Last week, there were three days of public violence in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. At stake were not religion or religious differences. Nor was it offence to religion.
What took place was an outpouring of simmering anger and resentment that does not bode well for the state or the nation. Angry young aspirants for a Railways job went on a rampage, destroying government property, railway lines, and railway bogeys – over the lack of jobs. Over one crore aspirants had applied for just over 35,000 jobs in the Indian Railways, in the non-technical popular category.
These are essentially jobs like goods guard, accounts clerk-cum-typist, senior timekeeper and the like. Non-technical jobs that have a starting salary of about 19,000 per month. But more importantly, offering relative job security and a pensionable job.
Students went on rampage over the lack of transparency regarding the exam and the results. There were many complaints of fixed quotas, reservations, and a whole bunch of other issues – which may or may not have relevance.
At the core of the problem is that there are not enough jobs. And young men with qualifications – degrees in management and engineering – are getting increasingly frustrated and angry – as they are unable to find jobs that meet their aspirations.
If we look at the numbers, one-crore plus people applying for 35,000 jobs – we have over 350 applicants for each job. The problem is not that the applicants did not get the railway job, the problem is that there are no other jobs to be had. In the 30 years since liberalisation, there has been a massive growth in incomes and a reduction in poverty.
Having said that, this was also a period where inequality between the various classes began increasing rapidly. As liberalisation kicked in, as economic shackles came off, those who were better off got a bigger boost than those who were not. We have seen the discrepancies grow between us.
Large modern townships next to large swathes of hutments without drainage or facilities. And the ever-present mass media has brought home the gap between what we have and what we can never hope to aspire towards. The Oxfam Report ‘Inequality Kills’, released just before Davos, shines a spotlight on the figures. India has seen a growth in billionaires. We now have “more billionaires than France, Sweden and Switzerland combined, indeed there has been a 39 percent increase in the number of billionaires in India in 2021”.
Furthermore, “The richest 98 Indian billionaires had the same wealth (US$ 657 billion) as the poorest 555 million people in India, who also constitute the poorest 40 per cent.” At the same time as the billionaires were seeing an increase in wealth, 84 per cent of the population saw a real decline in their income. Adding to this is the lack of employment opportunities.
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), India’s unemployment rate currently stands at 6.6 per cent - with 8.3 per cent urban unemployment and 6.6 per cent rural unemployment. In states like Bihar, the unemployment rate is double the national average, at 16 per cent. Other states that have worrisome figures are Rajasthan at 27.1 per cent and Haryana at 33 per cent.
One of the key issues before Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will be to see how she can get more young men off the streets and into jobs before the next general elections. If you look at the jobs listed under the Railway Board’s non-technical popular category – typists, and clerks – it is not quite clear why these jobs are needed in 2022. Most of these seem to be legacy jobs, with possibly no application in the modern world. However, right now, it is risky to rationalise these roles and get rid of them (or merge them) into other roles, simply because of the backlash from those who aspire to get these jobs.
India’s demographic dividend will soon run out. As time passes, the ‘70 per cent under the age of 35’ that gave India her demographic advantage, will grow older. If they do not have the requisite skills, if they do not have living wage jobs, that ‘demographic dividend’ will not just turn out to be hollow, but also a burden for the following generations to carry. States like Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand supply the best of labour across the country.
Their people work hard to build other states and cities. There is no reason they cannot do this in their own states. And that is possibly what Sitharaman has to consider when she presents her Budget. How do you create massive public infrastructure works in states where unemployment is high? How do you build much needed hospitals and schools? How do you get housing in place that will house the residents of the state? How do you bring in big business to invest? How do you energise the SME and the MSME sector to start producing and hiring? The only fix to an unemployment crisis is being able to build avenues to generate employment.
If that is ignored, then expect more such spontaneous outbreaks of violence, as frustration boils over.
(The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker)