Modi Govt Has Resurrected the Unemployed Hero From ‘70s Cinema

Unemployment in 2017-2018 among the labour force was 6.1%, the highest level in India after 1972-1973.

5 min read

In 1971, legendary filmmaker Mrinal Sen made a film called Interview. Written by my father Ashis Barman, iconic Indian actor Ranjit Mallick debuts here as a personable young fellow looking for a position in a boxwallah firm.

The only catch: he has to appear for the job interview wearing a western suit, which, like 99.9 percent of Bengalis then, he doesn’t own.

Much of the film is about Ranjit’s frantic quest for a borrowed outfit, laced with clever social commentary: in one instance, a suit cadged from a friend needs to be laundered, but a general strike has shut down all the cleaners. It was possibly Sen’s first commercial and critical success. The reason it struck a chord with (mostly youthful) viewers was their total identification with the hapless protagonist.

The following year, for the first time, India published a formal measure of joblessness: in 1972-1973, 8.3 percent of everybody that wanted to work, couldn’t get a job.

Too busy to read? Listen to this instead.


1970s: The Age of Great Distress

Remember, this was a time of great distress. Yes, East Pakistan had been liberated as Bangladesh, but India had absorbed millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of war.

Inflation was high, food production patchy, nobody other than the government had the pluck to invest in any productive activity.

A bunch of traders, who had taken over the colonial industry, were busy gutting it for short-term scrap value. Unemployment was the dispiriting norm.

2017-2018: 6.1% Joblessness

Well, 45 years after that frantic suit-hunt and five years into Narendra Modi’s “achhe din” regime, Ranjit’s modern counterparts proliferate again.

Overall joblessness, reported Business Standard, was 6.1 percent of the labour force between the summers of 2017 and 2018. This is the highest level of unemployment after 1972-1973. And it’s way worse than 2011-2012’s figure of 2.2 percent in Manmohan Singh’s second term as prime minister.

Around 6 pm on Thursday, 31 January, the government fielded two employees: Rajiv Kumar who heads NITI Aayog, the emasculated avatar of the erstwhile Planning Commission and a career bureaucrat called Amitabh Kant, to take on media.

Faced with detailed and aggressive questions, both tried to say that the leaked numbers were ‘incomplete’, had not been vetted properly, didn’t take ‘seasonality’ into account – a fog of obfuscation to hide behind. Anyway, what began with bluster, ended in 30 minutes. Exeunt blubbering gentlemen stage left, promising to return – march, with new-improved data.

Kumar – and the Aayog he heads – has no jurisdiction over official data. Kant distinguished himself with an advertising campaign for Kerala tourism. Then, he chaired a USD 90-billion project called the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and ran it aground in a few years.

Modi Govt Keeps Lid on Unemployment Data

It is tough to measure unemployment. The job is easier in nations that pay people out of work enough to keep body and soul together, till they find jobs. Every developed country has such systems.

In America, the term ‘welfare’ was changed to ‘workfare’, implying that doles were meant to tide over a job-search, not an entitlement for life. Among poorer countries, Brazil has a robust system of unemployment benefits.

Here, measuring unemployment is as easy as counting people on dole. Alas, India has never cared one whit for the Ranjits in search of work. Because we pay no dole, people have no option but to do something – anything to stay alive. If you lose a job, sell pakodas, as Modi says.


NSSO Tasked With Measuring Joblessness

So the task of measuring joblessness falls on the state-run National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). The NSSO collects, collates and publishes vast amounts of data relevant to people trying to make sense of our vast country and design appropriate policy.

The NSSO asks people if they have work; if the answer is no, they’re asked if they’ve tried to find work; if the answer is yes, these people are classified as unemployed: willing, but unable to find productive occupation.
The proportion of unemployed to the total number of working-age people is the unemployment rate.

For many months, the Modi administration has been trying to keep a lid on any data which could give us some idea of the real state of employment. The absence of official numbers led to painstaking efforts, by agencies like Mumbai’s respected Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), to get a handle on stuff on the ground.


India Lost 11 Million Jobs Between Jan-Dec 2018

Earlier this month, CMIE said unemployment in December 2018, at 7.4 percent, was the highest in 27 months.

Through January to December 2018, India lost 11 million jobs, instead of adding 20 million new ones annually, as promised by Modi in 2013. Nearly 84 percent of jobs lost were in rural areas.

Bullshit comes with an expiry date. That date was Monday, 28 January, when the acting chairman PC Mohanan and JV Meenakshi of the Delhi School of Economics, quit India’s National Statistical Commission (NSC), the government’s apex statistics agency.

Modi Govt Manipulates Data

They were fed up with constant ‘sarkari’ meddling with empirical data. Their resignation gutted India’s official data system. It proved what we suspected: the Modi administration manipulates data or suppresses them for political ends.

Data-credibility, an important criterion of global confidence in an economy, eroding since the Modi raj began, has hit rock bottom. New Delhi’s ‘facts’ are as good as those from North Korea’s Pyongyang.


Now here’s the most damaging information in the leaked employment data. Apart from headline job numbers, the NSSO slices them according to the age of those that respond. The most sensitive group – for policymakers and politicians – are young folk, between 15 and 29 years.

These are kids – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – looking to the future with hope. They’re our Ranjits and Reshmas. And they’ve been shafted. In villages and towns, among young men and women, we have a crisis.

At 27.2 percent, young urban women are worst-affected, followed by their male counterparts at 18.7 percent. In villages, more young men are jobless (17.4 percent) than women (13.6 percent). These numbers have trebled in six years.

Unemployment: Fueled By Note Ban, GST Implementation

These are the same people who voted (the first time in 2014) overwhelmingly for Modi, buying into the giant good-time gas balloon floated by the BJP.

In power, Modi has been incompetent, nursing a death-wish for voters. Nothing else explains his personal decision taken on 8 November 2016, to suck 86 percent of cash out of an economy, where over 90 percent of all transactions are done with banknotes.

The immediate impact of ‘notebandi’ was a loss of two percentage points in growth – a self-delivered kick on the economy’s butt. Today’s joblessness numbers are a longer-time fallout. A botched attempt to rush through a poorly designed Goods and Service Tax (GST) system, investment and financial policy that change as fast as the PM changes clothes, and contempt for economic and financial institutions have wrecked confidence.

Many young people, thwarted for jobs, have stopped looking: from 40 percent in 2011-2012, the proportion of active job seekers is now 37 percent.

This is an awful story of thwarted ambition and dashed hopes. Yet, a silver lining lurks: bullshit-based regimes have expiry labels. This one reads, “Discard by May 2019”.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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