Guest Articles

August 15

B.S. Nagesh / Celia Sanchez-Valladares Barahona / Kristina Humphreys

Creating New Pathways in Retail to Support Persons with Disabilities in India

In India, only 36% of the over 26 million persons with disabilities are employed. Making matters worse, the current data on India’s disabled population doesn’t convey the true scale of this challenge.

According to the World Bank, 15% of the world’s population has a disability. Yet due to a lack of comprehensive data that reflects the diversity of disabilities experienced by people in India, the government considers only 2.2% of the country’s population to have disabilities. This statistic is expected to grow, considering that the Indian government amended the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016 to include 14 additional impairments, for a total of 21 disabilities. But though new data reflecting these updated designations is not yet available, it’s clear that India’s disabled population is considerable – as are the difficulties this community faces in securing livelihoods and pursuing opportunities for growth.

In many countries, the retail, hospitality and services sector is a great source of employment for persons with disabilities. Yet in India, which has one of the largest retail sectors globally, current working conditions within this industry are often unwelcoming for disabled people. One potential solution to this issue involves creating systemic change that supports persons with disabilities in the long term. To that end, the NGO Trust for Retailers and Retail Associates of India (TRRAIN) is working to create employment opportunities for persons with disabilities in India’s retail sector, in order to promote increases in livelihoods and greater inclusion. The article below will explore TRRAIN’s innovative approach to addressing these issues at a sector-wide scale.


A catalyst for social change in the retail sector

TRRAIN’s origin is rooted in the story of B.S. Nagesh, an Ashoka Fellow and leading social entrepreneur whose early education and experiences focused on leadership and empathy. Raised in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, Nagesh gained a vast skillset through his retail career, in which he managed over 100 small stores for the footwear chain Carona Limited, throughout the southern part of the country. He also founded Shoppers Stop, one of the largest and oldest department store chains in India, which he scaled through a focus on technology, new systems and innovations, such as JDA – the first retail software installation in the country. And in 2005, Nagesh set up the retail industry association RAI – which is now the largest representative body of modern retailers in India – serving as its first Chairman.

However, his success within the sector made him realize the stigma and marginalization often attached to households with lower levels of education and low socio-economic backgrounds. After moving out of the executive role at Shoppers Stop, he founded TRRAIN in 2011. Early in his role as CEO of the organization, Nagesh met many retail associates’ families and realized that much needed to be done to improve their lives at an industry level.

TRRAIN helps to equip low-income people, disabled people and other marginalized groups with the skills and support necessary to enter jobs within the retail sector. Through various projects, such as the Retail Employees Day celebration, it fosters more equitable working spaces to create a more inclusive sector. Over the past 10 years, the organization has equipped over 21,000 persons with disabilities with skills of basic communication, self-confidence, foundational computer knowledge, cashiering and retail selling skills. The program has led to over 72% of them securing jobs in retail and lifting their families out of poverty. Many of them were able to send their siblings to school, pay their parents’ outstanding loans, help support their sisters’ marriages or put permanent roofs on their houses, which previously had temporary or thatched roofs. Other TRRAIN initiatives, such as Pankh and TRRAINHer have also provided training for people with reduced mobility or speech, vision and hearing impairments, enabling them to launch successful careers within retail.

Through this approach, TRRAIN hopes to serve as a catalyst for the retail sector as a whole, triggering new ways of thinking and working, and moving from linear to systemic growth. The organization is now working to expand its impact and scale its approach to create 1 million livelihoods for persons with disabilities in the next decade.


Partnering to secure livelihoods and encourage inclusive business

How can a single organization achieve such widespread impact? The answer is: It can’t. Creating livelihoods for persons with disabilities is a vast challenge, and even with an effective model like TRRAIN’s, one NGO won’t be able to create truly systemic change all by itself. That’s why partnerships and collaboration towards a joint vision are crucial – at both the regional and national level – aimed at redesigning strategies within the retail, hospitality and services sector to create sustainable livelihoods. To achieve that ambitious goal, TRRAIN has begun seeking out potential new allies and large-scale collaborations.

For instance, Nagesh is working with large groups of retailers and retail associations to drive mindset shifts and organizational policies towards inclusion on the demand side. To that end, TRRAIN has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with both RAI and The Skill Council for Persons with Disability in order to enhance livelihoods and cultivate inclusion within the retail industry.

TRRAIN is also leveraging the assistance of the social impact accelerator the Dela Programme, created by Ashoka and IKEA Social Entrepreneurship, which brings selected experts from the global social innovation and corporate sector together to provide strategic support to social entrepreneurs and magnify their innovative solutions. By participating in a co-creative knowledge exchange, participants in the accelerator work to inspire each other, while receiving the guidance and support they need to propel their initiatives forward. These collaborations help create more livelihoods for persons with disabilities, while minimizing their marginalization and vulnerability.

By combining the support and resources of social impact accelerators and other large-scale organizations with the innovation and local presence of initiatives and organizations like TRRAIN, it is possible to spark holistic, inclusive change that can transform entire sectors, mindsets and organizational policies. This model provides an encouraging example of the impact of supporting NGOs, social enterprises and other small organizations from the ground up.


B.S. Nagesh is an Ashoka Fellow and the Founder of Trust for Retailers and Retail Associates of India (TRRAIN); Celia Sanchez-Valladares Barahona is a Communication and Partnerships Coordinator at Ashoka Nordics; Kristina Humphreys recently graduated from a Master’s program in Sustainable Development.


Photo courtesy of TRRAIN




Social Enterprise
employment, scale, skill development, social enterprise