‘Survival Is Hard’: India’s Millions Of Unemployed Youth & The National Crisis Facing Modi 3.0

24 Jun 2024 15 min read  Share

Six months after a 38-year-old woman from Haryana was arrested on terror charges for a security breach in Parliament that was meant to draw attention to the unemployment crisis in India, we found out more about her struggle to find a job despite a postgraduate education and about other young people with college degrees who are looking for unskilled work or desperately trying to leave the country by any means possible. The ILO says 103.4 million, or one in every three youths, is not in education, employment, or training. Their distress and misery may have cost the BJP a majority in the recently concluded general election. Experts suggested the government should consider transparency in admitting the extent of the problem, creating jobs locally, and giving an Opposition “apprenticeship” scheme a try.

Pooja Rajbhar, 26, from Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district, has a graduate degree but no job prospects. Most of Ballia’s women and those around her are in the boat. Ajay Chahal, 27, a Masters degree holder from Uchana in Haryana, has tried his luck from private companies to police service exams to the army and even Grade IV level government jobs. All of it was to no avail.///May 05, Sabah Gurmat

Jind, Haryana: Portraits of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, social reformers Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule and the revolutionary Punjabi poet Pash hung on the walls of a community library that served the adjoining villages of Ghaso Khurd and Ghaso Kalan in Jind district in the centre of Haryana.

That was until its founder, Neelam Azad, a 38-year-old tuition teacher, was arrested on 13 December 2023 after she and four others orchestrated a “security breach” in Parliament to call attention to the unemployment crisis and farmer distress.  While two men entered the building and released coloured gas inside the Lok Sabha chamber, Azad and two others raised slogans against “taanashahi (dictatorship) outside. 

Leafing through the dust-laden copies of books strewn across the study desks on a sweltering afternoon in May, Mahavir Singh, a 41-year-old farmer from Ghaso Khurd, read out the titles: “Dharm, ek dhokha” (Religion, a sham), “The works of Premchand”, and “Bhartiya krishi mein punjivadi vikas” (Corporate profits from India’s farming sector). 

“They have jailed her under a law meant for terrorists, but our Neelam was just trying to raise awareness (about unemployment),” said Singh. “Go speak to anyone in these two villages. Children from class 5 to even +2 (class 12) would come here to read and learn.”

Singh, who grows paddy, is looking for other work because problems like more pests and crop disease due to heat and erratic rains—problems he links with climate change–are growing. His four-acre yield barely makes him a profit of 1.25 to 1.5 lakh rupees for the year.

While the police led her away, Azad said youth unemployment, farmer distress, and the policies of the Modi government prompted their protest in Parliament. Opposition politicians, such as Congress Party leaders Rahul Gandhi and Digvijaya Singh, said that “rampant unemployment” was the reason behind this security breach. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to secure a majority for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recently concluded general elections was attributed to India's growing unemployment crisis, a leading cause of misery and unhappiness for young people and their families. 

While the BJP won 303 seats in the previous Lok Sabha elections in 2019, it was down to 240 seats this time, suffering heavy losses, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. 

A pre-poll survey by the policy group Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found that rising unemployment was one of the most significant issues on voters’ minds. Even in a post-poll survey by Lokniti-CSDS, many voters were concerned about the lack of jobs, rising inflation, and poor income/financial prospects. 

The BJP also lost nearly one-third of its seat share in rural constituencies, reflecting a looming discontent over the lack of jobs and rural distress. 

 According to The Indian Express, the BJP may have lost 45 seats because of factors like unemployment, local caste consolidations and inflation. 

In 2017-18, overall unemployment in India touched 6.1%, the highest in 45 years. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the share of unemployed youth in the total unemployed population was 82.9% in 2022.

In a paper published in 2023, the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) said the youth unemployment rate (between ages 15 to 24) was “shockingly high” at 45.4%. 

In May 2024, a paper by the statistics ministry said that the problem of underemployment in the country was “surprisingly high” at 62.28%. 

Underemployment occurs when a worker is employed in a job that is not commensurate with their level of skills, training, or education or when their capacity is underused by not offering them total hours or adequate work or leaving them idle.

“India’s youth unemployment rate was already high, at around 15% in 2005. What is worrying is that it has continued to rise and reached the shocking 25.9% by 2018,” said Kaushik Basu, India’s chief economic advisor from 2009 to 2012, who is currently teaching at  Cornell University. “Recent data released by the CMIE suggest matters have worsened, with youth unemployment reaching 45.4% in 2022-23.”

Given that many young people are “in education” because there are no jobs, Basu said, “If they were (counted), unemployment levels might be even higher. This makes the situation particularly alarming.”

Basu said the classic problem of crony capitalism is where aggregate GDP grows even while the bottom half of the population sees their real incomes stall or fall. 

“India used to be a global leader in data collection and transparency. Unfortunately, we are not releasing data and damaging this great statistical tradition to deflect attention from what is happening at the grassroots level,” he said. 

Basu said the government could take ideas from the opposition manifestos, including the Congress Party’s apprenticeship program, which guarantees placement with government, public or private firms for all persons below 25 years of age who hold a graduate degree or diploma, promising them ₹1 lakh stipend for a year. 

Neelam Azad’s mother Saraswati Devi shows the general-knowledge posters and preparation notes for competitive exams hanging in Neelam’s room. Now incarcerated, the 38 year old Neelam used these as study materials while taking tuitions for youth  in the village. Ghaso Khurd, May 5, 2024/Sabah Gurmat

Despite A Post Graduate Education 

Neelam Azad’s mother, Saraswati Devi, recalled how the TV media barged into their home and asked questions about her “aatankwadi” (terrorist)  daughter after she was arrested. 

Accused of committing a terrorist act under the  Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), India’s counter-terrorism legislation, and denied bail, Azad has spent nearly seven months jailed in Tihar central prison in Delhi. 

In Ghaso Khurd, villagers said she was “outspoken” and “always raising people's issues”.

Despite a postgraduate education, her family said she couldn’t find a job and was forced to work unskilled labour under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) program for two months, earning 380 rupees daily. 

Azad turned to activism and community organising when she couldn't do it anymore. 

“My daughter had a BA, MA, MPhil. She even gave the NET and exams whose names I don’t even know of,” said Saraswati Devi, referring to the eligibility test for recruiting assistant professors in Indian universities. “Nobody else in our entire family has ever reached such a level of education, but she still couldn’t find a good job.” 

“She used to use our home as a tuition centre for teaching English and even giving UPSC preparation to others,” she said, referring to the civil service examination. “Then she decided to open a library as well.”  

Azad’s father works as a halwai, making sweets and confectioneries, and her mother delivers milk from cattle owners to the local dairy. Their family’s monthly income of 25,000 to 30,000 rupees in a household of six people ruled out renting a space for the library, but Azad managed to get a room from a neighbour entirely on goodwill. However, the posters of Dalit icon Ambedkar and Azad’s inclusion of political books made the neighbour nervous, and he reneged on the offer. 

“Neelam isn’t Dalit, but from a backward caste and a very poor family. This man was a Brahmin and took umbrage at the Ambedkar posters, so we finally shifted the reading room and tuition to the neighbouring village of Ghaso Kalan,” said  Mahavir Singh. 

The library, which found space in the Dalit quarter of the village, was called ‘Pragatishil Pustakalaya’ (progressive library), with a motto of ‘Yuva Soch, Yuva Josh’ (young minds, youth’s energy).

‘No Industries, No Factories, No Private Sector’

Ten kilometres from Ghaso Khurd, about 40 to 50 men and women cooled off in an airconditioned reading room and computer centre of one of the only libraries in the northern Haryana town of Uchana. 

One of them was 27-year-old Ajay Chahal, who woke up at five in the morning to tend his paddy farm before heading to this library to study until dusk. 

Chahal has a Bachelor of Arts (BA) from Kurukshetra University and a Master of Arts (MA) in public administration from Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). However, since graduating in 2018, he has not found a job. 

After graduating from high school, Chahal appeared for the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) exams but couldn’t clear the final round. He then appeared for the state-level police exams in 2021, and in the subsequent year, he tried to secure an army job. This avenue also closed when the Agnipath scheme was announced in June 2022. 

The "Agnipath Yojana" is a four-year short-term contractual conscription into the Indian armed forces. The Narendra Modi-led government introduced the scheme to reduce the average personnel age and cut expenses and pension costs. 

However, the move sparked several protests, particularly in states such as Haryana, UP, and Bihar, where many youths see the armed forces as a path to stable careers and upward mobility, especially for those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. 

“I married just last year, so I am worried about my options. My friends and I used to wake up early to train at this stadium, “ said Chahal. “There was a craze to join the army, but it is pointless now. Last year, I took the Group-D level exams for grade IV government openings. This year, I’m again trying for the Haryana police exams.”

“There are no industries here, no factories, no private sector,” said Chahal, “Where will I go?”

Chahal added that he could only find jobs in big cities like Gurgaon, Chandigarh, and Delhi.  “And why will a company in Gurgaon hire a graduate from Kurukshetra University when they can employ a Delhi University student?”

Deepening Crisis

In its ‘India Employment Report 2024: Youth Employment, Education and Skills’ report, the ILO estimated that at least 103.4 million of the country’s 371 million youth population fell under the “Not in Education, Employment, or Training” or “NEET.” One in every three youths in India is neither under-employed nor pursuing any education or training. 

There is also a stark divide between the educated and the uneducated. 

In 2000, only 35.2% of the unemployed youth were educated. By  2022, that figure had doubled to 66%, according to the ILO report.

“The more educated you are in this country—except for vocational and technical education—the higher the unemployment rate. The unemployment for illiterate persons is 3.4%, but for graduates, it's 29.1%”, said Rathin Roy, an economist and a senior fellow at the Overseas Development Institute based in London. 

Countering the ILO data that 83% of India’s unemployed were young people, the labour ministry said the youth (aged 15-29 years) unemployment in 2022 was just 5%, down from 7% in 2019, while the unemployment rate for adults (aged 30-59 years) was 1% in 2022 and 2019.

Roy, an economic adviser to the 13th Finance Commission during the UPA, emphasised the need to examine this unemployment rate in light of over 100 million ‘NEET’—“Not in Education, Employment, or Training”—youths. “If you take these two facts together and think about them, the issue is a structural failure. Because in a country growing at 8-9%, why would a third of the youth neither be trained, working, or even in education,” he said. 

Santosh Mehrotra, a development economist and visiting professor at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, said the early 2000s saw a spurt in school enrollment, creating a large bulge of young people who have become better and better educated.

“By the turn of the century, you had more and more people who entered schools, thanks to the mid-day meal schemes. And the government had been investing in school education programs like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which led to a sharp increase in secondary enrolment,” said Mehrotra.  

School enrolment from classes six to 12 rose from 58% in 2010 to 85% in 2015, which Mehrotra attributes to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which was in power until 2014. Further, enrollment in higher education (colleges and universities) grew from 10% in 2001 to nearly 27%  by 2016.

These policies resulted in the labour force participation rate in India falling while the number of people in education rose. 

Mehrotra said the present crisis is partly due to the economy not generating enough jobs and people having specific qualifications with coinciding aspirations that may or may not match the jobs offered. Mehrotra also cautioned that the quality of education and qualifications being received “is simply not upto the mark”. 

‘Jahaan Ghar, Wahi Naukri’

Economist Rathin Roy said the absence of jobs for people in their place of origin was key to the crisis.

Roy proposed creating activities that create local jobs—‘jahaan ghar, wahi naukri’—in agriculture, clothing/textiles, housing for all, healthcare, and education. 

In agriculture, we need to find out what proportion can survive with a 15% return on investment and then understand how many people can be employed. 

This includes correctly implementing ideas like ‘doubling farmers’ income’ and setting up textile factories in places like UP and Bihar. Once upon a time, UP had a thriving textile industry, which was destroyed. 

Housing for all would mean unlocking land for the poor, not for SEZs, airports, and ports, but to ensure everyone gets housing. Why is government land given toward subsidies for clubs, golf clubs, playhouses, and watering holes of the rich and those in government jobs and the army?” Roy said. “If we work on developing reforms in these five sectors and do it in a way that follows “jahan ghar, wahi naukri,” people will be self-sufficient and won't migrate out or leave in search of jobs,” he said.

Despair Abounds

Mehul Kumar, a 37-year-old from Ahmedabad, desperately seeks work that can “meet even my Master’s if not PhD level qualifications”. 

Kumar, a sociologist, completed his PhD in 2017 from the Central University of Gujarat in Gandhinagar. Despite clearing the NET in 2017, Kumar has had no luck finding a job as an assistant professor.

Kumar said he had applied to “almost 500 places” in academia and the social sector, from field worker to project manager, and had been rejected everywhere. Most people told him that he was overqualified. 

“I can’t find any teaching job. The state doesn’t open any vacancies up,” he said. “It is impossible to find anything despite my degrees. And there’s no institute of higher education with openings. There are no jobs meant for people like me now.”

Kumar had to undergo therapy as his mental health took a toll worse during COVID-19, but he still considered himself lucky that his wife, a government school teacher, could provide for their family. 

For 26-year-old Pooja Rajbhar, who comes from a backward caste family with no land in eastern Uttar Pradesh's Ballia district, graduating with a BA was supposed to have meant upward mobility.

The lack of any jobs has left her with no choice but to get married. 

“If at all any women get a college degree, they can at best do jobs like tailoring or selling goods from a small kirana shop. There’s no factories nor industries in all of Ballia, and hence no proper jobs,” she said. 

‘I Need A Job. I’m Not Even Able To Get Married’

In 2023, the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) recorded Haryana as having the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 37.4%.

This April, amid the general elections, thousands gathered at Jind for a “berozgaaron ki baaraat” (a procession for the unemployed), with a similar event also occurring in Karnal.

The dual crisis of a lack of non-farming jobs for the educated, coupled with the loss of farming as a lucrative profession, has exacerbated many people's desperation. 

For jobless youths in Haryana, illegal immigration is rising. The realities of fleeing by any means possible—the donkey flight path or dunki—was captured in a Bollywood film starring Shahrukh Khan last year.   

“My nephew just undertook dunki in 2023,”  said Ramnives Prajapati from Karsindhu village in Haryana. “Every year since the pandemic, I’d wager at least 40-45 youths make dunki in our village alone.”

Prajapati, 35, has been unable to fulfil his dunki flight fantasies for the USA owing to the lack of resources to pay an agent or trafficker who can assist in this. 

Prajapati and his two brothers collectively own four acres of land, where paddy and wheat farming remain his primary source of income despite his decade-long search for a job. 

“If the crop yield is good, then we can earn upto 20,000 rupees per acre for the full season, but that’s hardly anything,” he said. “I need a job. I’m not even able to get married or find any woman because of my situation.”

A BA degree, coupled with a master's in sociology from Kurukshetra University in 2016, has been of no help. Today, Prajapati is pursuing a law degree through a correspondence course after trying to get a job as a patwari, government clerk, private driver and even a parking ticket collector in Delhi and Chandigarh. 

“I managed to get a job in Chandigarh with a contractor, working as a parking ticket collector,” said Prajapati. “The pay was around 14,000 rupees, but then the contractor decided to downsize and save costs by finding someone else willing to do this job for 10,000 or so.”

“I have an MA but can’t even find a job that pays a living wage”, he said. 

Mahavir Singh, 41 (left) flanked by 36 year old Rinku, at Ghaso Kalan’s library and reading room. Both men remain desperate in their search for jobs, even though the library is now a ghost of its former self since its founder Neelam Azad languishes in jail. Ghaso Kalan, 5 May 2024/Sabah Gurmat

‘Survival Is Hard’

Rinku, 36, who has a BA in history and political science from Kurukshetra University and two diplomas in computer applications, has applied for an NREGA job card. 

“I have kept trying for jobs, but nothing is available. I now just do daily-wage work, doing plastering and construction of homes here. But I’m hopeful of getting an NREGA job card soon”, said Rinku, who lives in Ghaso Kalan, where Neelam Azad set up the library. 

While getting 15 to 20 days of work each month, Rinku makes 8,000 rupees monthly.

“I have a wife and three small kids. Survival is hard,” said Rinku. 

“Recently, the Haryana govt announced jobs in Israel. Had it not been a wartime situation and because I have three young kids, I would’ve applied too”, he said, referring to the recent announcement of sending India’s construction and informal sector workers to Israel after hiring drives were conducted by the Haryana government earlier this year. 

“There is no scope for private jobs for people like us. There are no companies or factories in our own towns. We will have to go to cities like Delhi, Gurgaon, or Chandigarh. And I cannot compete with a degree-holder from a top Delhi or Mumbai college there,” said Rinku. 

Looking at the now-defunct library in Ghaso Kalan, he added, “What is left for us to aspire for?”

(Sabah Gurmat is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)

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