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01 December 2023

Fast-growing India facing unemployment 'bomb'


Last week 100,000 jobseekers travelled to a small northern Indian town for a recruitment fair that ended in tragedy, revealing much about the limitations of the country's economic boom.

The crowd of mostly young men converged on the town of Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh crammed into all forms of transport, many of them travelling hours from states across the deeply impoverished plains of north India.

On offer was the chance of joining the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). A paltry 416 jobs were available as washermen, barbers, water carriers and other lowly positions with a starting salary of 5,200 rupees (ê115) a month.

This remarkable turnout for so few vacancies might have gone unreported except for violence when applicants grew frustrated with the registration process and a gruesome accident as the disappointed hordes headed home.

Returning on the roof of a train that had been filled far beyond its capacity, 18 men were killed when they failed to react in time to a low-hanging bridge.

The blame game that erupted afterwards highlighted problems common to most accidents in India. The railways said they had not been informed of the crowds, the police blamed the organisers for mismanagement.

Nobody enforced health and safety laws that prohibit travelling atop trains.

But the events in Bareilly send deeper signals about the Indian economy, social change and poverty and tell a different story from the 9.0 percent growth figures and hype about the country as a world economic power.

"Right now, the problem of unemployment has not fully appeared, but it's a bomb in a dormant state," said J. Manohar Rao, an author on development and professor of economics at the University of Hyderabad.

He describes a cocktail of steep food inflation of nearly 20 percent that is causing severe hardship in rural areas, a fast-growing young workforce and slow development of the industries that could generate mass employment.

"These people at the jobs fair, they are not completely uneducated farm workers like before," he told AFP.

"They are half-educated and they have a feeling of being educated. They have feelings of pride and they don't feel like working in the fields.

"Their expectations are rising, their aspirations are increasing, but the jobs market is not providing."

While nobody suggests India is in danger of the sort of upheaval seen in the Arab world recently, warnings about population growth, unemployment and rising aspirations sound particularly ominous in the current context.

Rao, like other experts, including the chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, Javeed Alam, underline that India's economic boom has been driven by IT and services and high-end manufacturing.

These have conferred prestige on India and there have been plaudits for its impressive economic growth rate, but what the country needs is the development of a broad-based industrial sector that can employ millions of jobless farm workers.

The unemployment rate for 2009-2010, according to the state Labour Bureau, was 9.4 percent nationwide, rising to 10.1 percent in rural areas, where two-thirds of the 1.2 billion population live.

"There is truly an economic boom, but it's a capital-intensive boom. None of the industries coming up are labour intensive," Alam told AFP. "The boom is through high-technology which creates skilled jobs.

"This exodus from villages is people looking for low-skilled or semi-skilled jobs."

Derek Scissors, an Asia economics expert with the Washington-based conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation, says under-employment as well as unemployment is endemic in rural areas.

"Official unemployment statistics aren't going to capture that," he says.

He believes the Bareilly employment fair, as well as underlining the enduring attraction of "jobs for life" in the public sector, also shows how cheap transport and communications have changed modern India.

"People in rural areas have much better information about what's going on far away from them. That's a good thing most of the time," he told AFP.

"On the other hand, you can get mass movements of people across the country and they can overwhelm the ability of any environment to handle them," he says.

The sight of thousands clamouring for jobs is as much a feature of the modern Indian economy as lines of call centre staff answering phones on behalf of international companies.

Deepak Pandey, a spokesman for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, says the huge response to the advertisements for jobs in the force highlights the desperation for work and wages.

"The employment situation is terrible in villages and it breaks my heart when over-qualified candidates beg to do menial jobs like cleaning toilets," he said.

"Even (high-caste) Brahmins apply for such work because there are just no jobs available."