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Growing unemployment: Battle of two parallel realities

The Duality Between The Ground Reality Of Tangible Unemployment And The Perception Created By Events Like "rozgar Melas" Will Likely Continue Till The Next General Election

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Last week, a 20-year-old man from Kapkot in Uttarakhand's Bageshwar district consumed poison after failing the Agniveer entrance test. In the video recorded before his suicide, Kamlesh Goswami explained the reasons for his drastic decision. Despite an NCC certificate, scoring 100 per cent in physical fitness and passing the medical exam, he was rejected as a recruit and felt he had no option left. Sadly, Kamlesh Goswami will not be the last unemployed youngster to be disappointed.

In early October, there were reports that IT companies, including Wipro, Infosys, Accenture and Tech Mahindra, revoked the offer letters to fresh recruits because of adverse business conditions. The Forum of IT Professionals urged the government to intervene and lamented that this was "tantamount to destroying the future of young engineers." When education tech company Byju's announced a lay-off of 2,500 employees in Kerala, the move was staved off only when the employees approached the state's Labour Department.

The latest unemployment data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) reflects the deterioration in job prospects. It shows that the unemployment rate in the country has increased to 7.77 per cent in October from 6.43 per cent in September. While urban employment has shown some improvement – the unemployment rate witnessed a slight reduction from 7.7 per cent in September to 7.21 per cent in October – rural India seems more distressed, where the unemployment rate increased from 5.84 per cent in September to 8.04 per cent in October.

Six of 25 states show double-digit unemployment –with Haryana leading the pack at 31.8 per cent, Rajasthan at 30.7 per cent, Jammu and Kashmir at 22.4 per cent, Jharkhand at 16.5 per cent, Bihar at 14.5 per cent, and Tripura at 10.5 per cent.

Sceptics may argue that not much should be read into changes in monthly data. But the CMIE data also shows that the rise in the unemployment rate is accompanied by a slight fall in the labour participation rate (LPR) – decreasing from 39.3 per cent in September to 39 per cent in October. CMIE head Mahesh Vyas argues that "a falling LPR combined with an elevated unemployment rate implies that the employment rate has been falling. The employment rate is the proportion of the working-age population that is employed. The employment rate is down to 36 per cent in October 2022. A year ago, the employment rate was around 37.3 per cent. The fall is therefore quite significant."

The government's own data (Periodic Labour Force Survey 2020-2021) shows an increase in the proportion of the employed in the working age population over two years -- from 35.3 per cent in 2018-19 to 39.8 per cent in 2020-21 -- is accompanied by deterioration in the quality of employment. It shows a decrease in the proportion of salaried workers and casual labourers, suggesting a loss of regular jobs and an increase in the "self-employed."

The increase of the proportion of "self-employed" in percentage terms from 52.1 per cent in 2018-19 to 55.6 per cent in 2020-21 was also accompanied by a decline in the same period of those in the regular wages/salary category from 23.8 per cent to 21.1 per cent. According to experts, an increase in the number of "self-employed" suggests increasing "distressed employment" -- for example, former salaried employees turning to street vending or former women workers now working as unpaid family labour in farming and small businesses.

Other official data also show the unemployment distress in rural areas observed by the CMIE. In rural areas, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) has been a lifesaver for the unemployed. However, official data shows that millions are being turned away from it. In the first six months of the current financial year (April to October), an estimated 15 million applicants were denied even the meagre MNREGS employment. Although the gap between applicants and those given work under MNREGS existed even before the pandemic and shot up during the pandemic, the refusal rate seems exceptionally high in the current financial year, with 18 per cent of total applicants being refused work.

The distress caused by lack of employment is not something that the powers that be want embedded in the mass psyche. The announcement of the public distribution of appointment letters for government jobs, such as through "rozgar melas" (job fairs), says that these events will continue till December next year to fill 1 million vacancies. The first of these was held on October 22, two days before Diwali, with the Prime Minister himself distributing 75,000 appointment letters to youngsters in 38 government ministries and departments. However, these are not new jobs created in the economy but jobs lying vacant in the government. By the government's own admission, "all ministries and departments are working to fill existing vacancies against sanctioned posts in mission mode."

That this is prompted by political concerns seems clear. Hundreds of thousands of vacancies in the government that were not filled for nearly eight years are being projected as job creation. Even the armed forces did not recruit for years, and now a four-year tenure for temporary soldiers has been packaged as an employment drive.

The announcement of speeding up government recruitment has come on the eve of legislative elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Seven other state elections are due in 2023. The general election will follow and probably be announced in late December 2023 or early January 2024. It can be safely assumed that before every state election, and perhaps close to some Hindu festival, more highly publicised events will be held to showcase "employment generation". Theoretically, for 1 million jobs, at least 12 more events can be organised if the parameters of the one held on October 22, of offering 75,000 new appointment letters per event, are followed. Such "rozgar melas" will then follow the pattern witnessed in the disbursal of Rs 2000 to farmers under Kisan Samman Nidhi every four months.

Clearly, two parallel narratives will play out in India for young people eager to join the labour force. The ground reality of tangible unemployment will vie with the perception created by events like "rozgar melas". This duality between the real and the imagined is likely to continue till the next general election, with the Indian people free to believe one or the other.