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Protectionism could take us to the cusp of ‘jobless’ India

According to a World Bank research, 69 % of the existing jobs in the country will be threatened by automation in the near future

analysis Updated: May 08, 2017 07:22 IST
Protectionism,World Bank,H-1B visa
Employees of Indian software company Infosys at their campus in Electronic City, Bengaluru. The past few months have seen some of the biggest names in technology, ranging from Microsoft, Cisco, Infosys and Flipkart take decisions to downsize their workforce. (REUTERS)

The stuttering state of the world economy coupled with growing unemployment numbers are forcing countries across the globe to build walls and burn bridges — to restrict the free flow of goods, services and workforce across their borders. This is adversely affecting all the Indian exports including that of Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), technology support services and human capital.

The various global protectionist forces seems to have worst hit our $ 150 Billion Information Technology (IT) sector – contributor to almost 9.5% of our GDP, provider of direct or indirect employment to a population of over a crore, and the primary contributor towards the social mobility of millions into our burgeoning middle class.

The month of April itself has seen US President Donald Trump’s new “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, followed suit by several countries including Australia, New Zealand and Singapore introducing their own legislation, aimed at curbing the inflow of foreign labour, in turn boosting their own citizens’ employment rates and wages. As you would have thought, Indian engineers make up a sizable chunk of immigrants to all these countries.

The resultant effects are not that hard to miss. The past few months have seen some of the biggest names in technology, ranging from Microsoft, Cisco, Infosys and Flipkart take decisions to downsize their workforce. Cognizant and Wipro are the latest to join the list, with Cognizant said to have taken a decision in March, to downsize by almost 10,000 personnel.

The Indian technology sector also seems to have cut back on fresh hiring, creating a grim scenario where almost 60% of the eight lakh engineers graduating from technical institutions across the country annually remain unemployed, a number ascertained by the All India Council for Technical Education.

However, the jobs promised by various populist national governments by closing borders, and by increasing trade tariffs would never reach their citizens. A lot of blame for this ironically would go towards our technology prowess. Automation technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, 3D printing and driverless automobiles are in the process of completely overhauling the mass employment generating jobs in our farms, factories and offices.

Agriculture sector still provides the means of livelihood for almost half the Indian workforce. Our rising manufacturing sector and the already booming services sectors are expected to absorb most of the people leaving their farms in search of higher quality jobs.

However, the previous year saw our employment generation in manufacturing companies at a dismal 5.2%. While almost 1.5 crore (15 million) people enter our job market annually, employment generation in the eight labour-intensive sectors, according to our labour bureau, was a meagre 1,35,000 the previous year compared to 1,250,000 in 2009.

Even though several optimists still expect us to conjure up new sectors that would inexplicably absorb our escalating workforce, all empirical evidence suggests that we are heading towards a catastrophe. We are simply not creating enough jobs – skilled or unskilled and are in the danger of losing the ones we currently have!

According to a World Bank research, 69 % of the existing jobs in India would be threatened by automation in the near future, suggesting that times are about to get even more turbulent. Concerted efforts would have to be made, on a war footing, to address these challenges.

A few of our lackadaisical policymakers, seemingly well content with our 7% GDP growth, need an urgent reminder of a statement BJP stalwart and former finance minister Yashwant Sinha not made not so long ago: “Fresh job creation continues to suffer and will lose its connect with economic growth. What is important for us politicians to remember, however is that the aam aadmi is not concerned with theories. He wants results, and if we fail to provide the people with job opportunities in adequate numbers, they will be disappointed.”

Anil Antony is a venture architect, technology evangelist and a social entrepreneur.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 08, 2017 07:21 IST