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From would-be employed to badly employed—the group that will lead India’s next mass movement

We have for the first time a group that can spearhead a nation-wide movement for employment.

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Conventional wisdom holds that unemployment does not lend itself to political mobilisation in India. You can launch mass movements on generic issues like price rise, corruption or on sectoral issues like caste reservations or farm laws. But you cannot create a similar movement on rising unemployment, no matter how high the joblessness figure is. A recent article by Mahesh Vyas reminds us of the key arguments of the skeptics.

I disagree.

I believe that unemployment of the kind and level that we see in today’s India lends itself to a mass mobilisation. Indeed, this is the next big movement waiting to happen across the country. This could spread like wildfire. We don’t know when and where the spark might happen that triggers it all.

Also read: In ‘progressive’ Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, only 1 in 5 young urban women in paid work

Where the skeptics get it wrong

To be fair, the skeptics do not underestimate the significance of unemployment as an issue. Indeed, Mahesh Vyas’ institution, Centre for the Monitoring of Indian Economy (CMIE), has produced some of the best data series that tracks unemployment. He has been at the forefront in alerting the country about the rising numbers of joblessness. The main point of the skeptics is that even when unemployment numbers are as high as they currently are, it affects a miniscule proportion of the country’s population. Besides, even those who are affected tend to view their unemployment as a personal failure rather than a systemic defect that demands political redressal. Finally, the unemployed are too vulnerable and too fragmented to come together for any protest. There is a lot of wisdom in this conventional wisdom.

The trajectory of the Indian economy in the recent past, accentuated by the pandemic, invites us to revisit this conventional wisdom. Let me address just one key issue here, that of numbers. Just how many persons are available for political mobilisation on the issue of employment?

Also read: More young urban Indian men appear to be studying longer, not looking for jobs: New research

The greater unemployed

First of all, the unemployment numbers are much higher than any official or unofficial estimate tells you. In August this year, the CMIE calculated the unemployment rate at 8.3 per cent. That translates into about 3.5 crore unemployed persons, a big number, but less than 4 per cent of the eligible voters in the country. Even the official estimate of unemployment pegs the pre-Covid unemployment rate at 7.8 per cent, more than double of India’s conventional unemployment rate.

These are very conservative estimates as they count only those who remain jobless despite wanting to work and having made efforts to secure work. If you go for a simpler and commonsensical definition (CMIE calls it “Greater Unemployment rate”) of those who want to work but do not have work, then the CMIE estimates translate into 13.8 per cent unemployment or 6.1 crore persons who were unemployed in August 2021. We could add to it, those who are in the working age, fit to work but who do not say they want to work, simply because they do not see any opportunity around them. By global standards, we should have about 63 crore working people, while our current figure is about 39 crore. That’s a staggering gap of 24 crore, the real disguised unemployment. But that does not translate into politics. For the purpose of the present calculation, let us stick to the 6.1 crore who are unemployed and who say so. Let us call them formally unemployed.

Also read: Improve skills, take unpaid internships — experts’ advice on surviving slow jobs market

There are more

Besides, there are four more categories of the unemployed that need to be added to this calculation. We have a vast number of would-be-unemployed, those who are doing “timepass” as students in colleges and universities. The latest All India Survey on Higher Education tells us that nearly two crore students (out of a total of 3.7 crore) are pursuing higher education of a type that is unlikely to land them a job. Even if you make the most naïve assumption that everyone who enrolls for regular B.E/B.Tech/MBA/B.Ed or any regular MA/MSc/M Com could secure a job, you are still left with 2.1 crore students who would terminate their higher education with just a BA/B Com/BSc degree or a diploma or a higher degree from distance learning. They are not officially unemployed yet, but they know they are going to join the ranks of the unemployed.

The third category is the virtually unemployed. They like to think they are not yet unemployed, but they are. If you ask them, they would tell you that they are preparing for job exams, but only 10 per cent stand a chance of getting any sarkari job they are preparing for. It is hard to quantify this category, but just look at these numbers: there were 23 lakh applications for 368 vacancies for peon’s job in UP; when railway advertised 90 thousand group D jobs, there were 2.5 crore applicants. On a conservative reading, this category has about two crore unemployed.

The fourth category is badly employed, those who do poorly paid and insecure contractual jobs and are on the lookout for regular and secure employment. While this is a vast section of India’s working population, here we can focus on the badly employed in the organised sector, since they are the ones that can be mobilised. Taking the most inclusive definition of a formal job (regular salary, with or without any security of job), State of Working India, 2018 report estimated that about 40 per cent of workers among the “non-agricultural wage earners” are badly employed. That’s roughly 3.5 crore persons.

Finally, we have the under-employed, a notoriously large, impossibly vague and frustratingly chronic category of the Indian workers. Let us focus on a small sub-set of this vast ocean: those who have been recently retrenched, or demoted from formal to informal employment or pushed back to agriculture. Mahesh Vyas estimates this category to be about 50 lakh. Between 2019-20 and August 2021, from pre-Covid to present, 1.1 crore workers (88 lakh salaried and 20 lakh self-employed) lost their existing source of livelihood. Half of them became “unemployed” while the remaining 54 lakh settled down to lower quality employment (47 lakh in agriculture and seven lakh as daily wagers).

Add all these five categories of persons desperately looking for half-decent employment, and you are looking at 14.2 crore persons who are unemployed and potentially available for a campaign. If you assume only one person per family, it could affect more than half the households. Assuming that some households would have more than one unemployed person in this category, this issue touches at least every third family in the country. If that is not huge, I do not know what is huge.

India has had large-scale unemployment, mostly disguised under-employment, ever since we started recording it. Yet, the issue could not be addressed, since it lacked political salience. Unlike many other countries, it did not spawn social unrest or targeted movement. But now we have the numbers that can support a genuine mass movement on the issue of unemployment. The changing profile of the unemployed has created a minimum critical mass of educated youth in the urban areas who are vocal stakeholders, who cannot be invisibilised. We now have a group that can spearhead a nation-wide movement for employment. The challenge is to come up with a positive agenda, forge unity among all the five categories of unemployed and unleash a campaign that forces a rethink on the ruling economic orthodoxy.

The author is a member of Swaraj India and co-founder of Jai Kisan Andolan. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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