Reports on and the visuals of the recent agitations by railway job applicants reveal a widespread problem of massive job insecurity among India’s youth. Alarming figures of unemployment have been recurrent even before the huge dislocation unleashed by lockdowns imposed in 2020-21 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much before the pandemic, the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) reported a 6.1% unemployment rate in 2017-18, the worst in over four decades. The picture has proved more dismal in the ensuing months since April-May of 2020.
For instance, in December 2021, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) estimated that nearly 53 million Indians were unemployed, a large proportion of whom were women. The unemployment rate was hovering at 7.91% in December 2021, and though there has been some talk of a dip in unemployment in January 2022, the figure still stands at a worrying 6.57%.
Percentages and data spun out by governmental agencies and policy think-tanks are open to contestation, but there are other indices of proof that seriously contradict the tall claims of employment generation. One such index is the downward pressure unleashed by the influx of overqualified youth aspiring for middle and lower rung government jobs, which, despite their modest pay, are highly coveted given the greater job security ascribed to them.
Expectedly then, having advertised over 35,000 posts, the Railway Recruitment Board was swamped with over 1.25 crore applications; a significant proportion of which were postgraduate degree holders. This created massive insecurity among a section of candidates who met the minimum eligibility but were being forced to compete with candidates having higher educational credentials.
With government jobs being limited, and reducing in number due to the contractualisation and outsourcing of several substantative posts, intense competition persists across various categories of jobs; a point brought to light yet again by the recent Railways’ recruitment controversy. As clarified by the Railway Recruitment Board and Union Railway Minister, for the second stage of testing that stoked protests, the huge number of aspirants for the lowest right up to the highest level of jobs advertised, eventually compelled the authorities to shortlist 20 times the number of candidates for all levels.
Explaining the scramble
Shockingly, advertisements for even a handful of lower rung government jobs attract an overwhelming number of applications, leading at times to the withdrawal of such advertisements. In September 2021, news reports highlighted that among 18,000 applicants for some 42 posts (peon, gardener and cook) in the Himachal Pradesh secretariat, there were hundreds of doctorate and other postgraduate applicants. Earlier, in March 2021, more than 27,000 candidates with degrees such as BA, BSc, MA, MSc, MCom, MBA, engineering, etc. had applied for 13 positions for a peon’s job in the Panipat district court. Likewise, for 62 posts of messengers in the Uttar Pradesh police, in August 2018, there were a total of 93,000 applicants; 3,700 were PhD holders and 50,000 were graduates. This particular job vacancy required an education level of Class V and the selection criterion comprised a self-declaration that the candidate knew how to ride a bicycle.
The desperate scramble for government jobs stems in no uncertain terms from the high job insecurity (easy hire and fire), poor basic pay, and long hours of work that characterise the bulk of jobs in the private sector. Historically, only a small number of employer-employee work relations in India — associated mostly with the formal sector — have been subject to state regulation. However, in recent decades, there has been a steady decline of state regulation of labour-capital relations in the formal sector. This deregulation has been coupled with a concerted push toward rapid privatisation of the public sector. Together, these developments have contributed significantly to periodic unemployment among both skilled and less skilled workforces, in addition to reducing avenues of gainful employment for new entrants in the job market.
A spillover effect
The ramifications of this overall process are multifold. At one level, enhanced deregulation of employer-employee work relations in the formal sector has triggered periodic unemployment of higher skilled workers, who have been spilling over into and crowding lower-skilled, informal sector jobs. Likewise, the spillover effect of periodic unemployment within middle-rung and higher-rung professional jobs in India’s job market has pushed more qualified youth to crowd lower rung government jobs.
This tendency itself has rendered a deep crisis for those with lower educational qualifications who strive for the more modest government jobs, and for whom such employment has traditionally been envisaged.
Reduced expenditure by the state on health, education and the social sector as a whole has also ensured inadequate employment generation, despite the fact that the demand for ‘public goods’ has been growing exponentially. For a country with growing educational needs, especially with large numbers seeking to escape inherited poverty through avenues opened up by education, the marked shortage of government schools and public-funded universities is alarming to say the least.
A closer look at the higher education sector itself reveals a steady increase in the number of student applicants. The scenario naturally calls for many more job recruitments of qualified teachers through the creation of new public-funded Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) and an expansion of existing ones. However, successive governments continue to restrict and even delay recruitment of teachers to existing public-funded HEIs. For example, in a large public-funded university such as the University of Delhi, a recruitment crisis has intensified over the years with over 4,500 teaching posts being filled by ad hoc teachers and appointments to permanent positions being stalled repeatedly.
Antinomy of eligibility
This recruitment crisis is also the result of an inexplicable delay in the grant of the second tranche of teaching positions that was to accompany institutional expansion in the wake of implementation of reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). A recipe for a complete disaster continues to unfold in such universities as a large, highly skilled workforce of serving teachers defensively holds on to insecure temporary job contracts as more eligible fresh candidates enter the job market. One of the contentious consequences of such heightened competition has been the enforcement of higher and higher qualifications for entry-level teaching jobs in public-funded HEIs.
In this way, another index of mounting job insecurity and unemployment is the arbitrary enhancement of educational qualifications stipulated for recruitment into better-paid government jobs, as well as new criteria for admission into professional training institutions. This tendency has not only manifested itself in public-funded HEIs wherein entry-level teaching positions now mandatorily require a PhD degree in addition to a Master’s degree and UGC-NET qualification. It is also evident in the barrage of common entrance tests for highly sought-after educational degrees such as in medicine (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, or NEET), as well as centralised eligibility tests for recruitment into jobs such as school teaching (Central Teacher Eligibility Test, or CTET). As the number of seats and vacancies fail to be augmented, we see a systematic effort to ruthlessly eliminate a growing number of aspirants using astute tests and arbitrary criteria.
In the backdrop of a large number of skilled and overqualified people languishing in the throes of unemployment, the shrill rhetoric of ‘Skill India’ rings hollow. We will see more instances of frustration and agitations by the youth in response to rampant unemployment. For the scores of educated aspiring youth, transcending the prevailing logic of the economy is a crucial starting point for envisaging a world free of unemployment. An economy that creates fewer jobs is one which overworks some while rendering large numbers unemployed. A tired India and an unemployed India are simply two sides to the same coin. The youth need to realise that their fulfilment of dignified employment cannot happen in isolation but is linked to how the sea of highly exploited labouring masses around them are also guaranteed their access to the basics — education, health and livelihood. A transformation of circumstances awaits newer sensibilities and a sense of solidarities.
Maya John is Assistant Professor, Delhi University, and a labour historian