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India & Unemployment: Can Govt Acknowledge All Kinds Of Jobs & Address Data Gap?

The govt should prioritise timely release of quality unemployment figures to fuel research, dialogue & policymaking.

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Access to perpetual secondary data is the bedrock of social science research. The data story in the growth and development of any nation is crucial. Especially for countries like India where growth potential is ample along with everlasting developmental issues surrounding poverty, inequality, and unemployment.

To answer some of the pertinent questions of how far have we reached after 75 years of independence in terms of development as a nation, requires objective estimates. However, the major issues faced by social scientists and researchers in answering such questions are three-fold: Firstly, discontinued existing sources of data on unemployment. Secondly, change in the methodology and questionable quality of the recently published records, and finally, the need for publishing new estimates on innovative perspectives of employment.

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Some of the important academic discourses in the contemporary developmental issues in India is on jobless growth despite demographic dividend, growing income inequality amidst high GDP growth and everlasting poverty in spite of the increase in per capita income.

For growing income inequality and poverty, unemployment is the root cause. The unemployment rate in India for people aged 15 years and above in Urban India reduced to 7.2 percent during the second quarter ending on 30 September from 9.8 percent.

Readings from the data from the National Statistical Office's 16th Periodic Labour Force Survey(PLFS) presented that the unemployment rate among women (aged 15 years and above) in urban areas slowed to 9.4 percent in July-September from 11.6 percent a year ago while in April-June, it was 9.5 percent. This positive yet obvious sign of recovery in unemployment is attributed to just the opening up of the markets. However, questions regarding the quality of this information remain to haunt researchers.

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Data Debacle: Inconsistency in India’s Unemployment Figures

The clueless nature of India’s unemployment data is worrisome. Since 2016, the Ministry of Labour and Employment has discontinued several of its surveys. Such data sources were Annual Employment-Unemployment Surveys (EUS) which got published from 2010 to 2016, got discontinued and in 2016, only the Quarterly Employment Survey (QES) of industries employing workers with more than ten numbers came into force.

Its inherently restrictive nature in presenting employment data and absolute silence about the unemployment figure is a mere façade of celebration in ignorance of the debacle of unemployment. In an interview in 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did mention, “More than a lack of jobs, the issue is a lack of data on jobs." However, the government doesn’t seem to be acting enough on this front.

Moreover, the questionable quality of the published data sources of employment adds to the sorrow of the data deficit. The recently published EPFO payroll data has suffered from several criticisms that cannot be ignored.

This criticism of the data of not being the actual payroll data, representing only the registered organised sector which is less than 10% of the total employment, and ignoring the self-employed, create questions on the quality of the information as an indicator of employment in the nation and also in terms of usability in research.

Data Ignores the Nation’s Self-Employed

Highlighting this issue on the credibility of the payroll data published by EPFO India, a study by Ghosh and Ghosh in 2018 suggests taking the finding from this data with a pinch of salt and making the researchers weep about the loss of NSSO data that have discontinued publishing unemployment figures.

Instituted in the early 1950s by professor Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis who is widely regarded as the "Father of Indian statistics", the NSSO-EUS data could encompass such quality deficits in the employment data in the country. Similar is the case for PLFS figures.

With joblessness found to have fallen for every group of rural/urban, male or female, this data also highlights that increased non-farm sector has increased steadily from 68.2% in 2017-18 to 71.4% in 2020-21 which suffered from precarious working conditions about which the data is silent.

On several fronts of compatibility of datasets and indicators, questions galore around the reliability of PLFS data. From the perspective of adequacy, the PLFS data has also been suggested to have a greater sample space to come up with more meaningful estimates of unemployment. Meaning that the scope for improvisation in PLFS data is huge if it has to be policy-relevant.

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Need for International Standardisation

In addition to the unavailability of data, existing figures of employment are unworthy of international comparisons. Most emerging and developed countries possess a strong and quality unemployment database as they endow the unemployed with several social security benefits.

From those nations, the major sources of unemployment data published across the globe like the Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) which has adjusted unemployment rates for the U.S. have its unemployment conceptualisation since the early 1960s.

Three other organisations that conceptualise annual unemployment data on a standardised basis are the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Labour Office (ILO), and the Statistical Office of the European Communities (Eurostat) for their specific regions. However, in the case of India, we suffer significantly from International standardisation and thus, comparability.

Such a paucity of data is not restricted to the employment and unemployment situation in India. India, which derives a huge leap in its diversity and heterogeneity of living, has not realised the need for accounting for important socio-economic aspects of development through standardised and updated databases.
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The Census 2021 that got delayed owing to the severity of the pandemic has lost its existence from public discussion forums with the government delaying it further.

This data crunch and unavailability of credible information do seem to have gained an institutionalised figure. Moreover, the government has come up with new surveys like the Mother Tongue Survey of India involving 576 languages. While such surveys are welcome, the priority should shift towards the timely release of quality unemployment figures that can fuel research, dialogue, and thus, policymaking in India.

(Kaibalyapati Mishra is a Junior Research Fellow and Krishna Raj is a Professor Of Economics at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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