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Mainstream, VOL LX No 33, 34 New Delhi, August 6, August 13, 2022 [Independence Day Special]

Report on Panel Discussion on the Unemployed in Today’s India | Naushad Ali

Saturday 13 August 2022

by Naushad Ali

Sunil Memorial Trust organized an Online Panel Discussion on “Being Unemployed in Today’s India” on the 9th of July 2022.

The speakers at the panel discussion were Dr Amit Basole, Associate Professor in the Department of Economics, School of Arts and Sciences, Azim Premji University. Manindra Thakur, Professor, Center for Political Science, JNU and Mr. Anupam, National President, Yuva Halla Bol.

Initiating the panel discussion, Professor PK Basant first introduced Sunil ji and mentioned that he was a student of JNU. From student life he fought for the rights of the poor, backward and tribals. Further, he said that Sunil worked all his life to mobilise tribals in Madhya Pradesh. After his death, his friends and well-wishers established the Sunil Memorial Trust in his memory to highlight his struggle.

After this, Professor PK Basant requested Professor Arun Kumar to Chair the meeting and to conduct the program.

Professor Arun Kumar welcomed everyone and mentioned that it was decided to hold a seminar on the problem of unemployment in India but not limit it to economic issues. The panelists were chosen so that the political and social aspects of unemployment could also be discussed.

After this Professor Arun Kumar introduced Dr Amit Basole and requested him to speak. Dr. Amit Basole first thanked Sunil Memorial Trust for inviting him and then mentioned about his relationship with Sunil ji. He said that although he never met him, he used to read his writings. One of his articles, ’Nandigram and the Superstition of Industrialization’ had a great impact on him and he translated it into English. This was an analytical article which brought out the limitations of capitalism and linked the question of primitive accumulation in Marxist theory with displacement.

He said that one of the reasons for mentioning that article is that when he was thinking of what can be said about unemployment in such a forum, which has not been said many times before, he realized the need to delve into the issue of unemployment a little deeper. The problem has to be viewed in the context of the structural aspects of capitalism. The solution can also come from there.

Dr Basole said that we should start the analysis by analysing the data about unemployment. That would clarify the background. The definition of unemployment is, “A person who has no income from work and is looking for work”.

In India, the issue mostly concerns educated youth. If one is not highly educated, meaning one who does not have a 10th or 12th class degree, then mostly one is not unemployed. Such workers are also not necessarily looking for a job as per their aspiration because most of them are in the informal sector. They have to do whatever work is available.

According to a government survey, people are unable to remain unemployed after the age of thirty. This has been confirmed by other surveys. After the age of thirty, responsibility comes so that work has to be done to earn an income. This is especially true for men. The situation for women is slightly different. But are people doing the work they want to do or what they have been educated for? The answer would be no.

But what has changed in India in the last 15-20 years, due to which unemployment has become a politically important issue. It is that the work force in India has become more educated. In the early 2000s, a very small section of India’s work force had diplomas or were graduates. Most were 10th pass. But now 25 to 30 percent of the workers have diploma or are graduates. However, compared with other countries then this number is still not very big. But for India this number is huge. Workers with good education are looking for decent employment but it is not available.

Talking about women, the highest unemployment is among the educated girls. They are usually less than thirty years of age and have completed more than 12 years of education. The unemployment rate among such young women is 30 - 40 percent or even more. Little research has been done as to why such educated women are unemployed, but one can make a guess. Professor Arun Kumar in his opening remarks had flagged the issue of low participation of women in the labour force. Most of the women quit working after getting married. As per government data, only one woman out of five is working. This figure has not increased for many years in spite of more women getting educated. There are more of them in schools and colleges.

The question arises why there is little work for them. There are many reasons behind this. The family and the social situation is such that women are left with limited options. They need work near home. They need flexible hours so that they can fulfil household responsibilities as well as work outside. At times they need permission to go out and work. All this suggests that when a woman wants to work, the work has to be very specific and that kind of work may not be available. Security and transportation can also be added to the list of difficulties and these are big problems in India right now.

In the end, let me say that the problem of unemployment is not only that of women but for all. The problem is not only unemployment, but decent and well-paid employment. This is the reason for rush for government jobs. It is the weakness of the private sector that it is not creating enough productive and well paying jobs. This brings us to the question of capitalism.

This is the era of capitalism. Before us not only countries like, Europe, Japan etc., but also countries like Korea and then China have become industrialized. So, what are the chances of industrialization of India? Can economies like India become industrialized like these other countries? Can that pattern of industrialization create that kind of employment in large number as it is needed in India?

Both these are critical questions. Obviously, it is difficult to take a firm position on this. Still, let me say that according to me the answer to both these questions is `no’.

So, India is unlikely to repeat the pattern of industrialization that we have seen earlier. There are a variety of reasons for this. Sunil ji saw this clearly. In the article I mentioned at the start, To create that kind of development, the kind of internal colonialism, the kind of conflict and its resolution that are required is not possible at present.

It is necessary to discuss the alternative. Is it feasible within a capitalist framework? Or can there be other varieties of capitalism, which can produce a different kind of society, even different kinds of industrial societies. But not the kind of industrial society that we have seen. Is it possible?

If not, do we need to talk of socialism, and which is certainly a political question.

Professor Arun Kumar thanked Dr Amit Basole and pointed to the important issue raised, namely, whether capitalism can create employment for all? Especially, with today’s technology? Or is socialism possible? Or what Gandhi said, development from below. Is that a possibility?

Next, Professor Arun Kumar urged Anupam, the National President of Yuva Halla Bol, to present his views based on his extensive experience of working with youth over a long time.

Anupam:

Crores of youth are unemployed in the country currently but unfortunately there is little national debate on this. Unemployment is not only an economic problem or just an economic crisis. It is a question of life and death for a large section. Many types of data have come out on this. At least in terms of data metrics, India has a good reputation all over the world. But the situation in this regard is deteriorating in the last few years.

According to the NCRB data, around 2018, three people were committing suicide every two hours due to unemployment. Often politicians call India a young country. And if unemployment is such a big contributor to suicide, then it should come up more in the public debate. This is a very deep and widespread crisis and its solution is not going to come out in a day. The reason for not finding a solution is that unemployment is a result of our wrong development model.

What is our concept of development and definition of progress? Only if we clarify that can we come up with the solution of unemployment in a meaningful way. The political question underlying this is our vision of the kind of country and society we want? How do we want to proceed?

But we can take the country’s political discourse to that level only when those in power can be persuaded that unemployment is a big problem which needs to be urgently solved. Unfortunately, through the propaganda machinery the ruling party is explaining to people that `Amrit Kal’ is going on and there is no need to worry about unemployment.

In our country jobs are largely in the unorganized sector - more than 90 per cent. It was adversely impacted by demonetisation and the kind of lock down we saw in the name of COVID. They affected the supply. The result of which was to impact both demand and supply in the economy.

Public sector jobs, which constitute a very small part of the entire job market, should have grown but have not. The anger of the youth that you see during different government recruitment drives is not the anger only due to that recruitment. Like, we just saw with the announcement of Agneepath. A few months earlier in January, there were huge protests in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and many parts of the country regarding the recruitment of Railway RRB NTPC which is a non-technical popular category of railways and Group D recruitments.

Many times the question arises whether this anger is only about this recruitment. But I think the anger reflects the problem in the entire economy - be it the organized sector or the unorganized sector. There is no other physical medium than this for the youth to express their anger.

This anger boils up when a paper leaks or some kind of irregularity takes place. Like, in the case of NTPC and Group D exams in Railways which were notified in February 2019 just before the Lok Sabha elections. It was promised that four lakh jobs will be given in the next two years only through railways. NTPC and Group D were notified immediately after that promise in which two crore forty two lakh candidates applied. Among the applicants were people who had engineering, B. Tech, post graduate and PhD degrees.

Why does this situation persist? Before 2019, the government announced that the world’s largest recruitment drive would be launched. And now even after more than three years, that recruitment has not been completed. If one asks why the delay? The answer comes that because these were huge recruitments, so we could not complete them properly. Now the question is who are these two crore forty two lakh people who applied for Group D recruitment. These are the people who belong to the 90% of the population of this country. For them unemployment is a question of life and death. News about them is missing from our main stream media.

We are aware of at least five suicide cases due to Agneepath scheme alone. If this is not discussed then anger will erupt in different ways. It is not that this anger erupts suddenly. In fact, protests have been going on for a long time in different creative ways. But no one has cared about those protest. There is no talk or debate on that. So, it becomes visible on the day when someone from that crowd breaks the glass of a bus or some chaotic scenes emerge in that movement or violence takes place. Take a small example, Staff Selection Commission conducts recruitment for appointment in paramilitary forces. Those who were successful in the 2018 recruitment and have qualified at each stage are protesting for the last one and a half years. They have sat at Jantar Mantar for days, held rallies, held meetings and marched. They sat in Nagpur for many days and are now marching from Nagpur to Delhi for the last 36-37 days. But they are not on our TV screens or in the discussions of the people. Their patience has been tested. When they reach Delhi and when the demonstration becomes big, various strategies will be adopted by those in power to discredit the demonstration.

Agneepath is what I call army recruitment. For the last one and a half years, the young were making every effort to put pressure on the government to restart the stalled army recruitment. A run for employment campaign was organized to highlight the issue. In every district the youth ran in the fields. Races were organized to attract attention. For three years there has been no recruitment. And now when recruitment in the army is announced, it is only for four years. This is laughable. Training may be of one year but it takes at least three to four years to prepare a soldier. So, the biggest question is why the government should prepare soldiers and name them Agniveer and not call them soldiers. Further, why does the government not want to take their service after training them? Why doesn’t government want to use them for border security? And then why do its corporates come forward and say that we are ready to give jobs. Why do state governments say the same? Everyone is now saying that we will give Agniveer a permanent job. But where they want a permanent job, they say that they will free in four years. It is illogical and makes little sense. This is not only against those youths but will it not weaken the army? Will it not compromise our national security? That’s why we were against it. Because we protested we were thrown in jail. I was sent to Tihar.

For the past ten days, I have travelled in several districts of Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh. In the case of Agneepath, the government has not tried to resolve any of the issues raised by the youth. What they did was to use the entire police machinery to repress people and that led to violence. The violence was also a result of the arrest of anyone who could lead. This left a vacuum which was filled by people who were anarchic and violent. After that, FIRs were registered in every district on grounds of violence and court cases started. Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds were put in prison. There are many names in the police FIRs. FIRs were also registered against hundred-two hundred unknown people. As a result of this, the local police station started making recovery in the name of unknown rioters. Police went to someone’s house whose child was preparing for the army and said that your child was also protesting and is named in the FIR. This has created such an atmosphere of fear that people have stopped telling that their child was also preparing to join the army.

In Uttar Pradesh, the police are being sent to the villages. The police is holding meetings in chaupals to enumerate the benefits of Agneepath. And, the same police is not allowing those who tell the truth about Agneepath to hold the meeting. What can be a bigger joke in a democracy than this? Police is working like a party worker. I say that these policemen who are telling the benefits of Agneepath should be told to become Agniveer after four years. In coaching institutes, like in Mukherjee Nagar in Delhi the police are going and making a list of those preparing for army recruitment.

Irrespective of the real question, an attempt has been made to put a lid on youth resentment. That is why I consider the current peace to be a very dangerous. Soon this anger will flare up again. Then this debate will take place all over the country. The solution is not just in government jobs but it is linked to the whole model of development. But the debate will start with protest over government jobs.

After completion of Anupam’s talk, Professor Arun Kumar thanked him for making us aware of the ground reality on the basis of his experience, which is very worrying. He then invited the third speaker of the panel discussion, Professor Manindra Thakur, to present his views.

Professor Manindra Thakur:

Professor Manindra Thakur said that on talking to the M.A. students today, it emerges that they also do not know why they are doing an MA. There are many jobs in Delhi University, but teachers have not become permanent in the last eight to ten years. They are working in ad hoc way. There are many colleges where students join after their PhD and teach for eight to ten years but there is no permanent teacher in their department in that college. In many departments, the head of the department is either from another department or an ad hoc teacher. Students say that bad times have come in the university and that they don’t know what is going to happen next.

I remember when I was a student and once when after an interview I did not get the job then someone said that without good teachers the university cannot run, so you can be sure, you will get the job. But in today’s era even if there are jobs students don’t know how will they get them. There is no objective criteria which can be used to understand whether one can get a job or not. This is about the universities and it is having its total impact on university psychology and university politics.

The psychology of students has now become that whatever subject they enroll for, they try to do something outside that subject to develop skills. As a result, the student’s focus has completely shifted from studies. The teachers who join are uncertain about their future. There is a new kind of feudalism in the colleges of Delhi University. Where ad hoc teachers are completely silent so that no complaint goes against them. This is the prevailing atmosphere and seeing this the students are frustrated.

I surveyed some chemist shops near the university. I asked how much depression medicine is sold there. Most of the shopkeepers told me that if we start selling depression medicine without prescription, we won’t need to sell anything else.

There used to be a cinema hall in Mukherjee Nagar. That cinema hall is now being used as a class room where children are being taught in coaching. It can accommodate more than two and a half thousand students. All over Mukherjee Nagar there are posters and boards advertising coaching. The atmosphere is one of frustration and despair since those who are taking coaching know that there are no jobs.

Two things follow. Either students are raw material for violence, for petty or big fights. Or are raw material for identity politics. Earlier in the universities where there used to be controversy and dialogue on political issues, at present there is controversy and dialogue only on issues of identity.

It is very likely that in such an environment where the future appears bleak and there is mental depression these people may be used as trolls of the identity movement unless there is serious political intervention very soon. It is necessary that quickly a leadership should emerge that can explain to them the nuances of unemployment. Who can explain to them what is at the root of their problems. Otherwise, the situation will go out of our hand. This is one aspect of the problem.

The other aspect is how quickly anger flared up all around when Agniveer was announced. Some attributed it to an outside hand. At that time I talked to people. I was in Bihar where a lot of violence was happening. I came to understand that this is a pointer to the second anarchic angle. The same people who were involved in identity politics till yesterday, can also indulge in widespread violence since they are bereft of any political vision.

I do not know whether there can be a way between two things. One which explains that identity politics is a way to divide the unemployed youth. Second, which explains that the problems arising out of unemployment cannot be solved through anarchic violence. Rather, it requires serious political movement.

This is a crisis which is visible from the universities all the way down. In the remote areas of Bihar, in areas like Purnia, where I am talking a lot with the youth, I see a third thing and that is drug addiction. A huge drug market is emerging among these unemployed youth. Two murders happened recently in the small town, which were due to the drug mafia. There is a nexus working among the unemployed youth.

This pattern is similar to what I had seen earlier in some areas of Punjab. The problem in Punjab was largely due to unemployment among the youth. During field work in Punjab, people told me that this problem is due to unemployment and unemployability. Because they had no employable skills. During the Punjab movement, degrees were given. But there was no study. As a result, they could not find employment anywhere. And they got caught in drug addiction. Similarly in many places of Bihar, colleges are open but only admission and exams are held. There is no teaching, there is no study. This is the condition of most colleges. So, there are many unemployed youth who have no prospect of getting employment. This frustration is leading them towards the third way.

I see three ways. First, identity politics whether on religion or caste lines, second an anarchic politics and third drug addiction.

How to get out of these three and turn the youth toward a solid political movement. This I think is the big challenge facing us. There used to be youth based political movements, which were student movements, which were radical student movements. Now, their crisis is that students’ engagement with them is decreasing. Their membership is decreasing and I don’t understand why?

Perhaps in the universities, I am specifically referring to Bihar, where I am doing fieldwork, because of the absence of classes or the basic political training that youth used to get during their stay in university, there is a narrowing of the vision. The presence of young agitators and the training in one or the other political outfit brought about maturity. The chances of that have now greatly reduced. The possibility of radical student movement is also decreasing. In such a situation, independent movements will probably be needed. Independent organization will be needed. Those who network together and connect the students with some other things.

We have initiated a library movement. In Bihar, there were about six thousand old libraries, now only six seven hundred are left. All these libraries should be interlinked. And from there a student dialogue should be started. They should be given career counselling and given some kind of hope. A training pad should be launched for them. Further, they should be given political training.

It is a complex task but I think this project will have to be developed as a long term plan. It is necessary if we want to develop the unemployed youth into a force which is ready for the transformational politics for the radical politics for the political transition.

One last thing I would like to say, because of this depression and frustration due to unemployment, youth does not see any future. This is also resulting in the breakdown of families. The violence the youth faces outside is being internalized. Violence is becoming a part of the personality of many. And that violence is now visible inside their family. I talk to many families, they tell me that our children are not listening to us. In a way, the frustration is breaking the family relations. I realized this after interacting extensively with about a thousand people.

Unemployment does not just mean unemployment. It’s not just an economic issue. That their job profile is not being enhanced or they are not getting a job is not an empty economic issue, but I think it is a very deep rooted crisis. This also includes the crisis of universities and schools. It is a good thing that weapons are not freely available here. And there is no shooting happening in schools. But we can see the possibility of this in the coming time. Mindless killing which has no logic. That too could be a possibility. We are standing at a dangerous juncture; if a solution is not found very soon. The technique and method of meaningful employment has not been figured out. And if there is no way of better political training, then things will get out of our hands.

I was in school when the Anti-Emergency Movement was going on in Bihar. At that time people were not atomized. The most dangerous thing right now is that people are atomized. And they do not have the training they needed for organized collective action, they do not even have imagination. So the possibility of atomized violence is also increasing, I think.

It is said that the most dangerous thing is the death of dreams. I think this situation has now arrived and this is a big challenge for us.

After Professor Manindra Thakur’s talk was over, Professor Arun Kumar thanked him and started the question and answer process. Various questions were raised which were answered by the speakers. Like, what should the opposition parties and trade unions do to deal with the problem of unemployment? What are the regional dimensions of unemployment? How relevant are Gandhi’s thoughts today. Impact of further increase of agricultural mechanization and monoculture and their influence. The illusion of poverty alleviation. Is democracy being abandoned? Has TINA caught up? The intolerance of government towards its critics. And, their being branded as anti-national, urban Naxalite, etc.

In the end, Professor Arun Kumar said that today’s discussion has been completed but such discussion should continue so that many questions which are being raised can also be discussed.

Mr. SN Sahu gave the Vote of Thanks. He said that today’s discussion was very important and beneficial. Every aspect of the problem of unemployment was discussed. SN Sahu thanked all the participants, panelists and conveners of the panel discussion

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