As Economists Bicker Over Jobs Data, Underemployment Chokes Young Graduates

The tale of a 30-year-old driver in Andheri East is emblematic of how in India, the more educated you are, the more likely you will struggle to find appropriate employment.

Mumbai: Shivaji Kamble Suryakant’s black Casio digital watch starts ringing everyday at 3 pm. It used to mark, until recently, the end of a working school day.

These days though, it signals that it’s time for his afternoon tea-time and that he has three hours to kill before he starts his evening shift as a driver.

Shivaji, a gloomy-eyed man in his mid-30s, slowly sips his tea and stares blankly at the opposite side of the road, where some workers are unpacking cartons from a small truck in Mumbai’s Andheri East industrial area.

“Yes, once I worked as a teacher but was getting only Rs 1,800 and it wasn’t enough to run a family,” he says, without blinking, in a conversation with this reporter.

“Teaching is my passion but I am working as a driver, because there are not enough teaching posts in government schools.”

Shivaji is living proof of a maxim that increasingly  sums up India’s unemployment scenario: the more educated you are, the more like you are to be unemployed.

Shivaji currently possesses a number of pieces of paper that tells him he has BA degree, a diploma in education and has also passed the nationwide teacher eligibility test (TET).

Qualified and eager to teach at the elementary level, Shivaji today has little hope.

The problem isn’t that the Centre or state governments across the country don’t need more teachers. As per data furnished in parliament last year, the country has more than one million vacancies at the elementary and secondary school level.

The problem instead revolves around the fact that government jobs are often filled at a glacial place, and when recruitment does start, the process is extremely competitive.

Former government school teacher Shivaji Kamble Suryakan, who now works as a driver. Credit: Aaquib Khan.

Former government school teacher Shivaji Kamble Suryakan, who now works as a driver. Credit: Aaquib Khan.

Public sector jobs are the most sought after in India, a phenomenon that most economists insist indicates a great deal of underemployment (if not unemployment). The Indian Railways, which is the world’s eighth largest employer, received 2.8 crore applications for 90,000 jobs last year. That’s roughly 311 candidates for one seat.

A closely-linked problem is that the private sector doesn’t provide enough high-quality jobs to absorb the millions of job-seekers that enter India’s economy every year.

For instance, Shivaji, the son of a construction worker and a resident of Maharashtra’s Osmanabad district, has for years tried to find job in private schools, too. But corruption and nepotism have come into his way.

“They asked for Rs 10 lakh as a bribe, from where will I bring so much money?” he asks.

During the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Narendra Modi promised to produce more job opportunities than the earlier government. His pledge to boost the economy and eradicate corruption earned him the support of voters like Shivaji, who are now frustrated and angry.

“Corruption is still there. I have certificates, I am a genuine teacher, my blood is also red. Why don’t I have a job?”

Jobs or no jobs?

While there is little doubt that unemployment is a problem in India, critics and supporters of the government argue bitterly over the extent of the crisis.

What added fuel to the fire was recent government data on jobs which was leaked. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) report indicated that unemployment among the youth was higher in 2017-18 than in previous years.

The report, which government-affiliated economists maintain is flawed, has still not been released by the BJP-led Central government.

Disappointed that the government failed to publish the report, which was scheduled to made public in December-January (2018-2019), P.C. Mohanan, an independent member of the National Statistical Commission (NSC), resigned few days before the data was leaked.

“There were some recommendations, included release of one of the survey reports, which happened to be on jobs. And then there were other issues, in which we thought the government not consulting the commission, as it is required to do, so because of that I resigned,” Mohanan told The Wire.

Another independent expert, J.V. Meenakshi, also resigned along with him.

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The Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted by NSSO recorded the highest unemployment rate since 1972-73, at 6.1%, in 2017-18. It also displayed the urban unemployment rate to be higher than the rural. It showed an alarming rise in the unemployment rate for the educated.

According to Radhicka Kapoor, a fellow at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), those who are armed with better education will always be reluctant to take jobs that don’t fit their aspirations.

“In many ways, unemployment is a luxury in India which can be enjoyed only by  those who can afford to wait till they find of kind the jobs they are looking for. The poor can’t afford to remain unemployed in India,” she said.

Shivaji is one amongst these millions. “I studied to become a teacher, not a driver. I can’t steal from anyone, I only want a teaching job,” he says.

P.C. Mohanan.

Mohanan agrees that there is a strong expectation mismatch – a problem whose roots almost wholly lie at the doorstep of the Central and state governments. “In all our surveys, what we find is the unemployment rate for the uneducated is almost zero. I mean, they don’t remain unemployed, because they have to do some work. Now more and more people are joining college. When they come out, they expect formal jobs, their expectations are different. That could be one of the reasons why the unemployment rate goes up.”

The NITI Aayog has dismissed the leaked government. According to vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar, the report was in fact a draft and not approved by the government.

Mohanan disagrees vehemently. “As per the practice, there is no need for the government to approve the survey reports. They may accept the report or reject the report. This is the first time that they said we would approve the report.”

But there are other, less-disputed numbers that indicate an equally grim situation. According to recently released report by Azim Premji University’s Centre for Sustainable Employment, 50 lakh men lost their jobs between 2016 and 2018. The report indicates that the decline in labour force participation “coincides with demonetisation in November 2016”. Data recorded by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) indicate that February 2019 recorded a 7.2% rise in unemployment, up from 5.9% in February 2018, the worst in 28 months.

A 7% growth in unemployment, however, is not alarming for the government. In an interview with the right-wing Swarajya magazine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the government had created jobs, but the problem was that data are not available.

“I don’t blame our opponents for blaming us on the issue of jobs, after all no one has an accurate data on jobs. Our traditional matrix of measuring jobs is simply not good enough to measure new jobs in the new economy of New India,” he said.

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The problem with this position is that CMIE’s figures is based on household surveys, and many economists regard it to be real-time, credible data.

“This is a household survey. So its agricultural labour, industrial labour, casual labour, salaried people, government servants, everybody is included. Unless you live on trees, we are counting you,” Mahesh Vyas, managing director and CEO, CMIE, told The Wire.

In early January 2019, the CMIE had raised an alarm, saying the number of unemployed people has been rising steadily and had reached 11 million by the end of December 2018.

The NDA-II government and its economic advisory council has in part tried to counter this narrative by claiming that job growth can be seen in other datasets, such as the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO), National Pension Scheme (NPS), IT filings and sales of passenger vehicles, etc.

“While 65 lakh employees were part of the NPS in 2014, this increased to 1.2 crore by October 2018. About 6.35 lakh new professionals filed IT returns in the last four years. Isn’t this an indication of job creation?” Modi asked in the Lok Sabha recently.

But does payroll data in the form of EPFO subscribers provide a holistic picture of employment?

According to Himanshu, associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, it is politics that drives the EPFO narrative.

“The word EPFO doesn’t even appear before 2016, as if came out of the air, so a lot of new things have been thrown around and the reason for this is political, very obviously – elections.”

The Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) is the pension scheme for salaried individuals controlled by the EPFO formed under the Employees Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Act, 1952.

Kapoor believes that using  EPFO data to show jobs growth can be misleading, primarily because it doesn’t cover more than 10%-15% of the workforce. In addition, it is not a measure of employment creation, unless it talks about 100% of the economy.

“Firstly, EPFO is a data set which covers only those establishments which have 20 or more workers. So by definition, it’s basically looking at those who are in the formal sector. So if we are looking anyway only at the formal sector, we are looking at a very small section of India’s labour market. We are completely ignoring what is happening in the unorganised sector.”

She explains further: “The EPFO act applies to firms, which has 20 or more workers. So if there was a firm which has 19 workers to begin with and then it hired two more workers and crossed the threshold of 21 workers, all these 21 workers would be now showing up in the EPFO database as new enrolments, but the fact is 19 of these jobs already existed, only two more jobs were actually created.”

Although India has seen economic growth in the past decades, the jobs picture is different. India has a large industrial sectors, from telecom to banking. But these are unable to offer jobs for those without education and with low skill levels.

According to a 2016 report from the wealth research firm New World Wealth, India is 12th on the list of most unequal countries. A recent Oxfam study said the top 1% has cornered 51% of national wealth in India. Income is the main indicator of poverty, and if people don’t get opportunities to earn, it will produce inequality and unrest. But it seems the government is ignoring ground realities.

“If the economy is growing at 12% nominal growth for the last five years, it would be an economic absurdity to say that such economic growth, the highest in the world, doesn’t lead to the creation of jobs,” Union finance minister Arun Jaitely said recently.

“If no job creation takes place then there is social unrest. This has been a peaceful period where no major social agitation has been witnessed in the last five years,” Jaitely added.

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Any reasonable person can argue that there is undoubtedly social unrest in the country. In rural areas, a continued agrarian crisis is brewing and over the past few years, we have seen a number of mass agitations by farmers from all over the country, and protests by Patidars in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Haryana and so on.

“Forget about the statistics, people in the rural areas don’t go by the NSSO numbers, this job crisis is real,” says Himanshu.

“Maharashtra, Gujarat and Haryana are among the more urbanised, industrialised states. Now if you have the most industrialised, most urbanised, among the richest states, and that is where the most prosperous agricultural community is out on the streets, burning buses, they have been fighting to get what? Jobs.”  

Back in Andheri East’s industrial area, Shivaji is preparing to return to the designated drivers’ room he has in the office where his employer works. His driver colleagues don’t know that he is a qualified teacher.

“I leave the teacher part of me at home when I come for work, because I feel ashamed, I don’t have words to explain how ashamed I feel.”

There are days when he contemplates suicide. “I was looking for a job for a long time and got frustrated, and one day consumed phenyl,” he said in a flat tone.

The only satisfaction in his life as a ‘teacher’ comes when he returns home every evening and teaches children from his slum area, without charging any fees.

“It gives me satisfaction as I am serving the nation. But the government should genuinely do something for unemployment, otherwise there will be chaos all over the country.”

 Aaquib Khan is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Mumbai, India.