n April, the Railway Recruitment Board received more than 1.6 crore registrations for 35,000 jobs of typists, stenos, account clerks and ticket collectors, among other posts. In Punjab, more than 6 lakh students appear for an International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Such is the craving to go abroad that IELTS coaching has become a roaring business, estimated to be over Rs 1,100 crore. With agriculture becoming economically unviable, and with no job to look up to, the youth of Punjab are increasingly keen on leaving the country.
Even as the country is grappling with the long-term implications of growing unemployment, comes another shocker. The Bangalore-based Azim Premji University has in its State of Working India-2019 report said that 50 lakh people lost jobs between 2016 and 2018. A month earlier, the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017-18 report of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) showed that 3.2 crore casual labourers in rural areas lost jobs between 2011-12 and 2017-18.
Of these, roughly 3 crore were farm workers, showing a decline of 40 per cent in availability of these jobs. Economists who analysed the report found that between 2011-12 and 2015-16, manufacturing jobs alone declined from 580.6 lakh to 480.3 lakh, that is job loss exceeding 1 crore.
From unskilled to skilled, from uneducated to educated and even to those with high qualification, jobs have been shrinking. In Uttar Pradesh, 3,700 doctorate holders, 28,000 post-graduates and 50,000 graduates applied for just 62 jobs of peon. The job requires a minimum qualification of class V pass and the ability to ride a bicycle. And this is not the first time highly qualified people have applied for such jobs. It is no wonder that the Azim Premji University study shows rising unemployment among the highly educated, the less educated and the informal labour force since 2016, the year demonetisation was announced.
From unskilled to skilled, from uneducated to educated and even to those with high qualification, jobs have been shrinking. In Uttar Pradesh, 3,700 doctorate holders, 28,000 post-graduates and 50,000 graduates applied for just 62 jobs of peon
At a time when massive unemployment prevails in the urban areas, the number of workers in agriculture, too, has shrunk between 2004-05 and 2011-12. This is being hailed by mainline economists as a brighter side of the job loss nightmare that the country is witnessing. The argument is that the translocation of agricultural workforce to cities is a sign of economic growth, and it is for the first time that such a clear sign of people moving away from villages has been seen. Like his predecessor, even the new Chief Economic Adviser Krishnamurthy Subramanian has called for shifting people from agriculture to cities, which are in need of cheaper labour.
This argument is regressive. It comes from the same flawed economic thinking that the World Bank or IMF has been promoting all these years. Since many economists occupying high posts in India have been trained abroad, this flawed thinking has become the unwritten policy design. Way back in 1996, the World Bank had directed India to move out 40 crore people from rural to urban areas over the next 20 years, by the end of 2015. More recently, the National Skill Development Policy document had made a promise of reducing rural workforce from 57 to 38 per cent by 2022. This was based on the premise that urban areas need ‘dehari mazdoor’ and that can only come from agriculture.
This is a sad reflection of how economic prescriptions are borrowed and blindly implemented. In a country where 70 per cent of the workforce lives in rural areas, imagine the futility of moving a large percentage of the population into cities, looking for menial jobs. Indian economists and policymakers should, for a change, spell out a policy design aimed at making agriculture profitable and at revitalising the rural industry. Once there is more money in the hands of the rural workforce, more demand would be generated, and that would mean the wheels of economic growth will turn faster.
While Indian economists have failed to emerge from the World Bank’s blinkered economic thinking, China has taken a leap forward. With about 60 per cent of its population forced to move into cities over the past few decades of rapid industrialisation, China now realises its mistake. With most skilled jobs in cities moving away to Africa labour is still cheaply available, China has launched a ‘reverse urbanisation’ programme to take care of the idle or underemployed workforce.
An estimated 70 lakh people, most with higher educational qualifications, moved back to the countryside last year, and 60 per cent of them reportedly got back to farming. This became essential considering the decline in domestic agricultural production owing to which imports soared. With unemployment and underemployment rising, and with agricultural production dipping, China has taken the right step to what is proverbially killing two birds with one stone. Adequate rural infrastructure is being laid out, and a translocation subsidy is also being provided to those who opt for rural areas.
In India, there is no other alternative to creating more jobs than to strengthen agriculture, create more infrastructures in rural areas, and providing for more social security in the form of public sector education and health services. With the introduction of PM-Kisan scheme, which initially promises direct income support of Rs 6,000 per year to farmers, which may be enhanced in the times to come, the first step of providing an additional income into the hands of farmers has already been taken.
While economists are refusing to change, it’s the political thinking that is beginning to show signs of maturity. First, NDA announced PM-Kisan scheme, and this was followed by Congress with the electoral promise of Nyuntam Aay Yojna (NYAY) promising Rs 6,000 per month to the lowest 20 per cent of the population, a clear pointer to what political leadership sees as a road ahead for economic development that is more inclusive. Both parties are now beginning to realise what I have said for long: Agriculture alone has the potential to reboot the economy.
The writer is a food and trade policy analyst.