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Home / Columns / Employment: India’s electorate's chief demand

Employment: India’s electorate's chief demand

A slew of opinion polls have identified jobs as the chief demand of India’s electorate; not the kind provided by digging ditches and road shoulders but meaningful work with some hope for a better quality of life, Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Apr 09, 2014 23:43 IST

Skill koi dukaan mein nahin milta, bina skill ke koi makaan nahin milta, aur agar skill hain to kaun kehta hai ki yahaan koi job nahin milta. ’ ‘ You can’t buy skill in a shop, without skill you can’t get a house, and if you are skilled, who says you can’t get a job here?’

Set to catchy music, the unusual ditty kicks off Hunnarbaaz (talented), a Sunday morning reality show on job skills, running now on Doordarshan, the national broadcaster. The show is not high on ratings, but its subject matter is now India’s number one electoral concern.

Railing against cow slaughter and corruption makes for more compelling television, but in a poor country where working folk are increasingly bereft of hope, the primary appeal of the BJP’s prime ministerial challenger, Narendra Modi, lies in his assertion of economic revival — and a promise to create 10 million jobs each year.

The Congress’ Rahul Gandhi talks of double that figure — 100 million for 100 million new voters over five years (20 million a year) — but his credibility is hobbled by his party’s decade in power, which fell dramatically short of India’s basic employment expectations.

A slew of opinion polls have identified jobs as the chief demand of India’s electorate; not the kind provided by digging ditches and road shoulders but meaningful work with some hope for advancement and a better quality of life.

The problem is India’s economy is in no shape to deliver the figures promised by Modi or Gandhi. Shorn of election-eve rhetoric, nothing they say suggests a roadmap or gameplan for mass, meaningful employment.

Between 2005 and 2010, under the UPA, India added 2.76 million jobs, according to the government data. That’s 552,000 annually, falling far short of the number of jobs the country needed for the 12 million people who sought employment every year.

Even if Modi revives the economy and India’s moribund manufacturing sector — the so-called organised economy — the future of the bulk of these job seekers is dim. Employment per unit of output has been steadily falling in India’s factories, as they use automation and learn to do more with less.

The future of employment lies, overwhelmingly, in what are called micro and small industries, the unorganised sector. These are the street vendors of manufacturing, millions of them, often in slums, turning out everything from bolts to shampoo.

Work conditions are dire, minimum wages and labour laws are fantasies, but this is India’s great hope for mass employment.

That is, if the little factories are given enough orders by the big companies.

This manufacturing and jobs pipeline appeared in good order during the five years to 2005, when 60 million jobs were added in the days of the NDA’s stint in power, providing livelihoods to a large number of more than 90 million Indians who moved from rural areas to towns and cities.

With economic growth falling below 5% — thanks to a glum, global economy, stalled reform and rising prices — this trend, instead of accelerating, is devastating the job market. If it continues, about 12 million people will return to the farms (where 49% of the workforce is currently employed) between 2013 and 2019, predicts Crisil, a research agency.

It’s unclear if that prediction will be realised, given that many large villages are becoming towns, and the demand for skilled employees continues to rise in the booming services sector.

That brings us to an unfolding conundrum: Despite the millions who swarm the cities for jobs, the services and construction sectors — and the stagnant manufacturing sector — cannot find what they call ‘employable’ men and women. Whether engineers or welders, millions of Indians lack the skills for the job they want.

A large part of the jobs puzzle begins with a decrepit education system, which emphasises quantity over quality.

If only 50.3% of Class 5 government-school students could read Class 2 texts, as Pratham, an NGO, found in 2009, there would be little hope of transcending the great divide from literacy to education; and if that figure dropped to 41% by 2013, the road ahead is foggy and formidable.

Unsurprisingly, 80 million children fail to complete basic schooling.

Unless schools and vocational training linked to them improve, India will fall short by 100 million skilled construction workers, 30 million automobile workers and 13 million healthcare workers, chairman of the National Skill Development Agency (tasked with coordinating India’s various skill development efforts), S Ramadorai, wrote in a column last month.

The government hopes to skill — or reskill — 500 million workers over the next decade or less, or as many people as the populations of the United States and Brazil combined. This is a challenge with no parallel in the world. About nine in 10 Indians joining the workforce are untrained for its demands, reveals a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry study.

This means that the world’s largest and youngest workforce, the so-called ‘demographic dividend’, is barely educated, of limited use to the economy and in danger of becoming a demographic disaster.

The political discourse around the question of jobs is either absent or meaningless.

The Congress has its abysmal track record. The BJP’s manifesto is vague, declaring that “we will take up skill development on a mission mode”, which is the ongoing effort of the National Skill Development Corporation, a public-private partnership and Hunnarbaaz partner.

The Aam Aadmi Party devotes three sentences in a 26-page manifesto to employment, the main focus being on promoting “honest enterprise”, which can create “decent employment and livelihood opportunities”.

The party’s other promise is to “afford greater opportunities for lifelong learning and skilling leveraging (sic) technology so as to encourage both continued and individual growth”.

Don’t look to India’s leaders for answers. My recommendation: Tune in to Hunnarbaaz this Sunday.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.