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Posted at: Oct 14, 2015, 12:50 AM; last updated: Oct 13, 2015, 10:26 PM (IST)

The restive youth

What is needed is job creation and capability building
The restive youth

THE Patel youth movement for reservation in Gujarat is not showing signs of abating and is likely to spread to other states if not settled soon. But whether that happens, is there a solution? It may be that the movement only aims to strike at reservations in the country. It is also true that while some Patels are well-off, a majority of them are not and they may be genuinely protesting out of frustration. 

Signs of desperation and frustration among the youth are visible all around. In UP, 23 lakh people have applied for 368 posts of peon. Among them are a few hundred PhD and many BTech, MSc and MCom candidates. The minimum required qualification is only class V. Overqualified people applying in such large numbers reflects despondency. But this is nothing new. Some years ago, a similar thing happened for railway jobs, but the scale is now larger, reflecting a growing crisis in the lives of the young. No wonder jobs are sought to be ring-fenced by a variety of means and reservations is one of them. The recent Maharashtra government order requiring knowledge of Marathi to drive autos in Mumbai is another example.

Such moves for ring-fencing jobs are a consequence of the acute employment problem in the country. There is rising enrolment at all levels of education but commensurate jobs are not being generated by the economy. So, opportunities for the youth, corresponding to their degrees, are lacking. It is another matter that the degrees may not reflect capability and are a mere passport to jobs. Nonetheless, a degree raises expectations of a good life and when this is belied, it leads to alienation among the youth. This is especially so when families spend enormous resources in capitation fees or in private high-cost courses. The future of the family is put at stake and some who dispose of the few assets they possess even slip below the poverty line in an attempt to get their children into higher education. No wonder, communities are trying to protect jobs for their young by whatever means possible.

India has little social security so people can’t afford to be unemployed. To survive, they pick up any menial work, no wonder the data shows little unemployment. The problem is under-employment — people working at jobs for which they are over qualified or working for a few hours in a day or a week. It is not uncommon to meet courier boys or taxi drivers or daily wage labourers with graduate degrees.

The crux of the problem then is job creation and building capability among the youth. The pink press highlights reports of IIM graduates getting jobs paying seven-figure salaries or an entire batch getting a job before they complete their degrees. But, this group represents less than 0.1 per cent of job seekers. It is often said people should generate jobs for themselves, displaying an entrepreneurial spirit.

The reality is that few can create a job for themselves; that requires capital and capability and in a country which is as poor as India and where the education system is as weak as it is, both of these are scarce. Few have the training that enables them to work independently. ASER reports suggest that 50 per cent children in class V have the skill of a class I child. Malnourishment stunts many children. About 80 per cent of children drop out of school. 

Further, 93.5 per cent work in the unorganised sectors at low incomes. If child labour is included, the percentage would be 95. The desirable organised sector jobs that pay well are few. For 12 million children joining the workforce annually, only 4 per cent get organised sector jobs. Most investment goes into this sector but it is so capital intensive that it displaces labour. That is also true of modern agriculture and modern small-scale sectors. Business argues that to compete globally, it has to go for modern labour displacing technology. That is why there is a fight over public sector jobs since the private sector does not have reservations. But new public sector jobs are few since the government has been downsizing since 1991. This makes the fight for reservations even more acute.

Alienation is accentuated by the failings of our education system which is increasingly delinked from the lives of people. Teaching is of poor quality, with emphasis on rote learning. 

 Passing exams is a passport to a job. When learning is secondary, this is best achieved by cheating which has become rampant. The other way to get the passport is via reservation in educational institutions. Capitation fee is also used by the well-off to get this passport.

Also, there is a shortage of teachers. In central universities, IITs, etc., up to 40 per cent posts are vacant. Many private institutions have poor quality and ill-paid teachers. Often classes are held by overworked, part time and ad hoc teachers. Good teaching comes from commitment but even many permanent teachers lack devotion. Originality or research is not encouraged.

The content of education appears tedious and boring rather than fun. Skills need to be built step by step but if the base in the schools is weak, it persists and becomes a handicap in later years. Thus few students acquire the skills needed for advanced sector jobs. Industry complains of shortage of talented students and research is of poor quality all around.

Education that enables citizens to gain a wider understanding of life also gives hope for the future. In its absence, and especially when the chances of getting a good job are remote, students lose hope. Even good students believe that jobs require the push of someone influential. One’s own merit counts for little. All this brings about hopelessness and opens them up to the idea of a glorious past when things were better. This is fertile ground for subversive ideas and a divisive agenda.

To tackle the reservation issue, the nation needs to reform its education system and create productive jobs on a large scale. For this, it has to decide on the appropriate choice of technology and the investment pattern. The pendulum has swung too far in favour of markets and technology and away from the needs of the youth; an appropriate balance is required.

—  The writer is a retired professor of economics, JNU

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