (defined as percentage of households who had a migrant) of 47%, an absolute figure of 143,782. True, all of them aren t plumbers. But the migration study also said they were generally skilled workers in construction, especially plumbers and masons. Therefore, the 100,000 figure is believable. Why are there so many plumbers from Kendrapara? This is usually ascribed to the State Institute of Plumbing Technology (SIPT) in Pattamundai. But that s at best a partial answer. This was established in 2010 and plumbers from Odisha predate this institute.

You reach a customer s place and he tells you that the sink in his bathroom is draining water at a very slow rate, but tub and toilet are draining normally. Which of the following will you check first to diagnose this problem? (A) I will check if the main drain or the sewer line is blocked causing the water from sink to drain slowly; (B) I will check if the faucet of the bathroom sink is leaking; (C) I will check if the underground piping near the bathroom sink is leaking; (D) I will check if the drain pipe connected to the bathroom sink is clogged. This is from a test Aspiring Minds administered in 2015 to 3,000 plumbers who had already gone through 4-8 weeks of training. Only 43.6% of trained plumbers got the answer right. This question is more about analytical skills, less about plumbing skills. The Aspiring Minds study concluded 80% of candidates possessed knowledge of basic plumbing skills, but 55-66% couldn t handle real-life plumbing problems. At least, these candidates went through some training. Indian Plumbing Skill Council (IPSC) tells us 90% of Indian plumbers don t have formal training. Typically, one joins as a helper. With self-learning and on the job training, one graduates and becomes a plumber and perhaps even a supervisor or foreman. We shouldn t be surprised. This is true of most skill acquisition.

IPSC s estimate is 70% of plumbers come from Kendrapara and there are 800,000 plumbers. If both numbers are correct (I suspect they aren t), you get 560,000 plumbers from Kendrapara, not 100,000. Lack of formal training doesn t mean plumbers lack skills. (Out of eight hundred thousand, 352,000 are estimated to possess informal and uncertified skills.) It does mean those skills lack requisite quality and certification. This was the Kendrapara model. However, let s also not forget the Kendrapara model also provided access to placement networks, even though those too were informal. That s the reason it worked. Kendrapara and SIPT now have competition, with specific plumbing training institutions in Gurugram, Vijayawada, Bengaluru and Manesar and training labs and training programmes in several places. But that should be fine. First, even with a given number of plumbers, one needs more formalised training and placement, with different gradations in level of training. Second, for a variety of reasons, demand for plumbers is bound to increase. Apparently, we will have 1,200,000 certified plumbers by 2022, courtesy IPSC and National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC).

I did a random search on salaries of graduates and plumbers in Kolkata. Such small sample searches are always unreliable, but nonetheless indicative. An ordinary graduate earns `10,000 per month. A plumber earns `20,000 per month. There is thus the broader issue about whether the educational system delivers marketable skills. But partly, this also seems to be an international phenomenon. For instance, I find the average salary of a graduate in London is 27,000 pounds, while that of a plumber is 34,885 pounds.

The author is Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister Views are personal