NSSO jobs report: The NDA government has scored a self goal
The current government takes a lot of pride in the fact that India is the fastest growing major economy in the world. High growth, however, cannot be the be all and end all of economic policy in a democracy as big as India. The fruits of growth have to be distributed equally. The best way to make this happen is to make sure that job creation keeps up with economic growth.
The failure to generate enough jobs, despite high growth, has been the hardest economic challenge in post-reform India. Creating more jobs was one of the biggest promises of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 2014 campaign under Narendra Modi’s leadership.
This was never going to be easy. Governments do not have silver bullets to solve structural problems in a short span. Back to back economic disruptions from demonetisation and the imposition of the Goods and Services Tax made the task even more difficult to achieve. It is not yet clear whether this government genuinely (and ineptly) could not anticipate the collateral damage these two policies would inflict on employment generation or it deliberately put a squeeze on the informal sector to push formalisation.
Nobody expects infallibility on the part of either individuals or governments. The question is whether they acknowledge the problem and attempt course correction or be in denial of the problem.
Key figures, including the Prime Minister, chose to do the latter on the jobs question. The government endorsed statistics, such as rising subscriptions to provident funds, to claim a rise in employment generation. These have never been a metric of employment in India’s policy discourse. We were told that the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) statistics — the gold standard of job data in India — on employment are still being prepared. This statement came under scrutiny when the only two non-government members of the National Statistical Commission resigned against the government sitting on the NSSO’s employment report for 2017-18. Yesterday, the Business Standard published summary findings from the report. Unemployment rate in 2017-18 was 6.1%, the highest in 45 years, the NSSO report shows. Unless the report in question is released transparently, and the numbers suggest otherwise, the act of withholding it seems like a failed effort to hide a below-par performance on the employment front. A hurriedly called press conference by the NITI Aayog , which should ideally have nothing to do with employment statistics has only muddied waters even more. The net result is a double whammy for the government. Had it released the report on time, it would have fared badly on performance. Now, even its intent will be viewed with serious doubt.