Data,Employment,Jobs,Unemployment

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Source: UN Women

A week ago, on 2 April 2018, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced 100,000 jobs[1] for ‘youths’. These jobs would be offered in various government departments and included 31,000 teachers, assistant teachers and professors. Two weeks earlier, on 15 February 2018, the Indian Railways had announced “one of the world’s largest recruitment drives”, with almost 90,000 jobs[2], for which more than 28 million people have applied[3] — that’s more than 300 applicants per job. The governments are celebrating these announcements.

In fact, these are economic copouts and political failures.

Unable to create an atmosphere that attracts entrepreneurs to set up job-creating enterprises across India, the expansion of entitlements by offering government jobs that seek no value but grant all benefits to those getting them is a poor attempt to change the ‘jobless growth’ narrative.

If after four years of governance, this is all that governments can do in the name of job creation, it reflects poorly on the mismatch between electoral rhetoric and its on-ground execution.

By getting taxpayers to fund political optics around job creation, the government is taking a populist but ineffective way out of the unemployment problem. Among the young, there will be short-term excitement around the jobs, a build-up of hopes and a sense that the government is “doing something”. But little else. At a time when India needs to extract accountability from the system through an outcomes-based audit of every law, every policy, every project, every contract — and every job — doling them out as a form of largess is a revert to poor governance of the past.

True, the government has done much and achieved a higher ranking in the doing business reports — India is up 30 points to 100 and has aspirations of touching the top 50, where the climb will be steeper[4]. But private sector jobs, if they are indeed being created, are not visible. The reason is lack of data. The last data from Employment and Unemployment Surveys of Labour Bureau is for 2015-16[5] and states that the unemployment rate for persons aged 15 years and above stood at 3.7%, with the highest in Andaman and Nicobar Islands (12.0%), Kerala (10.6%) and Himachal Pradesh (10.2%), and the lowest in Daman and Diu (0.3%), Gujarat (0.6%) and Chhattisgarh (1.2%). At a national level, the 2015-16 number is marginally higher than the one in 2013-14 (3.4%) and marginally lower than in 2012-13 (4.0%).

There is no government data on unemployment after 2015-16. Worse, according to the government, it is not even needed. “On the recommendations of the Task Force on Employment, this survey has been discontinued,” Minister of State for Labour and Employment Santosh Kumar Gangwar told Parliament[6] on 7 March 2018. The Task Force recommended the institution of a “new time-use survey” and “tapping administrative data from sources like Employee’s Provident Fund Organization (EPFO), Employee State Insurance Corporation (ESIC), National Pension Scheme (NPS), MUDRA Loans etc., to collect data on certain category of workers”, Gangwar said in answer to another Parliamentary question[7] two weeks later. The Task Force also recommended to adopt a new, more pragmatic definition of formal workers.

But when a technical task force recommends that these surveys and the accompanying data should be discontinued[8] — without an alternative, even a superior one, in place — it smacks of political motives, not technical ones.

Of political spins, we have enough. Two days ago, on 10 April 2019, Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha argued that the right data is not being captured on the jobs front[9]. Instead of the regular data streams we have been getting from the government, he suggests we need to assemble accurate jobs data from various sources — until, that is, the right data is captured by NITI Aayog. This “data mosaic”, he writes, will give us a more accurate depiction of what is happening in the economy “than data-free narratives”. To figure out what’s happening on the jobs front in India today, rely on the jobs data you can get privileged access to or have the tenacity to go after rather than on what the government has been giving so far. This is data evasion.

So, pardon us for being cynical when Sinha tells us that, “A dubious narrative is currently being circulated: where are the missing jobs?”. The problem is not, as he writes, about the lack of consistent, accurate, high-frequency data on job creation in India — the problem is, not revealing existing data while trying to create new data. The “dubious narrative” Sinha talks about is, in fact, embedded in the absence of data the government ought to be disclosing regularly.

New data, even if it is superior, will always remain suspect because the old data would not be available for comparison — it would be natural for those tracking jobs to presume the government has something to hide in the old data and is changing the data narrative to influence the political narrative.

Finally, how are we to interpolate the new data backwards to answer the big political question of our times and, for instance, compare job creation under UPA with that under NDA?

There is a 50:50 possibility that Sinha may be right — for all we know, India might not be in the middle of a jobless growth. As he points out, automotive, IT-BPM, retail and textiles created 14 million jobs between 2014 and 2017, travel and tourism are adding 3-4 million jobs every year, and jobs in e-commerce, aviation, mobility services and agro-processing are not being tracked. Nobody is quarrelling with him about capturing this data — a 21st century India must have a modern jobs tracking infrastructure. But these new data don’t have to come at the cost of existing data; they can complement it for a few years and as they stabilise India can make a complete shift.

For those who want it bad enough, however, data doesn’t stop streaming. The jobs data collected by the Bombay Stock Exchange and the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), for instance, shows a negative trend, with the unemployment rate touching a 71-week high of 7.1% in the week ended 25 February 2018, and which has been rising steadily since July 2017. According to CMIE Managing Director and CEO Mahesh Vyas, the estimated number of persons unemployed who are actively looking for a job almost touched 31 million in that week, the highest since October 2016[10]. While there may not be any causality, there is a definite correlation between the government not disclosing the unemployment rate after 2015-16 and its rising trend thereafter.

On its part, the government has created yet another group, this time a task force on employment and exports headed by NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar[11]. With the objective to address unemployment, the task force is expected to propose a comprehensive plan of action, recommend sector-specific policy interventions in key employment sectors, and list out measures to enhance trade in services with high employment potential. This is not the first such attempt. Chaired by Amitabh Kundu, the 31 December 2009 Report of the NSC (National Statistical Commission) Committee on Periodic Labour Force Survey[12] to develop the survey methodology including the sample design for generating monthly or quarterly labour market data by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) has already addressed several gaps in jobs data collection.

The Rajiv Kumar task force will add more weight to the Kundu committee recommendations. All these are a work in progress towards creating a more efficient statistical infrastructure, and must continue as the Indian economy gets more complex and information hubs mature. But why stop existing data streams?

Further, diverting attention towards self-employment is being evasive — if jobs is the issue, tackle it head-on; when we come to entrepreneurship, we will deal with self-employment and engage with another problem of forced self-employment or disguised unemployment.

The problem could be wages, not jobs. According to TeamLease chairman Manish Sabharwal, “everybody who wants a job has a job”; what they don’t have are the wages they need or want[13]. Private sector jobs are not being created because of what Sabharwal calls a “regulatory cholesterol” and can be fixed only in two ways — through formalisation of the economy and financialisation of transactions. The Goods and Services Tax (GST), functioning through the all-digital GST Network (GSTN) — linkages of unrelated databases are wired into the GSTN and embedded into the very conceptualisation, construction and execution of the GST[14] — is helping both, formalisation (the tax credit system nudges entrepreneurs to on-board) and financialisiation (digital trails for every transaction ensures financial compliance).

The big question remains: why is the government not capturing and releasing unemployment data?

If new types of employment-unemployment statistics are needed, there is more than enough big data available today to make it happen. Until 1 July 2017, you could argue that big data provided information on, say, the top quartile of the workforce — the digitally-connected enterprises in the formal sector. But with the GST in operation since then, that statistical hurdle is behind us and can now complement the NSSO surveys. But to not continue with the old system that has decadal trend lines behind it raises questions of credibility. When data is missing, citizens rely on anecdotal evidence — her nephew, his daughter, her brother, his student and so on.

When data disappears, a vacuum gets created — motives and politics feed on it, replace it with theories limited to the span of individual vision. For evidence, look no further than December 2016, a month after demonetisation, when the Reserve Bank of India stopped giving out data on the number of old notes it received. This led to a series of speculations turning into rhetoric — 25% of the notes will not return, 40% will not return, it is a victory for the honest common man and so on. On 30 August 2017, when 98.96% of the notes returned to the banking system[15], the narrative changed from the honest-man-advantage to the dishonest-can-be-tracked. The new narrative is technically correct and morally in the right direction, but the interim vacuum was hazy. What was the need to hide the data?

In its 26 March 2014 Election Manifesto, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) had placed ‘Employment and Entrepreneurship’ in second place[16], after ‘Price Rise’. “The country has been dragged through 10 years of Jobless Growth by the Congress-led UPA Government. Under the broader economic revival, BJP will accord high priority to job creation,” the Manifesto boldly stated, and which the electorate warmly embraced.

One wonders on what basis this claim of “jobless growth” was made then. If the basis was flawed, as Sinha suggests four years later, this statement was a meaningless line and will makes the party’s 2019 manifesto less credible.

Between 2014 and 2018, all promises[17] such as developing labour-intensive manufacturing (textiles, footwear, or electronics assembly), strengthening traditional employment bases of agriculture and allied industries, job opportunities through upgradation of infrastructure and housing, transforming employment exchanges into ‘career centres’ seem to be little more than cynical electoral rhetoric, now forgotten under the expectation of and diversion towards new data. Citizens have taken the short-term pain of demonetisation and the accompanying job losses in the informal sector in stride. But for every glossy report Sinha cites, there are clusters of anecdotes to counter the narrative — when neither is seen to be ‘data’, neither can be relied upon as facts. How long should we wait for government data with which to seek the truth around jobs?

The close to 200,000 jobs created by the Railways and in Madhya Pradesh and a multiple that could be mirrored by Chief Ministers of other BJP-governed States in a pre-election year will at best be seen as short-term band aids, political profligacy and nothing more. These will cost the country dear — when jobs are created to fulfil a political function and not a physical need or to serve the country’s requirement, they will only end up adding a brigade, if not an entire division, to an army of the entitled. We have seen the ill effects of tax-funded ‘loan melas’ following the nationalisation of banks in the 1980s. Is the Narendra Modi leadership now unleashing a tax-funded ‘jobs mela’? State-created government jobs for the purpose of job creation alone cannot make for the lack of data on unemployment. All they will end up doing is burdening the exchequer — and data-blinding us on the way.

It is time to reverse this anomaly. Remember, it is data that builds, supports or contradicts political narratives, not the other way around.


References

[1] After raising retirement age, Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan announces 1 lakh govt jobs for youth, The Indian Express, 2 April 2018, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[2] Ministry of Railways Announces one of the World’s Largest Recruitment Drive, Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[3] Over 2.8 crore people apply for 90,000 railways jobs, The Times of India, 31 March 2018, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[4] Gautam Chikermane, #DoingBusiness: The climb to Top 50 will be steep, India Matters, Observer Research Foundation, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[5] Santosh Kumar Gangwar, Unemployment in the Country, Unstarred Question No. 1367, Rajya Sabha, 7 March 2018, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[6] Survey discontinued, Centre clueless about unemployment, DNA, 6 March 2018, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[7] Santosh Kumar Gangwar, Centralised Data on Job Creation, Unstarred Question No. 3767, Rajya Sabha, 28 March 2018, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[8] Report of the Task Force on Improving Employment Data, NITI Aayog, 11 May 2017, p. 14, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[9] Jayant Sinha, There’s no jobs drought: We will have more data soon, meanwhile here’s what the evidence tells us, The Times of India, 10 April 2018, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[10] Mahesh Vyas, Sharp increase in unemployment rate, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, 27 February 2018, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[11] Task Force on Employment and Exports and its Terms of Reference, Press Information Bureau, NITI Aayog, Government of India, 6 September 2017, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[12] Report of the NSC Committee on Periodic Labour Force Survey, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, December 2009, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[13] Manish Sabharwal, Problem is wages, not jobs; answer lies in formalisation, financialisation, The Indian Express, 22 March 2018, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[14] Gautam Chikermane, The arrow effect of demonetisation and GST, 2 August 2017, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[15] Status of the Return of SBNs – Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Annual Report 2016-17, Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Finance, Government of India, 30 August 2017, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[16] BJP Election Manifesto 2014, 26 March 2014, p. 4, Accessed on 11 April 2018

[17] Ibid, p. 4 and 5

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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