R Srinivasan

The ten crore question

Updated on: Apr 02, 2014

Jobs have become part of political rhetoric. But where is the plan?

Whatever else their shortcomings, politicians have always been skilled at tapping into the concerns of the people — and coming up with catchy slogans that capture them, while offering some hope of relief at the same time.

Thus, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s ‘ jai jawan, jai kisan ’ resonated in an India which had just woken up to the fragility of its security as a nation state after two devastating wars with its neighbours. The celebration of the jawan was a celebration of the soldier, who had so bravely ensured the survival of the then still young experiment called India.

The kisan , on the other hand, offered the hope quotient. The Green Revolution was beginning to happen, and the new ‘miracle’ breeds, developed by crop scientists like Norman Borlaug and our own MS Swaminathan, promised to remove the word ‘famine’ from the country’s lexicon.

Later, it was ‘ roti, kapda, makaan ’. For a population straining under the personal sacrifices and hardships imposed by the socialistic ‘planned development’ model, accessing basics such as food, clothing and shelter become aspirational goals — goals which politicians promised to deliver.

Still later, as we crawled up the rungs of development, the slogan changed to ‘ bijli, sadak, paani ’. Endemic hunger was no longer an issue, except for pockets of the really poor. For most of the rest, even clothing and shelter were a given, acquired through their own efforts, without government handouts. What they wanted from the government was basic services now, electricity to power their homes, farms and businesses, roads to drive their newly-bought vehicles on, and water in their increasingly overcrowded and under-equipped towns and cities.

Does the absence of any such slogan this time around mean that our problems are — in a purely physical, infrastructural and financial sense — over? That there is really nothing to aspire for, and that all we have to worry about, as Arvind Kejriwal urges us to do, is corruption?

The jobs factor

Clearly not. Which is why, fairly late in the day, the biggest issue facing GenNext India has finally become part of the poll rhetoric — jobs. Our politicians are only now waking up to the fact that there is a flip side to the demographic dividend. The realisation has finally dawned that if the 100 million first-time voters who will be voting in these elections are not employed — or worse, do not see hopes of getting employed in the foreseeable future — they are unlikely to vote for you.

This, going by whatever passes for jobs data in India, is what is going to happen. India does not have credible and regularly compiled data on job creation and workforce participation. What we have are unreliable numbers put out by various ministries, and more accurate sample surveys done by the National Sample Survey Organisation.

According to an NSSO survey, one in three college graduates in the 15 to 29 years age group are unemployed.

In its report, Youth employment - unemployment scenario, 2012-13 , the survey paints an even more dismal picture — the labour force participation in the 15-24 age group,the new voters, is just 31.2 per cent. Two-thirds of India’s ‘demographic dividend’ of youth power is actually not currently participating in the workforce.

According to a study published in the Economic and Political Weekly last year, in 2011-12, 30 per cent of the workers were casual employees, and only 18 per cent had regular work.

The rest were categorised as ‘self employed’ (presumably because, since India doesn’t have unemployment benefits, those without a job were finding some means of sustenance on their own).

The survey also raises a question mark over the government’s shift in focus to skill development over the past few years. Underlying this was the belief that the reason more people were not getting employment was that they were not employable. Therefore, the solution lay in imparting employable skills to the working age population, following which they would all get nice jobs and lift themselves permanently above the poverty line.

This led to the creation of a National Skill Development Mission, a funded skill development corporation, and a whole skill development ecosystem now eagerly tapped by the corporate sector.

Political bombast

Lack of employable skills is certainly one of the major issues facing the country, but there is a bigger question: Where are the jobs? The BJP and Congress are both at loggerheads, accusing each other of having failed to create enough jobs during their tenures, but nobody has a concrete plan on how to go about ensuring that enough jobs are actually created to meet this staggering demand.

What we have got instead, is political bombast. If Congress campaign leader Rahul Gandhi promised 10 crore jobs — one for every new voter — the BJP has tried to do one better by promising to create 25 crore new jobs over the next 10 years (notice they have quietly ignored the five-year term of office here) in the series of ‘smart cities’ that they will help build across India.

But the same employment survey showed that unemployment was actually lowest amongst those with no education or special skills. If you didn’t have a college degree or even a school diploma but were willing to work for your daily bread, there was enough work going around even in a slowing Indian economy.

Unfortunately, the other aspect of the demographic dividend which has also been ignored is that of rising aspiration. This generation is no longer content with just any old labouring job, it dreams beyond ‘ bijli, sadak, paani ’. But these aspirations are not finding an echo in either political palavers or policy platforms. Even a good, job-oriented replacement for ‘ jai jawan, jai kisan ’ would be a start!

Published on April 02, 2014

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