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How Covid-19 Proved an Opportunity for Youth in Small-Town India

Young people from small towns are now able to work close to home thanks to co-working spaces that opened up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Young people from small towns are now able to work close to home thanks to co-working spaces that opened up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

PUNE, INDIA, Feb 8 2023 (IPS) - While a 2017 study by the Confederation of Indian Industry Jones Lang LaSalle India and WeWork noted the potential in India’s co-working segment, it took COVID-19 for people to transition to co-working spaces close to home.

The study, Future of Work – The Co-working Revolution, which saw the potential market size of the co-working segment standing at 12-16 million, anticipated 400 million USD in investments by 2018, triggering a 40-50 percent growth in 2017 itself.

This was to be driven by India’s emerging start-ups (given that India is currently the world’s largest start-up hub) and India’s freelance workforce (with India having the 2nd largest freelancer workforce in the world, more than 15 million professionals).

In 2020, India was hit by the pandemic. Owing to a forced lockdown in operations, many companies faced heavy losses. On resumption, they had to operate at 50 percent capacity (as per government directives), which meant curtailment in operations. Layoffs and salary cuts were invoked to survive. Barring manufacturing operations, the attendance of many employees was deemed unnecessary in the office. This ushered in the work-from-home culture.

Salary cuts, and work-from-home options, saw many employees move out of expensive metropolitan centres and return home to smaller towns and cities. Some who faced layoffs and salary cuts opted to launch start-ups. This gave further impetus to the demand for commercial spaces in small towns and Tier-2 or Tier-3 cities for co-working spaces.

Over the last few decades, small-town India has seen professional education pick up in a big way, with several reputed engineering and management institutions nurturing brilliant students. However, conservative values continue to rule here, unlike cosmopolitan metropolitan centres. Since many youngsters are first-generation professionals and belong to rural families of modest means, moving to a metropolitan city can be a big financial strain for a fresher. Internships, too, are difficult to come by for a student straight out of college.

As a result, many remain confined to low-paid jobs in their towns and end up frustrated in the long run.

This is where the pandemic has helped.

Take the case of the pilgrim city of Tirunelveli in the state of Tamil Nadu at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. Adjoining the port town of Tuticorin, it has many engineering, management and science colleges. Tirunelveli is close to Nagercoil town in Kanyakumari district, which is the southernmost district of the Indian mainland and boasts a high rate of literacy. Yet, students from these parts have always had to move to either Chennai or Bangalore for a suitable job or internship.

Ronaldsen Solomon of Virudhunagar, though, has been lucky. A final-year student of Engineering studying at Francis Xavier College in Tirunelveli, he has landed an internship with an IT infrastructure company with local offices in a co-working space.

“I am acquiring hands-on experience, even as I attend college lectures for my degree,” he tells me of his job at 3i Infotech.

For Jenima Hyrun of Chermahadevi town in Tirunelveli district, landing a job was an uphill task, despite her Computer Science degree, owing to opposition from her conservative Muslim family.

“I had a job offer from Chennai. But although my father has always encouraged me, my aunts and others would not allow it. Being part of a joint family, living alone in a metropolitan city was unthinkable for me.”

When 3i Infotech acquired dedicated premises under Mikro Grafeio, Hyrun’s prayers for a suitable opening were answered. She easily traverses the short distance to work from her home using public transport.

When Vijay Roshan acquired his Bachelor of Computer Applications degree from MDT Hindu College in Tirunelveli, his faltering English made him unsure of himself. As a farmer’s son, he felt uncertain about moving to a metropolitan city either. However, when the same IT infrastructure company launched its office through a dedicated space, Roshan was immediately recruited as a promising fresher.

For those who would rather not travel a long distance to work, low-cost rentals are not too difficult to come by in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities.

Take the case of college-mates Vignesh M and Ashwin S.C from Thiruvananthapuram in the adjoining state of Kerala, who completed their degrees at the Nurul Islam Institute of Higher Education. Taking up lodgings in Tirunelveli is far cheaper than if they had moved to metropolitan centres like Bangalore or Chennai.

“We pay Rs 1500 per head, sharing a room among three colleagues in a nearby home. The place is only a 15-minute walk from our workplace, saving commuting time and money,” Ashwin says.

The same is true of Shiny Evangeline and Abarnadevi from the neighbouring district of Nagercoil (in Tamil Nadu), Tamilselvi of Thenkasi, and Sahanya Wilson of Kanyakumari. This ensures a better take-home salary for these freshers, who would have needed to spend upwards of Rs 10,000 for a co-living space in a metropolitan city. Shared rentals also nurture better camaraderie among colleagues, which is essential for better project teamwork.

When blue chip companies move into Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities, it can mean a lot for specially-abled persons like V Saumya, who has battled many odds to emerge as a Human Resources Head today. Victim of an accident as an infant, Saumya had to fall back on help from her parents all through her school and college years, fighting despite her physical disability to complete her Master’s in Business Administration. Proximity to her workplace in Tirunelveli has helped her secure a job, and she too works for 3i Infotech and is appreciative of the facilities at Mikro Grafeio.

“For the first time, I was greeted by a disabled-friendly toilet that I could use.”

The world has opened up for Saumya, who now looks forward to travelling far and wide, even as she travels up and down to work on her motorised wheelchair.

Although Mikro Grafeio intends to develop co-working spaces for individual use in small towns eventually, it currently confines itself to operating dedicated areas for companies. Chief Growth Officer Sundar Rajan tells IPS, “We are still exploring the market; in small towns, the concept is yet to catch up. However, Mikro Grafeio operates co-working spaces within cafes and breweries in cities like Coimbatore, Pondicherry and Bangalore and has Memoranda of Understanding in place with Café Coffee Day in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.”

It has several clients, 3i Infotech, CIT Services, Sotheby’s International Realty, and others that are slated to follow suit.

Indiqube has followed a similar pattern by handing over dedicated spaces and co-working offices. According to Indiqube Co-Founder Rishi Das, 85 percent of their clientele have dedicated spaces, while 15 per cent belong to the co-working segment.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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