It’s 11.30 am on a Tuesday morning and it’s all quiet at the red sandstone building on Canning Road in the heart of New Delhi. There are no signboards, no thronging crowds of applicants — nothing to indicate that this is an employment exchange office, one of the six in the National Capital Territory region of Delhi, a region with over 10 lakh registered jobseekers.
Last Monday, while addressing students at an event to mark the 125th year of Swami Vivekananda’s address at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that the youth should not depend on anyone for employment. “They should not be job-seekers, but job creators,” he said.
Nisha, 32, clad in a salwar-kameez with her dupatta covering her head, has no clue how to go about doing that. As she sits with her father-in-law in one of four small rooms of the employment exchange office, she is trying to process something an official has just told her. “The last time we came here, I was told about an opening for the job of sweeper-cum-peon at the Bank of Maharashtra’s Bhikaji Cama Place branch. We went to the bank, but they sent us back here. Now the sahib here says I am 32, so not eligible. What do we do now,” says Nisha, who has studied till Class 12.
Employment Officer Pawan Kamra, the man in charge of the exchange, is not around today and so, it’s left to a technical official, a Class III employee who doesn’t want to be named, to attend to the few applicants who drop in. “Naukri milna, na milna… yeh sab bhagwan ke upar hai (Whether you get a job or not… it’s up to God),” says the official.
Of late, there hasn’t been much divine intervention, at least going by recent data. In a written reply to the Lok Sabha in July, former Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya (who resigned ahead of the recent Cabinet reshuffle) said that as on September 30, 2015, of the 4,48,52,500 job seekers registered with employment exchanges, only 0.56 per cent or 2,53,900 people got jobs. That’s just 3 persons employed out of every 500 applications in 2015.
The technical official soon gets an “emergency call” from home and leaves, promising to be back soon and leaving a baffled Nisha and her father-in-law in the room.
The office is unlike any Sarkari establishment. There are no stacks of files and papers; the room is neat, almost bare, with two tables, a few chairs, and two fans mounted on the walls on either side.
“My daughter-in-law works as help at a few homes. She is the only earning member in the family. My son keeps moving in and out of jobs; he is now out of work and at home. So we desperately want Nisha to get a stable job. This bank job sounded good, but now they say she is not eligible because of her age. But someone told us that the cut-off age for Scheduled Caste candidates is 35, but she is only 32. I don’t know who can help us,” says Nisha’s father-in-law Kailash Singh, 65, struggling with his speech, the effect of a recent paralytic attack. Some months ago, Singh retired as a guard at a private company and, ever since, has been fighting a case to claim his provident fund of approximately Rs 40,000. The family — Nisha, her husband, their two children and her parents-in-law — lives in the Paharganj area of the Capital.
Employment exchanges have drastically changed in profile since 1945, when they first came into being as part of the Directorate General of Resettlement and Employment to absorb service personnel after World War II. After Partition, the Directorate was entrusted the job of resettling a large number of refugees. Early 1948, the exchanges transitioned in role from being a resettlement agency to an all-India placement organisation. Some years later, the Centre handed over the day-to-day administration of these exchanges to the state governments. Through all these changes, however, employment exchanges retained an essential character: the crowds of youngsters who thronged these offices, where they picked up employment dailies, exchanged notes and found out about latest job openings. That changed over the last decade, when most employment exchanges moved their registration processes online, with job aspirants required to periodically log in and check openings. With that, the crowds thinned out, but it left people such as Nisha — and others who live on the fringes of this world wide web — a little lost.
She says she first registered with the employment exchange in 2014, but never got called for interviews. “I did not know I was supposed to keep checking online for new job openings. Nobody told me that. I was under the impression that if there is an opening, I will get a letter at home,” she says.
There are more visitors — Pooja, 19, and her mother, who come in and sit beside Nisha and her father-in-law. Pooja has been registered with the employment exchange for a year and a half. She is here to ask if there are job openings for her.
The 19-year-old says she is pursuing her Bachelor’s in Arts from the School of Open Learning, Delhi University, at which point her mother nudges her and they step out of the room. They soon come back and Pooja says, “My mother was worried I told you that because in my application, I didn’t mention I was studying for my graduation. People told us that there are more openings for Class IV jobs and my opportunities would shrink if I mentioned I was studying for my graduation. I am desperate for a job and I am willing to do any kind of work.”
Her mother adds, “Please help her get a job, we have waited very long. All my daughters are unemployed.”
Pooja lives with her parents and two elder sisters in Mehrauli, south Delhi. Her family depends on the Rs 8,500 that her father, who works as a helper in a private hospital, brings home every month. Both her sisters are also unemployed and registered with the employment exchange.
As they wait in silence — the only sound the ruffle of papers as the applicants go through the files that hold their certificates — the technical official comes back and sits behind his desk.
After they have asked him for a few clarifications, Nisha and her father-in-law prepare to leave. “Make sure you keep checking online,” says the technical official. Nisha nods and says, “Employment exchanges should not be online. Gareeb log kahaan roz-roz cyber cafe ke chakkar kaatenge. Hum padhe likhe hote toh yahaan naukri ke liye aana nahi padta (The poor can’t keep going to cyber cafes everyday. If I were educated, I would not have had to come here for a job).
Just then, Radha, 21, comes in with her cousin, Suman, 22. Both are unemployed and have been registered with the employment exchange for over a year.
“Sir, why do I only get openings for Class IV jobs? I am a graduate, why would I want to become a sweeper? My mother worked very hard to educate me,” she complains.
The official explains he has no role in deciding the kind of jobs she gets. “Earlier, scores of people would come here everyday and line up to register. Most people know how it works online, but those who don’t, come here for assistance and I help them out,” he later says.
Standing in the corridor outside the office cubicle, Radha breaks into a monologue, railing against politicians. “All they care about is winning seats. My mother has swept other people’s homes for most of her life just to make sure I studied. And they say we should create jobs… We have no money… How will we ever do something on our own. Kyun (what do you say), ” she says, nudging Suman. Suman says nothing, simply stares at the floor.