Labour

J&K: Centre's Sudden Decision to End SHG Scheme Renders 15,000 Engineers Jobless Overnight

The move is not only a bolt from the blue for engineers, but has also left senior bureaucrats flummoxed. Most have asked how the Centre could end the scheme in a region already suffering from unemployment.

Srinagar: On August 12, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha released a coffee-table book highlighting developmental interventions made in J&K in the past one year. Projects executed by unemployed engineers working under a 17-year-old government scheme found special mention in it.

This recognition of their services, however, did little to cheer up thousands of these unemployed engineers who have comprised self-help groups (SHGs) under this scheme.

This is because, two days before the function, the J&K administration suddenly announced the closure of the scheme – a move that has left around 15,000 engineers jobless in the conflict-riddled region where the graph of unemployment rises with each passing day.

“The practice of reserving a proportion of projects for Self Help Groups of engineers is abolished forthwith,” reads the government order of August 10.

For Syed Parveez, the decision came like a bolt from the blue. The 49-year-old mechanical engineer was among the first few engineers to register under the scheme when it was launched by the government in 2003.

Married for the past 18 years, with two children, Parveez is suddenly without a livelihood.

Like Parveez, most of the SHG engineers have families to provide for and having crossed the upper age limit, are ineligible to apply for government jobs.

“Our life is doomed now,” Parvez continued. “They have ruined our lives, without giving a thought as to how our families survive.”

For these skilled men, many of whom are in the late 40s and early 50, the thought of starting life afresh at a place where employment opportunities are few and far between is a tough ask.

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According to Parvez, who is also the president of the SHG Engineers Association, there are around 15,000 engineers including civil, mechanical, electrical, and computer engineers as well as biomedical engineers, working in the SHG programme. Many of them had left lucrative jobs in various states and outside the country to return home and work under the scheme.

“We have been equal partners in the development of J&K for years now, taking up challenges and completing them on time in most trying circumstances. Now they have reduced us to non-entities with a single stroke of the pen,” said Muzaffar Hussain, an electrical engineer from Budgam, also a part of the scheme since 2007.

The decision to render thousands of engineers jobless has come at a time when J&K – now a Union Territory – is under the direct control of the Centre. After scrapping J&K’s special status last year, the government of India had repeatedly said that the move would open up new employment routes for J&K youth – a promise the Centre has yet failed to keep.

The scheme

Towards the end of the Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference government in 2002, hundreds of unemployed engineers were out on the roads demanding jobs.

When the PDP-Congress coalition led by Mufti Muhammad Sayeed took over the next year, the engineers intensified their agitation. That is when the government came up with the idea of the SHG scheme.

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“Self Help Group shall mean a company/consortium comprising of 5 to 10 unemployed engineering graduates/diploma holders sponsored as such by the directorate of employment,” reads an order that was issued by the government in January 2004.

The engineers were asked to register themselves in groups. Initially, 10% of total works in various departments were reserved for the SHGs with an annual budgetary allocation of Rs five lakh for each group.

People queue up to go online at a government set-up internet cafe in Budgam, Indian-administered Kashmir on December 24, 2019. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Athar Parvaiz

Later, the percentage of total works reserved was first increased to 20% and then 30%. Simultaneously, the total cost of the works approved was increased to Rs 60 lakh, with the understanding that it could even go up to Rs 1.25 crore.

In 2017, after years of struggle by these engineers, the government also issued formal guidelines, directing 32 departments to annually allot works to these SHGs as per quota guidelines. Besides, divisional and district level committees were also set up, and the director of employment was made the nodal officer to ensure effective implementation of the scheme.

An official of the employment department said the SHG concept had proven a success, both in terms of execution of works as well as addressing the unemployment problem to some extent. Each year more and more engineers would register themselves under the programme, thus taking care of joblessness at some level.

“It was only because of the performance of these groups that both the quota of works and cost of the works reserved were increased many times over the years,” said the official.

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The ‘sabotage’

There is no official word as to what led to this sudden decision to abolish the scheme. A senior official said the decision was taken at the “highest level” and there was no input sought from either the administration or the labour and employment departments.

The fact that the Commissioner Secretary of the department, Saurabh Bhagat, spoke about the success of the groups during a programme just a few days before August 10, corroborates the assertion of the official.

According to Parvez, both Bhagat as well as Advisor to Lt Governor, Farooq Khan, who is in charge of the labour and employment department, have told the engineers that they were not taken into confidence.

Talking to The Wire, Khan refused to speak on the issue, but said the concerns of the engineers have been taken up at the “right quarters.” “It will be premature for me to speak on this issue,” he said.

A former director of the department said the SHG was a “very good scheme” and around 10,000 to 12,000 jobless engineers were earning their livelihood under it. “Importantly, without paying a single penny, the government was providing a source of livelihood to thousands of unemployed engineers.”

He said the decision to disband the scheme was the outcome of the “thinking” that everything which has been inherited from the past was “bad.”

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“This concept that the old is bad will do more harm to J&K. There are so many good things which have happened in the past and needed to be continued. But some people within the government at the top don’t see it this way,” said the official.

Given the state of J&K economy, the official said as the decision has left around 10,000 to 15,000 engineers jobless, it would be next to impossible to create an equal number of jobs.

But it is not only the engineers but members of the staff employed by SHGs who have been rendered jobless overnight. Every group had hired at least three to four persons, including computer operators, accountant assistants, and others, to run the offices.

“More than 20,000 families, comprising around one lakh people, will be hit by this anti-people decision,” said Parvez.

A man uses his mobile phone in the Kashmir Valley. Photo: Pracsshannt K/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

‘Won’t give up so easily’

Amid the controversial decision, the political parties have lent their support to these unemployed engineers, hitting out at the Centre and J&K government for adding to the burgeoning problem of unemployment, instead of addressing it.

“The decision once again proves that the Centre is hell-bent upon continuing with anti-people decision which it has been taking since August 5 last year. By abolishing the scheme, the ruling BJP has made it clear that the real intention is disempowerment of people of Jammu and Kashmir,” said Peoples Democratic Party spokesperson, Firdous Tak.

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There are more than 1,400 SHGs operating in Jammu and Kashmir and many of them were already executing the allotted works when the government announced the decision. The engineers are now also worried about the fate of the investments and their liabilities pending with the government.

Parvez said his firm, Multiple Engineers Works, was working on two projects, with an approved cost of more than Rs 60 lakh, “Now, nobody from the department is ready to listen to us,” he said.

As per official data, the SHGs were allotted 2,445 projects in 2019-20 at a cost of Rs 2.45 crores. “The investments made by all the groups and their pending liabilities runs into crores of rupees. How will the departments cooperate when the government has closed down the scheme?” said Parvez.

These engineers are now planning a J&K-wide agitation to press the government to reconsider the decision. Last week, they held a protest outside the civil secretariat.

“We will sit on hunger strike from next week if our pleas are not heard,” said Parvez. “That is the last option. We won’t give up so easily.”