This article has been modified. Please see the clarification at the end.
As we wait to meet Rajiv Pratap Rudy in the family den, it is hard to miss an almost life-size photograph of him resting against the wall. In the picture, the minister is with his wife Neelam at the Bengaluru Air Show in February and is wearing a G-suit, typically worn by astronauts and aviators. The suit is designed to protect against blood draining from the brain and pooling in the lower part of the body when a fighter plane is accelerating at extremely high speeds. Rudy is a trained commercial pilot.
When we meet, Rudy, who is minister of state (MoS) with independent charge for skill development and entrepreneurship, speaks with obvious delight about the experience of flying an Indian Air Force Sukhoi-30MK-I. He is enamoured with its power and calls the fighter plane a “magnificent machine”. With Wing Commander Karulkar of the 106 squadron Tezpur accompanying him, Rudy warmed up first with 60-degree turns, before doing multiple flips and eventually full 360-degree turns. “For 39 minutes, we did all the possible air manoeuvres done by a fighter pilot.”
We ask if it was intimidating to go from an A320 to a Sukhoi. Not at all, he says. “I felt that (rush of) excitement; not many people would volunteer to do it... it’s a completely different experience.”
It’s time for lunch. Rudy’s wife Neelam joins us along with Atisha. There is dal, lauki, two salads — one made with lettuce, asparagus and green apples and a separate fruit salad, rice and chapatis. One of us is fasting, as it is the first day of Navratra, so Neelam specially asks for some fruit and sweet curd.
Neelam quips that she can barely keep Rudy from eating non-vegetarian food during the nine days of Navratras. “Rudy can’t fast, he doesn’t have the mindset to fast,” she says, laughing. The minister manages to make a few counter-arguments but not very successfully. Everyone is speaking at the same time, rather like an affectionate family having a relaxed weekend lunch together.
Rudy may have come late to commercial flying but he clearly loved it. “Walking through the security, holding your own bag, getting into the cockpit, then lining up the aircraft, taking off with 80 passengers behind, after take-off stabilising at 30,000 feet, putting it on auto pilot, you see other aircrafts pass by, you see the sky, sometime cloudy skies, foggy skies,” he says in a stream of consciousness on what it felt like to be a commercial pilot.
The conversation digresses to Rudy also being a qualified lawyer and we ask him what motivates him to acquire so many different skills. “I pick up a new profession every three four years to keep going,” he says. Rudy adds that not many people are aware that he has a “permanent baby” in the Constitution Club of India of which he is the secretary — administration. It is exclusively for Members of Parliament. “No MP associates me with just politics because my first identity is with the club,” says Rudy, who is also minister of state for parliamentary affairs.
In the late nineties, the then Speaker of the Lok Sabha G M C Balayogi saw him taking an interest in the gardens around Parliament and tapped him to run the Constitution Club. “I would give it two on 10 now,” says Rudy of the improvements. His wife says he is being modest and that the club has improved significantly from a “minus five”.
A tournament-level golf player herself, Neelam was head of in-flight services at Alliance Air, a subsidiary of the erstwhile Indian Airlines. “Rudy started training as a pilot only at the age of 45-46. It is not easy to acquire a skill at that age. It takes a lot of extra effort, but he did it,” she says. She tells us how everyone in the family is very active. The elder daughter, Avshreya, is a law student and a polo rider, and the younger one, Atisha, is a Kuchipudi dancer and in the national junior football team.
Lunch over, we settle down with Rudy in the living room to discuss how he is trying to resolve the skill challenge. He rattles off the numbers. India has only two per cent of the workforce that is skilled, compared with 96 per cent in South Korea, 45 per cent in China, 50-55 per cent in the US and 74 per cent in Germany. “The focus all these years has been on education or degrees. Sixty-six years have been lost. We never thought about skills.” The national skill development policy (announced by the United Progressive Alliance government) in 2012 talked about 500 million people being trained, but it never took off, he adds. “There are 24 ministries with 70-odd schemes, being run with the partnership of states, spending ~6,000-7,000 crore,” he says, loading us with more data.
It’s a daunting task, we say, “Very daunting, very daunting” repeats Rudy. Even on a conservative estimate, around 300 million people have to be trained over the next five years. The resources required are huge and the biggest challenge is to get different ministries to work together. A National Skills Policy is on the anvil and should be finalised in the next three months. On April 9, the government said it would be mandatory by 2020 for aspiring public sector employees to have national skills certification.
All the existing programmes, which are being run in silos, need to be aligned under the National Skill Qualification Framework, Rudy says. He calls his assistant to get some packs for our reference. The assistant returns with only one, is chided by Rudy and is sent to get more.
Plumbers, masons and other technicians will be graded on their level of expertise. Even their trainers will have qualification standards and these are being developed. “It is all Greek to you right now, but it is getting formalised,” he says, just as our attention begins to wander.
Rudy is handed another list by an assistant and this time he asks his wife for advice. They are finalising the guest list for an event. He is leaving for Ranchi in two hours and Neelam is also leaving for a wedding in Jaipur. A landline rings and he switches to talking in Hindi. Meanwhile, someone else is standing at the door waiting to take his leave. We struggle to get questions in amid the interruptions. The phone rings again. He has to leave, he tells us. The discussion of what is being done to foster entrepreneurship will have to wait for another occasion, he says, as he walks us down the driveway.
The hyperactivity of the last half hour gives us a flavour of how frenetic a minister’s afternoon can be. Upgrading the skills of millions of plumbers, railway mechanics, electricians and factory workers is a hugely important task for the country and will make or break ‘Make in India’. Rudy and the government will have their hands full keeping the country focused on it.
In an earlier version of this article, it was mentioned that Rudy is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the only parliamentarian to fly a commercial aircraft, which is incorrect. Rudy is a Limca Book of Records holder for being the only parliamentarian to fly a commercial aircraft. This article has been corrected and the error is regretted.