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Where Will the 10% Be Employed?

A 10% quota for the upper-caste poor will not necessarily translate into employment opportunities.


The central government’s employment-protection manoeuvres, especially its recent 10% quota politics, bear a striking resemblance to a walking device described in a 19th-century Bengali limerick. The device, strapped to its wearer’s shoulders, dangles “carrots” in front of them. It can make its wearer cover miles in minutes in pursuit of the bait that will always be at a constant distance from them no matter how fast they run towards it. Take for instance, the government’s latest stunt of reserving 10% of jobs and seats at academic institutions for the “economically” weak upper castes. Given the political ado about it, none can deny its effectiveness as an electoral strategy, but neither can one dismiss its spuriousness in providing employment opportunities. Just like the perpetual motion device in the limerick, which makes hunger satiation unattainable, the recent quota arrangements, too, are equally pointless for any worthwhile recruitment.

Where are the opportunities after all? A recent report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) reveals that the situation in the Indian job market is bleak: first, unemployment is on the rise with the rate shooting up to 7.4% in December 2018, the highest ever seen in the past 15 months; second, the retrenched workforce, estimated to be 11 million between December 2017 and 2018, is included in this force of the unemployed; and third, the incidence of joblessness is the highest among the (economically) vulnerable sectors and sections (for example, around 82% of the jobs lost are in the rural sector, already facing the agrarian crisis, and almost 80% of the joblessness is borne by women, which ironically form the focus of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) new “vulnerability” politics.

Though the CMIE has claimed these to be provisional estimates, the scenario is unlikely to change drastically even with the final estimates. Recruitment in the government sector is tardy, wherein a third of the backlog vacancies is already of the “reserved” category. Simultaneously, the unorganised and informal sector that had been a source of employment, historically, is evidently reeling from the “surgical strikes” of demonetisation and the goods and services tax. Contravening the Supreme Court-mandated 50% cap on reservations, at this point, may improve the BJP’s chances of winning electoral allies and earning brownie points with the “weak” voters in the Hindi belt that it lost in the 2018 assembly elections. But, in practice, it will only increase the numbers of precariat voters. A disproportionately higher share of jobseekers are competing for less than half of the jobs left unreserved, and the beneficiaries of reservation can hardly gain from it.

While the “aspiration of the youth” is a common occurrence in the political rhetoric of the day, the understanding of such aspiration seems half-hearted, based on a rather uncaring assumption that throwing crumbs (read pakodas) at them in the name of vague promises for employment, or a job anyhow, can buy their political support. With such deliberate dismissal of the youth’s agency in the job markets, the government is turning a blind eye to the issue of underemployment, which is the reality.

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018 has classified almost four-fifths of the employment in India as “vulnerable,” with less than a fifth of the workers being regular salaried employees and another two-fifths perceiving themselves to be underpaid. Comparable evidence related to underprivileged job conditions is also there in the State of Working India 2018 report by Azim Premji University, which found low-wage employment to be a problem even in the organised sector, not to mention in the unorganised sector. Despite a 3% annual growth of the inflation-adjusted wage rates in 2015, 82% men and 92% women, mostly in non-government sectors, were earning an average monthly income that is almost 40% lower than the minimum salary recommended by the
Seventh Pay Commission. Concurrently, there is an ever-widening divergence between labour productivity and wages. For instance, labour productivity in organised manufacturing is estimated to have increased by six times over the past three decades, whereas wages increased by only 1.5 times.

With all of this evidence, one may alternatively argue that the current unemployment in India, and particularly youth unemployment now, could be “potential” rather than “actual” unemployment. That is, youths willing to work are not making efforts to find jobs because the existing jobs do not fulfil their expectations for payments and privileges. The increasing preference among the youth for salaried jobs, especially in the government sector, can provide an alibi for transferring the onus of joblessness on to the jobless themselves. But, it cannot take away from the fact that, whether it be actual unemployment, underemployment or potential unemployment, all have a strong association with low or no job creation. And, that it is incumbent upon the government to recognise and address the structural bottlenecks that weaken the relationship between economic growth and employment generation. Concurrently, it is hard to dismiss the government’s hypocrisy of pushing (increasing) “reservations”—which in essence signifies the protection of an individual at the extreme point of vulnerability—into a job market that is already distraught with susceptibility.

However, even if the high unemployment rate among the youth, particularly the highly educated, is explained off as being a matter of choice, the government cannot wash its hands of from making such choices path-dependent. Every false promise of safeguards (read reservations) to the electorate triggers a vicious cycle of failed expectations, which are simultaneously lulled by tall commitments and threatened by juxtaposing policies that heighten “vulnerability,” resulting in the politically expedient demands for more of such promises.

Updated On : 16th Jan, 2019


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