Thursday, May 24, 2018

On Plumbing and Skilling

There are plumbers, and there are plumbers from Odisha.

A few years ago, frustrated with the number of times I had to pay for replacing ballcocks on our watertanks, I contacted a new plumber. He took one look at the the tanks and murmered, "Fir se nakli peetal!" (Fake brass, once again!). Turns out that the earlier plumber had been conning me by installing cheap ballcocks that actually corroded in water! 

Much like the puncther-repair guys who toss nails on the road to ensure a steady tyre servicing business, our plumber had been installing the cheapest stuff to ensure that he got called in frequently. The new plumber installed real brass ballcocks, and sure enough, water overflow and wastage became a of thing of the past.

Curious about this plumbers' unusual attitude, his Hindi accent, and to know why he was not the regular fly-by-night operator, I asked him where he was from. "Odisha", he said, "One of my brothers works in Dubai...a few cousins are plumbers in Bombay and Kerala."

After this exprience I have been seeking out Odia plumbers, not only for their aversion to cutting corners but also for a certain professional pride they all seem to take in doing a thorough job: using waterprood plastic tape instead of cotton threads for joints, insisting on getting 'heavy' quality spares because they would last longer.

How did men from rural Odisha decide to specialize in a skill-set - and thrive - in the plumbing profession all over India, and the world?

Turns out that there is a history to this. According to DTE, plumbing as a profession was once dominated by muslims. Following the partition of 1947, and the subsequent exodus to Bangladesh and Pakistan, a few Odiya plumbers based in Kolkata began to fill this vacuum with friends and relatives from their villages in Kendrapara district. The profession became so lucrative that an entire region came to be known as "Villages of Plumbers".

Look a bit closer, and as you would expect, it is just a few individuals who have changed the fortunes of these remote villages. One man picks up plumbing skills in Kolkata, hones it at a large company (Gammon-India), and then sets up his own contract-work firm. His nephews branch out to Delhi, set up a larger company (DD Pradhan & Co. PL), that not only takes up large plumbing contracts, but also serves as an agent to supply Odia plumbers to overseas employers. 

In 2006, the Odisha state goverment took the initiative of setting up the State Institute of Plumbing Technology (SIPT) at a village of the plumbing pioneers - Pattamundai. Formal training and certification now adds to their competitive edge. 

Are there lessons here for ongoing mission-mode programme for skill development in India? Our choices are quite stark. India would need 700 million skilled workers by 2022 to meet the demands of a growing economy, and yet, of the 15 million youngsters who join the workforce every year, more than 75% are not "job-ready". They simply do not have the knowledge or skills needed by various industries. With 54% of the population below 25 years,  the so called "Demographic Dividend" may turn out to be a nighmare haunted by unemployed youngsters.

Just as Odiyas from Kendrapara have built a reputation for themselves in the world of plumbing, what are the lessons we can draw here for the hundeds of other professions?


- Sahoo, Namrata (2016), Caravan: Flush with Cash - Inside the unofficial plumbing capital of India -

- Duggal, Sanjeev (2016), The Hindu: Bridge the Skill Gap -

- Ranganathan, Aruna (2013): Professionalization and Market Closure: The Case of Plumbing in India, ILR Review -

- Indian Plumbing Association (IPA) -
-- also trains through PEEP : plumbing education and employment programme

- National Skill Development Corporation -

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