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Chandigarh: Promised jobs have been a recurring theme in Punjab’s elections for years, if not decades. In election after election, political parties have assured unemployed young people that they will create jobs if voted to power. But the situation continues to remain the same, no matter which political party forms the government. It is election season again in Punjab and parties are back to promising ‘lakhs’ of jobs and ‘a job per family’, but there is little hope among the youth.
In 2017, the current Congress government came to power on the assurance that it will provide one job per family to Punjab’s 55 lakh households. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP alliance too formed the government in 2012 after promising 10 lakh jobs for the youth.
Not much has changed this time around as Punjab goes to the polls on February 14. Chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi has announced one lakh jobs for the young every year if the Congress is voted back to power. SAD chief Sukhbir Badal, for his part, has promised a 75% quota for locals in private sector jobs.
Not to be left behind, ’employment’ was a key word when Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal launched his party’s 10-point election agenda in Chandigarh on Wednesday, January 12.
Notwithstanding these tall claims, the employment scenario in the state remains grim, according to various surveys by the government and non-governmental organisations.
In 2017, when the SAD-BJP government left office after ruling the state for 10 years, Punjab’s unemployment rate stood at 7.8%, significantly higher than the national average of 6.1%, according to the Union government’s first Periodic Labour Force Survey report for the year 2017-18.
The National Statistical Office (NSO), a government agency under the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, is the nodal agency for the report.
Even though the Congress government came to power in 2017 on the slogan of ‘Ghar Ghar Naukri’, Punjab’s unemployment rate has not come down in a significant way over the years.
In the second NSO report for the year 2018-19, Punjab’s unemployment rate slightly improved, to 7.4%, but its gap to the national average of 5.8% grew.
Further, the unemployment rate of Punjab remained the same at 7.4% in the third NSO report for the year 2019-20 (released in July 2021) even as the national unemployment reduced to 4.8%. This was the last available report on the subject.
Another way to look at the job market in Punjab is through the Worker Population Ratio (WPR), which is defined as the percentage of the population engaged in employment.
It is said that if the WPR is high, the job market is considered to be robust. However, Punjab’s WPR has remained lower than the national average in all these three NSO reports.
‘Four lakh lost jobs in the last five years’: CMIE
Independent think-tank Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), in its latest unemployment data report released on January 3, claimed that over eight lakh people are currently unemployed in Punjab.
As per the report, the total workforce in Punjab stood at 1.03 crore by the end of December 2021, of which the total employed were 95 lakh.
However, the CMIE data published for the period January-April 2017 showed that the total number of employed in the state stood at 99 lakh. Therefore, in the span of the last five years, about four lakh people have lost their jobs.
On the other hand, the total working population in Punjab has gone up by 24 lakh, from 2.34 crore in January 2017 to 2.58 crore in December 2021.
The report has also projected Punjab’s overall unemployment rate to be at 7.9%, higher than what was computed by NSO data in the previous years.
The major takeaway, however, from the latest CMIE data, is that there is a lack of employment opportunities for those in the workforce who have educational qualifications of graduation and above.
As per the report, over 16% of the workforce with graduate degrees and higher educational qualifications are unemployed and are in search of jobs. In absolute numbers, this figure stands at 2.56 lakh.
‘Lack of investments in public and private sectors’
On why election promises of political parties on the job front turn out to be hollow, R.S. Ghuman, professor of economics at the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), tells The Wire that the fundamental reason is due to the lack of investment both in the public and private sectors in Punjab.
Ghuman says while the COVID-19 outbreak is the only short-term factor to understand job losses in the state, the Punjab economy has been experiencing a downward trend for the last two decades. “Punjab’s debt is at an all-time high while income streams have reduced over time. Therefore, the situation does not give enough room for the governments to make fresh recruitment in the government sector as well as make any new investments. This is why teachers have been protesting in Punjab,” explains Ghuman.
On the other hand, he says private investments in the manufacturing sector have also been low despite the fact that a significant portion of the workforce is leaving the agricultural sector due to mechanisation. He further adds that Punjab has not been able to produce enough information technology (IT) jobs and other service sector jobs while a number of other states have fairly done well in this regard.
Ghuman says no matter what political parties claim, their promises of jobs will remain hollow unless they make structural changes to uplift the economy.
“While NSO and CMIE surveys are reliable, these surveys sometimes do not capture the situation of underemployment in the unorganised and agriculture sectors where the majority of Punjab’s workforce is employed right now. My understanding is that more than 20 lakh people in Punjab are unemployed or barely managing their livelihood,” he explains.
Speaking to The Wire, Baldev Shergil, a sociologist from Punjabi University, Patiala, says the current political narrative in Punjab is revolving around freebies. No political party appears to have an agenda or roadmap for the development of industry, agriculture and other sectors.
“All they are focusing on is taking steps to increase revenue by taming the liquor, cable and sand mafia. I am not saying this should not be done. But all these are part of governance. The needs of Punjab are much more. We need forward and backward linkages with industry and agriculture, and identify potential areas to create jobs,” says Shergil.
“Sometimes I feel that it is not the lack of political will that has plunged Punjab into debt. It is rather political incapability and bureaucratic insensitivity with regard to policy-making and structural reforms,” he explains.
Major gap in Punjab job market
Meanwhile, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) 73rd round, Punjab has 15 lakh micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME), employing a workforce of 24 lakh.
The major hub of MSME in Punjab is Ludhiana, but they often face difficulty in finding skilled labour.
On the other hand, there has been surplus labour in agriculture who are grossly under-employed.
There has been no effort to impart skills that industry wants among the unemployed and under-employed labourers, so that their chances of employability can be increased.
This can be explained by the fact that there have been several media reports lately that point out that educated youth, with B.Ed and MA degrees, are forced to do odd jobs due to lack of teaching jobs in the state.
Speaking to The Wire, Sukhwinder Dhillion, president of the Punjab unemployed teachers association, rues that several of their association members are forced to work as labourers to eke out a living.
“There are thousands of jobs available in teaching in Punjab. But the Punjab government claims that they don’t have money to hire new staff and pay salaries. This is a lame excuse. Why can’t governance be improved and resources be reorganised to create job opportunities. Why do you think a government is in place?” he asks, rather angrily.