A recent report in the Financial Times caught my eye. Headlined: ‘India advert for tea boys and guards attracts 2.3m applicants’, it spoke of the desperate desire for a government job among the young men of India’s largest state.
Earlier this year, the Uttar Pradesh government had placed an advertisement for 368 Class IV posts of peons. A staggering 2.32 million applied for these jobs. As many of 255 of the applicants had PhDs, some in supposedly marketable subjects such as engineering. More than 25,000 of the applicants had Master’s degrees.
Why would these well-qualified young men apply for jobs serving tea to Class I government officers or standing outside their office? One reason, flagged by the FT, was that there were so few employment opportunities in a state where industry is much less developed than in other parts of India. But there may be two other reasons. Government jobs are far more secure than private sector jobs — you cannot be sacked for non-performance — and come with a pension to boot. And the degrees held by these post-graduates may be not worth the paper they are printed on, being issued by colleges where teachers do not teach and whose syllabi may be decades out of date.
Government jobs are also prized in other states of the Union. But perhaps not to the same extent. In the South and the West, there is a reasonably well developed private sector. Here, the colleges and universities, if not exactly world-class, at least are not utterly hopeless.
In Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu, is hard to imagine a master’s in electrical engineering being satisfied with a peon’s post in a government office. He (or she) would strive instead for an analyst’s job in a software firm.
As those 2.3 million applications for less than 400 jobs tell you, a government job — even the lowliest of these — is more valued in Uttar Pradesh than elsewhere. Yet the government of the state is, even by Indian standards, abysmally poor. The health and education systems are in a shambles. And criminality is rife.
The corrosion of the state in and of Uttar Pradesh manifests itself in odd, even bizarre, ways. A friend in Bangalore, who is originally from Kanpur and retains close links with the city, recently told me that it is a myth that entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship do not flourish in Uttar Pradesh. They do; only they tend to be rather different in scope and character from entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship in South India.
Thus, in Kanpur, the three most flourishing industries are those marketing bottled water, recruiting and providing security guards, and installing generator sets. These are all services which the state should provide in theory, but in practice does not.
One kind of successful entrepreneur in Uttar Pradesh sees an opening in the malfunctioning of the state. Another kind works with the state, in the misallocation and misappropriation of public funds. Thus, while in a city like Bangalore, those involved in ‘start-ups’ venerate the likes of NR Narayana Murthy and Nandan Nilekani, in UP a young entrepeneurship with ambition is more likely to take Ponty Chaddha or Subroto Roy as his model. He seeks, like them, to cultivate close links with politicians, so as divert public funds for private gain, the loot shared between the politicised entrepreneur and the entrepreneurial politician.
Some three decades ago, the demographer Ashish Bose coined the acronym “BIMARU”, these being the least developed, so-to-say ‘sick’, states of the Union, namely, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Three decades on, while Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan have shown some (modest) signs of progress, UP has become even more sick. Whether reckoned in terms of economic development, education, health or social (and especially communal) peace, it is absolutely the worst-governed state of the Union.
Why is the state of UP so depressing? One reason is that, unlike in the South and the West, there have been no social movements for gender and caste equality in UP. A second is the heritage of feudalism, whereby deference is demanded of poor peasants and agricultural labourers by lathi-wielding landlords (once Brahmins and Rajputs, now increasingly Yadavs and Jats). A third is the venality of its political class, which — even by Indian standards — is excessively prone to corruption, cronyism and violence.
But surely the most important reason for the state of Uttar Pradesh is its sheer size. Indeed, it is impossible to address the problems that UP faces so long as it remains one single unit. In a piece published in these columns in December 2014, I wrote: ‘Whether UP should become two, three or four states is an open question; that it can stay as it is not. For an undivided UP hurts the citizens of UP, and it hurts India.’
That remains as true as ever. How can even the best-intentioned health secretary in Lucknow monitor the performance of primary health centres in 75 districts? Or the most fearless and upright inspector general of police ensure social peace among 200 million people?
Four smaller states instead of one massive behemoth might lead to more focused and fairer governance, to better-run schools and hospitals, to an atmosphere of security and safety for citizens. These might, in time, help nurture an environment where knowledge-driven entrepreneurship and job creation may flourish, where PhDs in engineering can aspire for something more than a peon’s job in a government office.
(Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed are personal)