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The Skilled And The Schooled

India’s struggles over what counts as knowledge

By AMIT BASOLE | 1 January 2018

IN EARLY 2017, the West Bengal government held an examination for 6,000 jobs in the Class IV category. This is the lowest category of permanent employment in government service, and reportedly pays Rs 16,200 a month, by no means a princely sum. Roughly 2.5 million men and women appeared for the exam, many of them holders of graduate and postgraduate degrees.

This is not an unusual occurrence. In 2015, 2.3 million people applied for around 400 Class IV jobs in Uttar Pradesh. Of these, 150,000 were university graduates. Across the country, young people in the thousands, desperate for stable employment as well as a life of respect and dignity, have taken to the streets to demand reservations in government jobs for their communities—Marathas in Maharashtra, Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, Jats across north India, all traditionally powerful and well-to-do groups. Reservations for Patidars were a central issue in the recent electoral battle in Gujarat.

India’s GDP has grown at a rough average of 7 percent per year over the past two decades, social aspirations have risen with it. There have been significant improvements in education in many states. Not long ago, most adult workers had no formal schooling, and hence no hope of formal employment, whether in the public or the private sector. Now, their children increasingly have high school certificates and often also college degrees, and with these the expectation of permanent jobs. But the number of decent, stable and well-paying jobs, whether private or public, have not increased in keeping with the numbers of new entrants to the labour-force, let alone to accommodate those leaving agriculture and other traditional occupations in search of better employment. This phenomenon has popularly been termed “jobless growth.” Surveys by the ministry of labour show that only 15 percent of Indian workers have regular, salaried jobs. The same surveys also show that 67 percent of Indian households report a monthly income of Rs 10,000 or less, and only 2 to 3 percent of households earn more than Rs 50,000 a month. These trends have given us a generation that feels cheated by the system.

But the problem is two-fold. While educated young Indians cannot find good jobs, employers cannot find good, educated workers. A recent “employability study” of 150,000 engineering graduates by a found that barely 7 percent were suitable for engineering jobs. Another, by the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, also found that around 7 percent of the thousands of graduates emerging from the country’s 5,500 business schools each year were “employable.” Young people are realising the futility of attending many of the country’s institutes of higher learning. There are now no takers for nearly half of all available seats at engineering colleges nationwide.

Yet the Indian economy still functions and provides livelihoods for millions of people. Jobless growth is in some ways a misnomer. It is not that Indian growth has not created jobs at all, it is that that the jobs created have mostly been in what economists call the “informal economy,” which takes in hundreds of millions of farmers, artisans and workers of all kinds—workers who have no job security, and often no regular income. Millions of skilled and productive, but formally uneducated, workers—who grow and cook our food, weave our cloth and stitch our clothes, make our furniture, construct our houses, and perform most services—are denied the better wages and legal protections considered worthy of formal, salaried work. In the twenty-first century, our skilled, uneducated workforce is being replaced by unskilled, educated workers. This is an unsustainable model.

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Amit Basole is an associate professor of economics and the director of the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He recently edited a book titled Lokavidya Perspectives: A Philosophy of Political Imagination for the Knowledge Age, published by Aakar Books.

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