Economic crisis takes a backseat in elections

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Economic crisis takes a backseat in elections

Monday, 20 May 2024 | Shivaji Sarkar

Economic crisis takes a backseat in elections

As India’s election fever rises, the spotlight shifts from core economic issues to religious controversies and symbolic debates

In this dance of democracy, scarce resources are seemingly rambling up the election tempo. The religious slant on employment and sillier issues like the mangal sutra raised are for diverting from the core issue that has as yet to be answered by the pre-poll slogan of “we are the fifth largest economy”.

Aren’t we that large? Some stats say that but the country has tougher stats to counter like the difficult balance of payments and still grim, Manipur the embattled State, for the failure of the provincial Government has over 67000 people displaced during the last year because of the ethnic conflict. There are also reports that farmers plough into the Punjab BJP poll campaign and express similar wrath in Haryana as well. They tell a political party to be people-friendly as also kisans are not born for doles. And Agniveers on their death are not being given a salute is a national cry.

Jobs not being there is the reality. Urban joblessness has risen to 6.7 per cent from 6.5 per cent in March 2024. The men’s unemployment has jumped to 6.3 per cent from 5.8 per cent. Periodic labour survey data is a pointer to difficult job scenarios. This is reflected in the elections by the Bihar caste survey that indicates more difficult situations for marginal castes, a detested reality. Caste denotes empowerment as well as deprivation.

Would a Congress manifesto professing over 50 per cent reservation serve the issue? The BJP contests it. It is accused of wanting to rob reservations. It is repeatedly denied by RSS chief Mohan Bhagvat.

No party has answered if jobs are not there, how would a reservation help? National Commission for Backward Classes has warned West Bengal and Punjab Governments for not “fully using the space available under the 50 percent ceiling for reservations for scheduled castes, tribes and backward classes and OBCs”. It asked Bengal to increase it by 5 per cent and Punjab by 13 per cent. It finds that Bengal filled up 45 per cent of the quota and Punjab only 37 per cent.

The worst may be Arunachal Pradesh. Yet another sex racket is busted with eight Government officials among 21 arrested.

The International Labour Organisation finds 28 million men women and children are in forced labour due to a cycle of poverty. Of these 63 percent are in the private sector. Forced labour generates $ 236 billion in illegal profits globally every year.

“We now know that the situation has only got worse. The international community must urgently come together to take action to end this injustice,” said the ILO Director General.

The report, titled ‘Profits and poverty: The economics of forced labour’, also estimates that traffickers and criminals are generating close to $10,000 per victim, up from $8,269 (adjusted for inflation) a decade ago. The survey also said that forced commercial sexual exploitation contributes to more than two-thirds (73 per cent) of overall illicit profits, despite accounting for only 27 per cent of all victims in privately imposed work. “Total annual illegal profits from forced labour are highest in Europe and Central Asia ($84 billion), followed by Asia, including India and the Pacific ($62 billion), the Americas ($52 billion), Africa ($20 billion) and the Arab States ($18 billion),” the report said.

The ILO cautions India. It also worked on conditions of Indian labour in the Arab countries.

In a scenario, where people compromise with their dignity, the ILO doubts the figures on India’s galloping progress. The supposed $ 3 trillion economy, highly burdened with debt, has an annual repayment of over Rs 10.4 lakh crore.

Economic issues remain at the forefront of the voters. Globally shrinking jobs, particularly in IT, has rattled many Indians. Political parties offering sops of reservations or apprenticeships of Rs 1 lakh a year (approx. Rs 8000 plus a month) sells well among the burgeoning numbers of jobless, who are already hit by one of the highest inflation of 55 per cent in ten years. It is not easy for them to manage it amid farmers’ distress and the trade deficit widening to a four-month high at $ 19.1 billion. Exports rise by one per cent to $35 billion and imports by over 10 per cent to $ 54.1 billion. This upsets the Government’s calculations on the impending forex reserves.

How would the country improve the job scenario? The age-old move to wean the workers away from the farms has failed. Still, agriculture employs over 54 per cent of the Indian workers. The Nehruvian economy created robust public sector organisations. In 1994-2000, PSUs employed 19.4 million (about 2 crores) people or 69 per cent of the total employed. The other 31 per cent were employed in the central and State Governments. Some 3.4 million jobs were added to nonfarm payrolls and unemployment at 5.6 per cent had fallen from 6.6 per cent.

In sharp contrast, in 2021-22, PSU employment reduced to 8.61 lakh. And it is gradually reducing. According to official statistics, employment in the organized sector is now a mere 8.34 per cent, of which the public sector accounts for 5.77 per cent and the private sector only 2.58 per cent in the total employment generated.

The Government’s massive infra investment of Rs 11 lakh crore this fiscal may have added some jobs in the construction sector but these short-term jobs are not considered quality work. Apart from infra investments are subject to erosion in many ways, right from excess cost estimation to longer gestation.

So the promise of reservation is a dream. According to CMIE, employment in India increased by a mere 5.8 million till March 2023. An additional 119 million people were not added to the potential labour force during the same. The estimates show that self-employment has been the chief driver of the Indian job market, which was hit hard by demonetisation crushing a parallel self-sustained economy.

Poll promises apart, the country is in the grip of a severe economic crisis. Ideally, more PSUs are required to stop labour exploitation in the private sector as well as their disinclination to create jobs. The Mahanavratna and Navratna industries were doing well when most of these were axed or sabotaged like Air India and HMT to facilitate the growth of the private sector, which earned huge profits but did not create jobs.

Reversing it would require revival and reforming the Planning Commission and reshaping the economy in the public sector where the private sector would have to compete on equal terms. Reservations to benefit the deprived castes then only would yield results. Would a revamp be possible?

(The author is a senior journalist; views are personal)

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