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The Employment Conundrum

The Employment Conundrum

From the banal beef to the ubiquitous khichdi, food has of late become the bone of contention in a number of discussions – commanding primetime slots and banner headlines, and guiding national attention. The latest to jump (or rather be tossed) on the food battleground is the humble pakoda (fritters). From being enjoyed on a rainy day in the company of ginger tea or savoured as a sinful indulgence on the streets, the unassuming pakoda is now sharing headline space with such strong and consequential terms as politics, policies and employment – “pakoda politics”, “pakodas and policies” and “pakoda jobs”. And who put the snack in this position? Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a classic case of failed analogy.

In a recent televised interview with a private news channel, Mr. Modi was asked about the state of unemployment in the country. To the interviewer’s rather straight question, he answered, “If a person selling pakoda earns Rs 200 at the end of the day, will it be considered employment or not?”

It was a rhetorical question, but for once let us attempt to answer it.

The answer is no. A person selling pakodas outside the studio of that particular television network, or for that matter anywhere else in the country, is not employed. He doesn’t enjoy the perks of a steady employment. If he doesn’t go to work for a single day, he may lose his spot on the street. He must also have been forced to cough up a certain amount at regular intervals for the spot he is occupying. His is a seasonal occupation. Come rain or sun or a bout of infectious diseases, he will not make a penny. He is forever at the mercy of the number of customers he manages to get. He would not be, in all likelihood, earning a fixed amount every day, Rs 200 in this case. He is a victim of his circumstances, clutching at the proverbial straw. What he is essentially doing is making the maximum off the minimum he has at his disposal.

Now while Mr. Modi further widened the gap between rhetoric and reality with his baseless assertion and proved how disconnected he is with the plight of the country he leads, his collaborator and Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah went a step further and spiced up Mr. Modi’s pakoda remarks by claiming in his maiden Rajya Sabha speech that it is better to be selling pakodas than being jobless. In his speech, Mr. Shah chose not to throw some light on the remaining time left for BJP to fulfil its poll promises but instead trained his guns on the Opposition and the saga of the past 70 years.

If one were to look at the pakoda jibe contextually, the Prime Minister, forever a consummate campaigner, was singing the all-too-familiar election tune of “sabka sath, sabka vikaas”. But what escaped his notice and happens to be most crucial here is, with the general elections only a year and four months away, this brief moment of oratorical prowess will potentially come back to haunt him with damning effects in the run-up to the polls.

At the first instance, what this writer found indigestible was that the Prime Minister, who claims to have risen from being a tea seller to holding the highest office in the country, finds a paltry sum of Rs 200 every day sufficient income. If there’s anything that Mr. Modi should be doing in his capacity as a national leader, it should be to fuel the dreams of the people who voted him to power with the same fervour that made him successful. Former US President Barack Obama had famously lauded Mr. Modi and said that it is only in India that a tea seller can become the prime minister. Shouldn’t he then be lifting his fellow citizens instead of hastily covering tracks of his controversy-ridden prime-ministerial tenure with convenient excuses, one might wonder.

The pakoda seller had been selling his produce before Mr. Modi was elected to power and will continue to do so even after Modi steps down from his seat of power. Then, how and why is he staking claims to an employment opportunity he had no part in creating, one is further compelled to ask.

Mr. Modi shouldn’t be taking credit for the grit and determination enterprising individuals have shown in feeding and clothing themselves. Jobs like selling fritters or fruits or clothes, or shoe-shining or tailoring were found by people themselves when the State failed to provide them with the promised job opportunities. It shouldn’t be a matter of pride that millions of people are toiling hard to eke out a meagre income. It is, in all actuality, a slap on the government’s face for not having helped the citizens adequately. It ought to be seen for what it is – underemployment.

In 2013, Mr. Modi promised one crore jobs for India’s youth if BJP came to power. Since then, his party has been providing vague assertions of job creation, which the data doesn’t support. The rate of unemployment has risen from 3.8 per cent in 2011 to 5 per cent in 2015-16. According to an International Labour Organization report, unemployment in India will increase from 17.7 million in 2016 to 18 million in 2018 and that’s more pakodas than the country can digest.

Niti Aayog, the government think-tank that the Prime Minister heads, last year in August noted underemployment as one of India’s severe problems impeding its growth track and made a case for “high-productivity, high-wage” jobs. It’s ironic and questionable that Mr. Modi doesn’t know or feigns ignorance of what’s being issued from the policy institute he helms.

One of the pet projects launched by the present government heralding growth and prosperity was the Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana (PMMY) or Micro Units Development and Refinance Agency Ltd. (MUDRA). The scheme, launched by the Prime Minister in 2015, is supposed to provide loans up to Rs 10 lakh to the non-corporate, non-farm small/micro enterprises in order to help them start up their businesses. However, the Overall Performance Report for financial year 2016-17 (this is the latest report available) shows that most number of accounts has been listed under Shishu category and sanctioned an amount of Rs 50.000. With such low degree of financial help, the investment can hardly be of much use.

The government also rolled out other such initiatives, namely Start Up India, Stand Up India and Make in India, but unfortunately each of these has met a similar roadblock. The horrors of employment do not stop there. Demonetisation and the introduction of GST, both handiworks of BJP, had also massively affected small businesses and micro units.

In all this, if the pakoda seller or anyone with a similar profession is managing to arrange for “do waqt ki roti,” it is after dealing with housing, clothing, poverty, family distress, social issues, health problems, and educational requirements. Oftentimes, in such cases, it is health and education that take major hit. Educational fees have only gone north but health was hailed as the big winner in Budget 2018. The irony here is the government plans to strengthen private healthcare system based on health insurances. Just in case, the government was blinded, here’s a small reminder: the ones who most require healthcare are found in the derelict premises of a public hospital and not in the shiny corridors of a private hospital.

Further, part of the problem concerning lack of job lies in the fact that available data, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), does not sufficiently display the lags in employment.

For instance, we are led to believe by the media that the US economy is booming. Numbers indicate in the past two quarters, the GDP of US has risen by more than 3 per cent and the stock market is soaring. Yet, many Americans don’t feel that upside.

The situation is similar in India. In its latest World Economic Outlook update released ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the IMF projected India’s GDP growth rate at 7.4 per cent in 2018 and 7.8 per cent in 2019. However, the perception gap between employment and numbers indicating progress is an abyss. Unemployment, more broadly measured, is higher than the headline number suggests. The reason behind this imbalance of numbers is that many people have become self-employed – like the pakoda sellers, are working in part-time jobs when they want a full-time job or have simply given up looking for work.

One of the prime faults of GDP is that it deals in averages and aggregates. While aggregates hide the nuances of inequality, averages don’t tell us very much at all. In 2017, according to year-end calculations, most economies in the world saw increased GDP and lowered unemployment rate, but not India, where the slack in the unemployment track record was further accentuated.

The problems with using GDP as a barometer go beyond masking inequality. Even Simon Kuznets, the economist who practically invented GDP, had doubts about his creation. That it counted armaments and financial speculation as positive outputs also did not find favour with Kuznets. Above all, he said, GDP should not be confused with the well-being of the citizens of the country and that’s a warning we have long ignored. Our leaders point toward the numbers and we blindly believe them without realising that the rich is getting richer and the poor is getting poorer.

In February 2008, amid looming global financial crisis, the then President of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, commissioned a panel, which also included the Indian economist Amartya Sen, to study whether GDP – the most widely used measure of economic progress – is a reliable indicator. In what became the title of the report, the panel concluded that we were (and still are) “mismeasuring our lives”.

Mr. Sarkozy wrote in the foreword that the gap between people’s well-being reported through GDP and their lived experience was creating a “gulf of incomprehension between experts certain in their knowledge and the citizens whose experience of life is completely out of sync with the story told by the data.”

That same gulf is currently tearing India apart. The anger and angst over their potentially dark future was expressed by young college students in Bengaluru, who in their convocation robes sold “Modi pakodas”, “Amit Shah pakodas” and “Yeddy pakodas” few metres away from where the Prime Minister was to address a gathering. As limited as the uprising by students may have been, it does deliver a loud and clear message – they, the primary job-seekers, will not be pacified by empty talk and false promises.

That there are not enough jobs to employ all of the country’s citizenry is a secret that has been out in the open for an inordinately long time, but the situation is made more horrible by the dismissive stance of the leader who is, consciously or unconsciously, living in denial.

Artist Orijit Sen’s recent online meme best sums up the present state of affairs. Joseph Goebbels, a German Nazi politician, is shown alongside Prime Minister Modi and below the former’s photo is written his infamous words, “If you repeat a lie a thousand times, it becomes a truth”. Mr. Modi’s photo carries the words, “Better to tell a thousand lies in that much time. What will you do with truth – make pakodas?” For good measure, Sen captioned the photo “Evolution of Propoganda”.

(Published on 12th February 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 07)