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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Elite sand in the machine

The reasons behind the failure of job creation and what the politicians can do about it

Written by Milind Sohoni |
Updated: August 23, 2018 12:30:29 am
the curricula in our universities must be revamped so that it leads to social comprehension, on guiding students in the analysis and documentation of the lived reality The curricula in universities must be revamped so that it leads to social comprehension, on guiding students in the analysis and documentation of the lived reality. (Express Photo/Praveen Khanna/File)

For any formal society, the welfare of its people is determined by the job profiles that exist in it, and the mechanisms by which these change. This collection represents actionable knowledge and the ability to deliver the welfare that people seek and can pay for. Central to a job is the creation of value and the allocation of a part of it to the employee, that is, the job-holder.

Consider the job of a ticket-checker at a railway station. A key determinant of its viability is the fraction of free-riders. Once this is estimated, we may set about designing the job — the schedule, itinerary, equipment, and the penalties. These may be periodically reviewed by experts and fine-tuned. The salary of the ticket checker is determined by the value she generates, the savings obtained by a reduction in free-riding. Thus, it is in the job description that we find the empirics, the technology and matching socio-economic conditions that lead to value and jobs.

If we look at India, or Bharat, we see a great demand for many development services, be it safe drinking water or public transport. However, because of poor public provisioning, we have to rely on expensive, irregular, possibly illegal private provisioning. Many of us have bought “jar water” at Rs 20 a jar or have squeezed into “6-seaters” for local transport. In fact, the absence of good public transport has made the ownership of a two-wheeler a key economic investment. There are other sectors, for instance, public health and nutrition, where the value obtained by prevention is only evident in the longer term, and in these sectors, too, the demand for services is huge.

Why, then, is this unmet demand not translating into jobs? There are three key reasons. The first is that bad job descriptions which exist today in these sectors are blocking the formation of new ones. From the secretary of a department, or the district collector, to the bus depot manager or the junior engineer, right down to the krishi sahayak, all these job descriptions no longer generate value. This is because of obsolete procedures, poor training and the complete absence of measurement of outcomes and accountability. Since these people cannot be retrained or disciplined, there is a great reluctance to fill existing vacancies. Or to experiment with new job descriptions, such as the district drinking water planner, or the city economist.

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The second reason is the shortage of facts, that is, the actual contours and parameters of the problem, so that a new job description may be designed. Take, for example, rural sanitation, where preparing a village map of the current sewage flows should precede a mass installation of toilets. However, the protocol of making this map is part of no formal curricula. There is no analysis of anganwadi operations or design principles for a multi-village water supply scheme. There is no understanding of why city bus services make a loss and what may be done to improve them, or to value their social outcomes. Only when such analyses are available will new jobs follow.

The third reason is the logic of rents which now pervades our polity. This begins with the government job. Shorn of its accountability and the measurement of delivery of service, it is largely now a rentier position and an end in itself for identity-based politics.

The chief rentiers are, of course, the elite central bureaucracies, such as the IITs, and the central services, the IAS. The IAS ensure that the formal control over the delivery of services remains centralised. There are no professional avenues for a smart solution, for instance, in sanitation, to emerge and be adopted by a city or a district. The poverty of ideas within the line departments ensures that people must either rely on NGO hand-outs or on inefficient, informal and irregular delivery, typically by local political agents. This has kept our economy a largely backward cesspool of vested interests with hardly any regional companies of repute or capability.

The next big culprits are our elite institutions.They have sat on the culturally precious space called science and turned it into a launching pad for some 2 per cent of our society to become global citizens. Their curricula have made engineering into an aspirational training for non-existent global companies, instead of a systematic probing of our material conditions. This has discredited useful knowledge production as informal or social work. Ancillaries such as the NCERT have set a school physics curricula with 50 pages on the structure of the atom but no pages on water, or 700-page chemistry curricula where “Chemistry in Everyday Life” are the last 16 pages.

In social sciences, the UGC curricula have no room for regional topics or electives and no texts from the vernacular languages. In fact, Indian elite social sciences have completely silenced our students. They have nothing to read and they can no longer speak or write. Thus, it is the elite who have failed the 98 per cent and not the 98 per cent who have failed in science. They are the sand in the wheels of change who have failed to formulate the new jobs that we sorely need.

The youth have already hit the streets. The students may soon follow when they discover that we really don’t have a plan for them once they graduate. This will happen once they realise that the college teacher, the university dean or the director of an IIT are yet another set of failed jobs. What will happen when those who can neither speak nor write, nor read a map or appreciate a flower, come out onto the streets?

What can be done to prevent this impending demographic nightmare? The elite sand in the machine must be removed or else the central machine will break. They must be told that it is not the pursuit of global science or Industry 4.0, but a patient roll-out of Industry 1.0 and the development agenda for the bottom 80 per cent which should be their primary focus. An important opportunity was lost in the IIT Council meeting of August 20, where the honourable minister was convinced by the laughable argument made by the IIT directors for maintaining status quo, that “the IITs and JEE are established brands and should not be tinkered with”.

Next, the curricula in our universities must be revamped so that it leads to social comprehension, on guiding students in the analysis and documentation of the lived reality of bad roads, broken PDS or long hours spent in fetching firewood. Only under this scrutiny will the government job deliver. Only then will the broader cycle of honest jobs begin.

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The writer is professor at Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay

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