The government has undertaken to recruit one million people in a “mission mode” over the next 18 months, but its track-record casts doubts on its ability to deliver. The official employment numbers for such coveted jobs during the last eight years make for grim reading. Only a minuscule fraction of the millions of applicants for central government jobs have been selected for appointment. Out of an annual average of 27.5 million job applicants from FY15 to FY 22, only 90,288 or 0.3% were selected, according to a statement of the minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pensions in Parliament. To be sure, there was a national-election bump in FY 20 when as many as 0.8% of applicants were successful. But that apart, the fact that less than 1% of aspirants get government jobs reflects the limited opportunities even in the organised sector. Is it any wonder that one out of three youths had no confidence in the government to tackle unemployment, according to a consumer sentiment survey reported in this newspaper? Unemployment is the biggest concern for educated youth who prefer to wait for better opportunities, unlike the poor who take up whatever is available. But this cannot be an indefinite wait and can erupt into violence as has happened with the Agnipath scheme for recruitment into the army. Earlier this year, too, there was rioting in Bihar due to anger over the non-transparent and problematic hiring process in the Railways for which more than 10 million aspirants signed up for 35,000 openings.
What could portend serious strains in the social fabric is the fact that frustrated job seekers may choose to exit the labour force altogether. Not so long ago, a Bloomberg story created a buzz when it stated that millions of Indians, especially women, are leaving the labour force. What prompted an official rebuttal was its claim that more than half of the 900 million Indians of legal working age don’t want a job. That may not be true but estimating the real number of discouraged workers, however, is far from easy as official surveys—including the five-yearly surveys from 1972-73, which have been discontinued after 2010-11, and the periodic labour force surveys from 2017-8—do not ask probing questions like whether or not workers are willing to seek work again it if were made available. This problem is acute for women who often are the first to lose jobs and last to regain it. A growing reserve army of educated youth who are discouraged in their efforts to secure employment in the government also threatens to turn India’s demographic dividend of having a predominantly young population into a curse.
Joblessness among the educated youth cannot be addressed through fiat or mandating the filling of government jobs ahead of important assembly and national elections. There is a need for generating employment-intensive growth, besides labour reform and incentivising India Inc to invest more to generate employment. More flexible labour markets through reform will help in a big way. There is evidence that states which reformed labour laws saw an increase in average plant sizes and higher employment in the organized manufacturing sector. This is the sustainable way forward to enable millions of people to shift from agriculture to manufacturing and services jobs in urban India than wait endlessly to be absorbed in government.