Job creation in high-growth India should be a top priority
For millions of young voters Prime Minister Modi’s most alluring election promise in 2014 was that his government would create ten million jobs, reversing the dismal UPA record of almost jobless growth. 65% Indians are younger than 35 years, and legitimately dream of a better life built on well-paid and secure employment; therefore many among them chose to trust their futures with his leadership.
But three years into his tenure, employment-creation has not proved to be all its was cut out to be. As pointed out in the India Exclusion Report 2016 of the Centre for Equity Studies, there are almost no jobs available in India’s high-growth economy. Job creation has plummeted to levels even below those of preceding UPA governments. The government is reluctant to publish official data about employment, because it does not tell a pretty story. But data compiled from the Quarterly Report on Changes in Employment in Selected Sectors by the Labour and Employment Labour Bureau of the government of India reveals that employment creation even in the most labour-intensive sectors of the economy in 2015 plummeted to a low of 135,000 jobs. One million new people join the workforce every month. This means that just 0.01% of new workers added to the work force actually found work.
The picture of jobless growth is further complicated because jobs are being extinguished even as others are being created, and the net figures don’t reflect this. Employment in the formal sector has fallen since 1997. More and more people are being pushed into either lowest-end self-employment; or the most unprotected and casualised wage employment. The countryside is of course the most stricken. But the situation is almost as hopeless for the distress migrant to the city.
The 12 million people joining the labour force includes those who seek work in the cities because of the near-death of the rural economy. The worst-hit by jobless growth indeed are rural workers and distress migrants. The socio-economic and caste census (SECC) survey revealed that 56% rural households own no land, and depend primarily on manual labour to survive. Economist Prabhat Patnaik observed that our share of cultivators has actually fallen since 1951. A whole set of people who might have been independent peasants have been pushed into the ranks of agricultural labour. They have no rights, no security of income, they are subject to the worst kind of drudgery, they cannot be organised.
Since the stagnant rural economy offers meagre opportunities for employment, a large segment of these households are footloose circular distress migrants, evocatively described by labour anthropologist Jan Breman as ‘hunters and gatherers of work’. In order to stay alive, they will go to any corner of the country, to do any work, with any remuneration, on any terms. An estimated 12.24 million people seek work for 2-6 months annually. Of these, 77% are resident in rural areas and more than two-thirds of them migrate in desperate search of any kind of work to urban areas. Some estimates show that about 35–40 million labourers – almost half the number of casual labourers outside agriculture could be seasonal migrants.
These are the migrant workers toiling in the prosperous rice, wheat, sugarcane and cotton farms of Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and Maharashtra, construction workers building high-rise structures in cities across the country, semi-bonded workers in brick kilns which pockmark the country, workers building roads in conflict-endemic frontier states, and so on. As social policy commentator Colin Todhunter observes in a biting indictment, ‘much mainstream thinking implies that shifting people from agriculture to what are a number of already overburdened, filthy, polluted mega-cities to work in factories, clean the floors of a shopping mall or work as a security guard improves the human condition’. Often boys barely in their teens set out to distant lands to earn some money to keep their families alive. But now increasingly families migrate along with men, interrupting children’s schooling, forcing women to bear and raise children on dusty city streets and shanties, and leaving behind old people in the village to starve, beg or die.
The highest promise of reforms was that it would unleash millions of jobs. However, the reality of what was accomplished in the high noon of economic growth under the UPA governments was jobless growth. Modi had promised to reverse this, but the government has no diagnosis of why past policies failed. Without reversing the agrarian crisis, mending the broken education system, installing greater labour protections and promoting labour-intensive small manufacturing, the promise of millions of jobs will remain a mirage.
Harsh Mander is author, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India
The views expressed are personal.