Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Create jobs at home, give Indians a brighter future

Update: 2023-11-23 18:29 GMT

India doesn’t lead the world only in exporting cow dung which it sells to the United States, Singapore and the Maldives. India is also the world’s largest exporter of manpower, explaining its boast of the biggest global diaspora. More than 30 million Indians fled these shores and settled abroad because the motherland could not -- and still cannot -- guarantee them a decent living.

That number will increase marginally if New Delhi rejects common humanity and disregards the objections of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions by yielding to Israel’s Builders Association’s request for about 100,000 construction workers to replace 90,000 Palestinians who were sacked after the October 7 Hamas attack. However much a flattered India might want to oblige Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it should not forget the grim realities of the situation. Tel Aviv has cancelled the Palestinians’ work permits as much to punish them for Hamas’ savage attack on Israel as to drive the besieged people of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank into even more dire poverty. Not only would their Indian replacements become instruments of further Israeli exploitation but they would be drawn into the morally wrong side of a bitter and bloody 100-year-old conflict that doesn’t concern them.

There’s a racist angle too. Most Israelis are European Ashkenazi Jews. The Palestinians are Arab and Asian. Mr Netanyahu’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, brutally drove home the difference when he dismissed Palestinians as “human animals”. Just as the October 7 raid didn’t occur in a vacuum, as the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, pointed out to Israel’s great anger, abuse also reflects historic contempt. Rafael Eitan, chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), observed during the 1983 crisis that once Israelis had “settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle”. India should never forget that economic migrants enjoy scant respect.

Yet, the external affairs ministry admits that a record 225,620 Indians renounced their citizenship last year. While this may have been an exception (reflecting dissatisfaction with the NDA government’s economic mismanagement), an average of between 120,000 and 140,000 people would not have migrated annually if jobs really had been plentiful at home. So much then for the National Sample Survey’s latest claim that the unemployment rate for urban individuals aged 15 and more has fallen to 6.8 per cent from 8.2 per cent a year ago. Official boasting about the job market recalls the irony of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “water water everywhere and not a drop to drink”.

Not only has the healthy economy that Dr Manmohan Singh had built up been squandered but the army of Indian wage slaves in foreign countries provoked West Bengal’s former finance minister, Dr Amit Mitra, to taunt the Prime Minister about the hollowness of his “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” slogan. Himself an economist of some distinction, Dr Mitra said, quoting the World Bank: “If the bitter truth be told, 47 million people were unemployed, mainly youths, during the festive month of October 2023.” That, he stressed, was Spain’s entire population.

Dr Mitra also pointed out that youth unemployment hit a record high of 23.22 per cent last year when the comparable figures for Bangladesh and landlocked and resource-poor Bhutan were only 12.9 and 14.4 per cent. This is an even more damning indictment for it has always been our pride that with half of India’s 1.4 billion people aged below 25 (65 per cent being under 35), the “youth dividend” gives India a huge advantage over much more dynamic China. The Chinese will be an ageing society when Indians are coming into their own.

Even a more ominous sign of future destitution, many educated young people are taking recourse to manual or casual work or deceptive forms of self-employment which official propaganda has made fashionable by harping on “start-ups” as a symbol of the so-called “digital” future. True, the quantum of loans under the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana that Narendra Modi launched in 2015 for loans of up to Rs 10 lakhs to non-corporate, non-farm small and micro enterprises has gone up somewhat. So have start-up registrations and tax returns.

In fact, the number of people engaged in self-employment, including unpaid household work or running small businesses, increased to 57.3 per cent from 55.8 per cent a year ago.

However, this evidence could be deceptive. The time was when buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws being hypothecated to nationalised banks were hailed as proof of dynamic enterprise. But most of those loans had to be written off because the political credentials of the borrowers were stronger than their economic competence. India may be the world’s fifth largest economy hoping to move up to third place, but its nominal GDP ranks 139th internationally and it still languishes at the 132nd place in the United Nations Human Development List.

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown was catastrophic for the informal sector, which absorbs 80 per cent of the work force. The manner in which the Goods and Services Tax was clamped down in 2017 was similarly disastrous. But while these were to an extent outside the government’s purview, that cannot be said of Prime Minister Modi’s decision to introduce partial demonetisation in November 2016. That not only cost 95 lakh jobs but dragged the employment rate down to 42 per cent.

Countries do change course. China, in 13th place in 2000, has been second only to the United States since 2010. Indonesia vaulted from the 27th largest economy to the 16th between 2000 and 2022. That year Saudi Arabia climbed from 18th to 17th place, and Argentina from 28th to 22nd.

Indians have the skills to follow suit if only resources are not squandered on a Rs 3,000-crore statue, a Rs 150,000-crore capital redevelopment project, and a Rs 615-crore moon landing. It would be more to the point if instead of seeking to glorify itself, India’s complacent leadership heeded N.R. Narayana Murthy’s advice and spent a billion dollars annually on 10,000 retired teachers from all over the world to train our teachers in Stem areas (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) so that the unemployed young are not also unemployable. The resultant prosperity might even lend some semblance of substance to India’s now empty “Vishwa Guru” boast.


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