While some scare has been created in the country by a sustained whisper campaign about wholesale loss of jobs in the business market on account of the ‘destruction’ of cash economy caused by demonetisation, the reality is that India’s problem of unemployment is the cumulative outcome of several deeply entrenched weaknesses of its socio-economic milieu. Inadequacy of infrastructure projects - these generate jobs across the spectrum- insufficiency of skilled educated hands because of a breakdown of school education and non-availability of a matching network of polytechnics in the country and finally an unchecked population growth for lack of awareness of its economic impact on the family unit, are the major challenges facing the state and its citizens.
A nation on the path of development launches numerous infrastructure schemes at the central and state levels such as highway and road network, power generation and distribution, railways and its workshops, indigenous production and construction projects. These create jobs at various levels both in public and private sector. A lot of this is happening but the quantum of unemployment is too large and the incubation period of mega schemes of infrastructure building too long to make these a part of the solution in the short run. Other avenues of job creation - particularly of the middle and small segments - have therefore, to be given equal priority in the Indian context. There was a moderate but steady growth of MSEs in the recent years and the disruptive impact of demonetisation and the GST regulations — these have since been made simpler for these segments — will hopefully be got over soon.
A short-term disruption of business of a certain kind is not too big a price for eliminating the atmosphere of permissiveness about the use of unaccounted money that had prevailed in India over the decades. The unorganised part of economy that MSEs represented will be on rails again increasing the number of hands getting employed there in the times ahead. The state support to craftsmen is also gradually showing results though that again is only another small contributor to jobs in the market.
The spectacle of unemployment in India has scaled up in recent years primarily because in the absence of an assured system of school education. The entry that a minimal education provided for a meaningful skill development programme also remained blocked for many. There is addition of unemployable hands in thousands every day while job opportunities cropping up for them remain limited. If only a middle school existed in every block and police station area in rural and urban India respectively to provide free education to about five hundred girls and boys each- with a free mid-day meal being made available as well- a solid base would be laid for increasing the employability of youth closer to the ground. Central and state resources are enough to take care of running these schools with well-paid teachers under the mandatory monitoring by the district collector. This foundational work at the national level should receive a higher degree of priority. Funds for education should be consolidated to launch this project at once. Private investors would never open schools- except for the elite where they make for good business, and this responsibility is squarely on the shoulders of the government. It is astonishing that after Independence, school education - unlike the centres of higher learning - is in such an uneven stage of existence across the country.
This in turn would be one of the reasons why highly subsidised skill training residential schools decentralised to peg at the level of the district had not been thought of. Some of the districts of India are bigger in area and demography than many smaller European states. Nursing, electrical work, plumbing, book keeping and of course computer would enable boys and girls with school education to join in there for a simple diploma that would bring them jobs through apprenticeships in bigger companies or make it possible for them to run a local level ‘service’ business of their own. Public sector undertakings, construction companies, panchayat & municipal bodies, defence services and para military forces might absorb many of them on a regular or contractual basis. India needs to employ its growing number of youth in sustainable livelihoods in the interest of its internal stability and security.
Our federal governance is making it difficult for the Centre to get states on board on such fundamental national requirements as education, health and employability of the youth. Multiplicity of development schemes in these areas is producing wastefulness and facilitating seepage of development funds in the states and districts. Education, health and skill development must be made concurrent subjects - with overriding power of decision - making on these subjects being given to the Centre. These are ‘non- political’ spheres of governance that should be tested on the measure of ‘cooperative federalism’. Tackling unemployment needs a movement closer to the ground of carrying opportunity to the people rather than causing them to migrate or undertake large unaffordable journeys in search of work.
One long-term measure that India must take right now is to carry the awareness of keeping the family size small, to the common citizens. Looking at boys and girls as the equal gifts of God, putting girls on the path of financial independence at par with boys and a demonstrable approach of the government towards gender equality in the matter of recognition of merit, are some of the planks of a subtle campaign that should promote the idea of having not more than two children per family. It should cut across all communities and push through all our towns and villages. There should be no suggestion of coercion but in demonstrating the sense of determination the campaign should be as vigorous as that on tobacco, HIV or drunken driving. A combination of incentives and disincentives should also work.
The present regime of prime minister Modi is certainly taking the care of girl child to a new level of awareness and acceptance. The Union health ministry is also reportedly working on awareness programmes specially designed for high-density areas across the country. It is rightly addressing the issue of infant mortality, which has a cause and effect relationship with the phenomenon of multiple children per family prevalent in these areas. The norm of two children can be projected as a national initiative to make every Indian child grow into a healthy and self-sufficient citizen.
(The writer is a former director of IB)