The Indian government has managed to secure Parliament approval for a Bill to reserve 10 per cent of government jobs and admission to higher educational institutions for economically weak sections of upper caste groups.
These groups are not covered by any of the existing schemes of reservation. The Bill was passed late on Wednesday despite the opposition accusing the government of bringing in the legislation “in haste”.
The politically significant move has been described as an attempt by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to spin a positive narrative about its government as it prepares to launch its re-election campaign for the parliamentary polls, due in around three months.
It comes at a time when surging joblessness has emerged as a major political challenge for the BJP.
A report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), released last week, indicated that the number of unemployed in India rose steadily over the last 12 months.
As many as 11 million people lost their jobs last year, while the number of employed individuals fell to 397 million as of last month. The CMIE report was quickly appropriated by the opposition in order to attack the government.
National spokesman for the opposition Congress party Manish Tewari tweeted: “Two crore jobs were promised every year by the NDA/BJP between 2014-19. It translates into 10 crore jobs over five years. Instead you have this – 11 million job lost in 2018 alone! Need more be said?” One crore is equivalent to 10 million. The NDA refers to the National Democratic Alliance that is led by the BJP.
In his report, CMIE managing director and chief executive Mahesh Vyas said while employment estimates have been volatile, “the trend nevertheless is of a steep decline”.
And it has afflicted rural areas more, with women bearing the brunt of unemployment. Around 9.1 million jobs were lost in rural India and a further 1.8 million lost in urban India.
Of the 11 million jobs lost, 8.8 million were lost by women and 2.2 million by men.
Drawing a portrait of the most vulnerable, Mr Vyas wrote that this “is a woman, particularly a woman in rural India, (who) is uneducated and is engaged as a wage labourer or a farm labourer or is a small-scale trader and is aged either less than 40 years or more than 60 years”.
The report reflects the poor performance of India’s agricultural sector, which accounts for around 43 per cent of total employment and drives India’s rural economy.
While the gross domestic product growth rate for the second quarter of the 2018-19 financial year was 7.1 per cent, the agricultural sector clocked just 3.8 per cent growth.
This has pushed many to seek jobs elsewhere. While men migrate to cities, women are often left behind, adding to the number of unemployed in rural areas.
The resulting distress played a key role in the recent state elections when incumbent BJP governments were booted out of power in three key states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
An analysis of the results by the Lokniti Programme for Comparative Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found that people in these states listed limited opportunities for employment, along with a lack of development and the price rise, as their most important concerns.
This is something that has also been consistently flagged in the Lokniti-ABP News Mood of the Nation (MOTN) surveys, the last of which was released last May.
“Lots of people have been consistently saying in our surveys that it is difficult to find jobs compared with the past,” said Professor Sanjay Kumar, director of CSDS.
This number went up from 49 per cent in the January 2018 survey to 57 per cent in May.
“And when we ask an open-ended question without giving any options, asking people to identify what their main problem is, unemployment comes out to be the major issue in a large number of states,” he told The Straits Times.
In the last three surveys, 25 per cent or more of the respondents cited unemployment as their key problem. This is a large number, argued Dr Kumar.
“There are many – around a fourth – who fail to identify their key problem in an open-ended question. So this immediate recollection of unemployment by around 25 per cent of people across 18 states is an alarming situation,” he said.
“It is one of the major factors that weighs against this government and they can’t be happy about it.”
As many as 130 million first-time voters – twice the population of France – will be casting their ballots in the forthcoming parliamentary election. A secure job is something they will have on their minds when they pick a candidate.
It was the pledge of a more prosperous future that won Mr Narendra Modi and his party their strong mandate in 2014.
While he continues to remain the most popular leader, Mr Modi’s ratings have seen a decline.
The gap between Mr Modi and Congress party president Rahul Gandhi was 17 percentage points in the MOTN survey in January last year. By May, it was down to 10 points, with Mr Modi being the preferred prime minister of 34 per cent of voters, and Mr Gandhi being the preferred choice of 24 per cent.