In India, Rising Joblessness is a Tinderbox Waiting to Catch Fire

Tough times ahead for India’s young people have the potential to translate into hard times for the nation’s social harmony and peace.

Earlier this year, newspapers reported that 992 PhD scholars, 23,000 M.Phil holders, 2.5 lakh post-graduates and eight lakh graduates were among the nearly 20 lakh applicants for exams conducted by the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission (TNPSC) to fill 9,500 posts of typists, village administrative officers (VAO) and stenographers. In late March, it was reported that over 2.8 crore people applied for about 90,000 jobs in the Indian Railways. Even more recently, two lakh applicants – including 423 with bachelor’s degrees in engineering, 167 MBAs, 543 postgraduates in commerce, 28 with BEds, 34 masters in computer science, 159 M.Scs, 25 with bachelor’s degrees in mass media and communication, and 167 BBAs – applied for 1,167 jobs of police constables in Mumbai.

Clearly, much is not well on the job market front even though there are claims by the government that the problem is not one of missing jobs but missing data on jobs. The challenge of jobs is especially acute because of the current and growing size of India’s young population

According to a recent World Bank report:

Every month, the working age increases by 1.3 million people and India must create 8.1 million jobs a year to maintain its employment rate, which has been declining based on employment data analysed from 2005 to 2015, largely due to women leaving the job market.

At one time, it was widely believed that India’s young population was a fantastic asset and would reap a handsome demographic dividend. Now, it is commonly acknowledged that India’s future is more uncertain and questions are being asked about the kind of economic contribution its young population can make. Half of India’s 1.3 billion people are below 25 and two-thirds are under 35. And they are desperately looking for jobs.

In theory, India’s young population should reap a demographic dividend for the country. However, for that to become a reality, two things are necessary. First, India’s young should be capable of doing the jobs that are available in an era where advances in science and technology are bringing about dramatic changes in the kinds of jobs that are becoming available. India’s education sector – both primary and secondary education – does not inspire confidence in this regard. Employability reports of college graduates, including those with degrees in ‘professional’ disciplines, such as engineering, present a dismal picture too. There is much truth to Indian Staffing Federation’s Rituparna Chakraborty’s  statement that “no one seems to have the time to ask the bigger question, i.e. of the jobs that are still being created, how many of them are being filled?” Alternately, however, the young should be prepared to work in more traditional sectors such as manufacturing which in turns draws attention to the second issue: that a sufficient number of jobs must be available or created in manufacturing for young people to be employed. The numbers cited above show that this is not happening.

Economist Bibek Debroy. Credit: PTI

Economist Bibek Debroy has pointed at a worrisome trend about India’s young not seeking jobs and opting for voluntary unemployment. Credit: PTI

That these are hard times for India’s young population is well-captured in Dreamers, a new book by the journalist Snigdha Poonam. More worryingly, however, the book provides frightening insights into what the future may look like for India. According to Poonam, the country’s young population share many of the cultural values of their grandparents such as social conservatism but the life goals of American teenagers, or certainly those of urban and upwardly-mobile Indians – money and fame – which are likely to prove elusive for most. Another way of saying the same thing differently is that “India doesn’t have a job crisis…[but] a wage crisis – everyone who wants a job has a job, just doesn’t have the wage they aspire for.” Mix that with the distorted views of a growing section of India’s young about what it means to be an Indian and the glories of India’s pre-colonial and pre-Islamic past and things increasingly begin to look like a recipe for a coming social disaster.

Another worrisome pointer in the same direction is that there are reports about India’s young not seeking jobs or opting for voluntary unemployment. According to NITI Aayog member Bibek Debroy, who in mid-2017 had expressed concern about it, voluntary unemployment is largely about people “unwilling to settle for jobs, particularly after having ‘invested’ in education” that do not give an acceptable salary. However, voluntary unemployment can also refer to those young people who at one time looked for jobs and could either not get them or discovered that the kind of work they were required to do in their job was not to their liking. In a more positive sense, voluntary unemployment can also be about young people choosing to become entrepreneurs in preference to working for others, or choosing to study further in order to secure better jobs.

According to reports, the numbers of those opting for voluntary unemployment is highest in less developed states with larger numbers of young people, such as Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha. Mahesh Vyas, the Managing Director of Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy  (CMIE), expressed the view that young people, “who have no jobs and have even stopped looking for jobs could easily stray into unlawful activities” thereby turning India’s demographic dividend into a “demographic demon.” But numbers alone should not be the only cause for worry. It is not inevitable that the voluntarily unemployed will opt for unlawful activities. What they do is shaped by the nature of political discourse in their state and the country. Even relatively smaller numbers of voluntarily unemployed in more developed states could take the path of unlawful activities when mobilised to that end by influential political leaders with the expectation that they would benefit from it.

In sum, tough times ahead for India’s young people have the potential to translate into hard times for the nation’s social harmony and peace.

Madhvi Gupta is an independent writer based in Goa. Pushkar is Director, The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. The views expressed here are personal.