In 2019, India got two budgets, thanks to the general elections. Expectations were high, especially from the July budget, on taking urgent steps to address the alarming slide in economic growth. However, the document proved to be a self-destructing exercise. Several key decisions announced were either scaled back, watered down or just couldn’t get going.
But the burning question remains, for a country with a sizeable young population more than 600 million: What do the youth want from the Budget? And the answer is simple. Nothing. The youth want and need jobs.
An estimated 5 million people graduate out of college every year. More often than not, these young adults have neither a strong academic base, nor any special skills that make them immediately employable. So, armed with what should be a strong educational qualification, many are confined to jobs that are low on skill but offer the comfort of a fixed salary.
What is new and unnerving now is the overwhelming numbers of young people looking for employment on account of the changing demographics of the country. CMIE’s data indicates that in a state like Uttar Pradesh for instance, unemployment doubled from 5.91% in 2018 to 9.95% in 2019. Countrywide, graduates face a 17% unemployment rate.
There’s another, grimmer side to the story. Those who claim the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests are a one-off instance of youth activism are getting the signs completely wrong. While the context of the protests may be different, this outpouring is a culmination of issues, not a standalone event.
It started with vehement protests against fee hikes in JNU and other places. JNU has been protesting a 300% fee hike. Earlier in November, IIT Bombay and IIT-BHU protested against a 900% fee hike. Similar stories emerged from FTII and IIMC.
A direct rub-off
Many have criticised what they see as an entitled attitude by these young students. What may actually be taking place is a direct rub-off of the stories these aspiring job seekers saw and heard from their homes and towns.
As per the Household Consumer Expenditure Survey conducted by the National Statistical Office, the average monthly spending by an individual fell to Rs 1,446 in 2017-18 from Rs 1,501 in 2011-12, down 3.7%. It’s worse when you slice that for the rural-urban split. A Nomura report points out that rural households saw wage growth slip to a four-quarter low of 4% in 2019.
In a situation where households struggle to find enough to pay for basic supplies, education – and the fees required to get it – becomes both unattainable and unimportant.
The embers of student protest have become a full-fledged fire, as young students facing the possibility of low to no jobs find that their government wasn’t even paying lip service to the need for creating employment opportunities but instead were raising a completely different and to many, irrelevant issue.
Another standard deflection tool
In her maiden budget speech, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed that the government is enabling millions to take up industry-relevant skill training and boosting their job prospects via the ‘Skill India’ initiative.
Here’s what the numbers say. An analysis of the unit-level data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey of 2017-18 shows only a small section of the youth reported receiving any vocational training. Nationally, only 1.8% of the population reported receiving formal vocational or technical training, while 5.6% reported receiving informal vocational training like self-learning. This means 93% of the population received no training, from either formal or informal sources.
Bear in mind, the youth comprised more than half of the people who received formal vocational or technical training.
The data also shows that a large share of them were either unemployed or out of the labour force. Ironically, 42% of the youth who did receive any formal technical training were not part of the labour force at all. And it goes without saying, across age groups, substantial shares of women who received such training were out of the labour force. The training itself was starkly different for men and women.
No skilling, no jobs and not enough disposable income to access either private skilling or education. India’s youth are angry. And now they are impatient.
So, while the Budget may be held up to question on many parameters — fiscal health, poor revenues and kickstarting manufacturing — for me the barometer is this: At the start of this decade, India needed 100 million jobs to meet its employment demands. As we step into 2020, India is facing the worst unemployment rate in over four decades. India’s youth want jobs. They want and deserve to feel secure about their living environment, about their educational institutes and about their economic prospects. Not another Budget speech.