Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan raised many hackles with his demand for affirmative action or job reservations for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates in the private sector. He suggested that “providing quota in private jobs will help cool down anger among SC and STs”, thereby stemming the rise of Maoist militancy among them. He observed that the lands of these vulnerable communities “are being snatched away. This land has gold and coal beneath it. You dig it out and shoo them away. The youth then take up the wrong path”. The merit of the minister’s line of reasoning is that at least it recognises that Maoist militancy is not just a security challenge, but results from deeply embedded socio-economic causes. He is also probably correct in his assumption that a major reason for mounting discontent among young people is because they have no jobs and future to look forward to.
But the reasons for young people taking up arms in these impoverished regions are wide-ranging. Unaddressed is the profound agrarian crisis, caused by abysmally low public investments in dry-land agriculture and farmer income protection, failures of land reforms, promotion of unsustainable, high-cost, risky agricultural technologies, the ecological degradation of the countryside, decline and dispossession from forests, contraction of rural credit, and many other causes. In tribal areas, the penetration of large corporations that tend to be predatory, extractive and exploitative further fuels the crisis. These together contribute to despair and discontent in India’s countryside. This manifests itself in farmer suicides, endemic hunger, mass annual distress migration, the violent Patidar and Jat job reservation agitations and, in some regions, in Maoist militancy, the last of these aggravated by human rights violations by counter-militancy security operations.
However, independent of whether or not it would help allay the attraction of dispossessed young Dalit and tribal people to militant ideologies, the case for affirmative action in the private sector for SCs and STs must be considered on its own merit.
There is a colossal, unprecedented and ever-mounting crisis of employment for the young in India today. Every month, a million new persons are joining India’s workforce and there are hardly any jobs for them in either the public or private sector. As N.C. Saxena points out, the total number of government staff, including Central and state governments, PSUs and local bodies, is less than 1.4 per cent of the population, against the global average of over 3 per cent. Second, the number has been going down over the years, falling from 19.13 million in 2000-01 to 17.60 million in 2011-12. One consequence of this failure is that we have far too few teachers, health workers and child carers to run our social services.
The hopes of young people are shifting, therefore, to the private sector. In this background, I do believe that at a time when the few jobs that are being created are in the private sector, and there is wide evidence of the bias shown by this sector against employing youth from socially discriminated categories, there is a strong case for job reservations. But let us remember that only around 8 per cent of jobs are generated in the formal sector, of which more than half are in the public sector; therefore, this measure, even if implemented, would still touch only the fringe of the problem.
There is today incontrovertible evidence that the current growth model built on large private investments is unable to generate jobs. Coen Kompier writing for the Centre for Equity Studies’ India Exclusion Report demonstrates that only 2.7 million jobs were added in the high-growth period from 2004-10, compared to over 60 million during the previous five-year period.
Growing millions of young people find no future in agriculture, and there are few non-agricultural livelihoods available in rural India. The Socio-Economic Caste Census showed that more than 55 per cent of rural households possess no land, and are forced to survive exclusively by distress manual labour. Marginal and small farmers are not much better off. Most of them are reduced to footloose migrants, travelling, working and surviving under conditions of great hardship away from their homes.
Young people today desperately long to escape the drudgery and hunger that entrapped their parents. A promise that helped Narendra Modi win the 2014 election was that he would help create jobs for millions of India’s teeming youth. However, the course correction he offered was to steer India back to policies of “reform” of the high-growth years of the previous government, untrammelled by blockages of red and green persuasions, of left and environment champions. But he ignored that the reality of what had been accomplished in the years of highest economic growth in India was the accelerated expansion of wealth, certainly, not the expansion of decent work for India’s poor. Employment in the organised sector actually went down after 1997, while that in the unorganised sector rose.
Massive public investments in agriculture and rural job creation would help create enormous local markets that could spur jobs and demands from below.
Huge expansions in the broken school, higher and technical education, and health and child care services would not just generate jobs, but also render youth entering work more productive and equipped with marketable skills. But there are no signs of any of this happening even in the distant horizon. Without changing course drastically, we will continue to profoundly fail our young, with both tragic and explosive outcomes.