Unemployment Photograph:( Zee News Network )
It is safe to say that the issue of job creation was among the top economic issues of 2017, along with demonetisation and GST. And as a long-term issue, its importance definitely exceeds the other two, which though severe are likely to be short-term shocks. Further, riding on the youth vote in 2014, the Narendra Modi government has consistently made jobs its central plank, ensuring that the issue always remains in the news.
The year began with the question of whether demonetisation had negatively affected job growth, especially in the informal sector. Unfortunately, like most questions about demonetisation and its impact on the informal economy, this one too suffers from lack of data to answer it. The government has doggedly refused to address the question directly by failing to conduct the necessary surveys at a national level. But anecdotal evidence, as well as survey evidence from a few sectors, does indicate that the severe contraction in economic activity caused by demonetisation did eliminate informal jobs on a large-scale.
The long-run question is, however, what it has always been. Can the Indian economy generate employment in the required numbers to provide gainful, meaningful work to the millions of youth who enter the labour market each year?
On this, 2017 will be known more as a year of confusion and backpedaling on promises mixed with some welcome developments on the data front.
A principal source of confusion has been the term “jobless growth.” Only last week two ex-policymakers argued that “India’s jobless growth is a myth.” Citing Labour Bureau survey data, the authors pointed out that India’s problem is not lack of jobs, but rather lack of “regular, productive, and well-paid jobs.” But this has always been the understanding among all observers of the Indian economy.
As I have also consistently pointed out in this column, jobless growth was never about the absence of jobs, it was about the failure of the formal sector to generate decent jobs, forcing the vast majority to work in the informal sector. The question is, why has growth mostly created “bad” jobs. And how can it create more “good” jobs? So it is rather late in the game to be resorting to such denial techniques and using clickbait headlines to boot.
Another source of confusion has been the lack of data. The most frequently used NSSO data has been available only every five years. India did not have a large-scale, high-frequency employment data collection system till 2010. The Labour Bureau experimented with annual surveys from 2010 to 2015, but these were not used much by academics or policy-makers for quality as well as availability reasons, and have now been discontinued.
Due to lack of reliable, high-frequency employment data, much poorly informed back and forth has been carried out in the op-ed pages. In mid-2017, a task-force was set up under then NITI Aayog Chairperson, Arvind Panagariya to prepare a report on how to improve the country’s employment statistics system. Admitting that the debate “has been taking place in the absence of accurate data or analysis”, the report made recommendations to collect “more reliable, timely and relevant labour market data”.
In this respect, a welcome development is that in 2017, the NSSO has started doing a Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS). This is an unprecedented (for India) continuous survey that will be conducted quarterly for urban areas and annually for rural and urban areas. So while 2017 passed with lack of adequate data to gauge what was happening to jobs, hopefully, 2018 will be different, creating the stage for an informed debate leading to the 2019 general election.
The government’s backpedalling on the jobs issue in 2017 has taken two forms. The first, after several weeks of bad press in mid-2017, BJP President Amit Shah issued a statement that it was not possible to provide formal sector jobs to everyone in a country of 125 crore people so self-employment was the answer. This was a clear admission of failure because it implied that the government did not think its policies were going to create formal jobs in the private sector in adequate numbers. Second, in order to make its performance in job creation seem better, the government proposed redefining what counts as a “formal” job. If we count all workers who are enrolled in some pension or provident fund scheme as “formal” then the picture looks better. While this may be understandable as a jobs accounting exercise, it hardly solves the actual problem of disguised unemployment plaguing millions.
We need to get serious about three distinct issues with regard to the Indian labour market. First, the continued problem of bad, low-paying jobs and disguised unemployment, which is most of our labourforce. Second, the relatively new and fast-growing problem of open unemployment among the educated youth. As a proportion of the total labourforce, this is a small number, but it is a high visibility issue as seen in the large rallies taken out all across India for reservations in government jobs. Third, the question of a low and falling labour force participation rate. Compared to other developing countries, India has a much lower ratio of those employed or seeking work in the population aged 15 and above (53% compared to Indonesia’s 66% or China’s 69% and the world average of 62%). This is usually explained by withdrawal of women from the labour force due to prosperity or education. But it needs to be investigated further because “discouraged workers”, those who have given up looking for work, may be a part of the story as well.
The final and potentially welcome development for this year is that the government is expected to announce a new National Employment Policy in the 2018 Union Budget. One hopes that such a policy will be adequately funded, and even more importantly will signal that the government places the interests of Indian workers before those of international investors or the global market.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).