(This article first appeared in The Print)
A leaked National Sample Survey Office report putting India’s unemployment rate at a 45-year high in 2017-18 allowed the opposition parties to blame the Narendra Modi government for not creating enough jobs in the last five years. The BJP argued back by saying that India’s youth now have new avenues for jobs, which is reflected in the country’s booming startup ecosystem, massive infrastructure development and record rise in exports.
Given the emerging complexity of the job scenario, the contradictions in various employment data become understandable. While the latest data from the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) shows that new enrolments rose to a 17-month high, the much cited NSSO data points towards the opposite direction. The near saturation of traditional employment sectors is an accepted fact. But what has largely gone undocumented is the rise of new innovation and technology driven jobs.
“Current job surveys that focus on employment in the traditional sectors no longer provide an accurate representation of job creation,” an Ernst & Young report, ‘Future of Jobs In India: A 2022 Perspective’, said while describing India’s job landscape as being in a transition phase — saturation in core sectors and parallel emergence of “new engines of job creation”. Among the trends it recognises, two are particularly relevant: absorption of surplus farm labour into self-employment/micro entrepreneurship and emergence of new opportunities created through Internet and technologies.
The BJP government has pushed ahead on this technological front with initiatives like Stand-up India, Startup India, Mudra loan scheme and Venture Capital Fund for Scheduled Castes to assist new entrepreneurs. It is because of these steps that India has emerged as the second largest start-up ecosystem.
On the other hand, the Congress has in its manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections promised Rs 6,000 per month to 20 per cent people living below the poverty line and 150 days of work under National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). For a country that is poised to take the next big step, this is far from the desired push. Where will the funds come to provide a teaming 25 crore people an annuity of Rs 72,000? What work will be done in a village over 150 days? These are the questions that have been left to our imagination. To spend a major chunk of the budget on this scheme would require severe cost cutting in other spheres that will directly affect the middle and neo-middle classes.
Long before India’s political parties in opposition found a poll-plank in employment data, the changing nature of jobs was being discussed across the globe. India too has been in the middle of this change in jobs landscape, though the fine points have been blurred in the ongoing high-stakes 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The change in jobs scenario has been swift yet subtle. We are no longer looking at the socialist model of 9-5 jobs, and this is a crucial difference. This is not to say that people are not earning their livelihood but that they are no longer doing so within the old parameters of employment. This shift has been enabled by widespread use of technology and creation of a knowledge economy and information society. In the past, state-owned offices and private workplaces were essential job providers. This has changed now. With the altered dynamics of distance, information and networking, people can now earn their livelihood putting their talent and skills to use. We have decisively and irrevocably entered ‘gig economy’ where entrepreneurship becomes a crucial factor.
In the introduction to the ‘World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work’, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim points out that “many children currently in primary school will work in jobs as adults that do not even exist today”. This report makes us understand how the old yardstick of jobs has been rendered obsolete by the changed nature of employment. The report cites India as one of the countries where freelancing is booming. The number of freelancers in India is pegged at 15 million. It points out that a combination of innovation and technology is creating new types of jobs. Among the ‘new’ jobs that never existed two decades ago are app developers. According to the same World Bank report, India has nearly 4 million app developers now and the country is also the second-largest consumer of massive open online courses (MOOCs).
Another significant change comes in the form of platform-based businesses that have revolutionised the traditional input-output models. We now have systems where platforms such as Flipkart and Amazon bring together buyers, producers and providers. These changes put serious questions to the traditional parameters of jobs and taxation. Moreover, the format where one person stayed in a job for decades is fast becoming redundant.
A NASSCOM report ‘IndiaTech StartUp Ecosystem: Approaching Escape Velocity’ points out how India’s startup ecosystem has moved into smaller towns, even as eight Indian startups became unicorns in 2018 — the third most after the US and China. To continue with this swing, the BJP has promised Rs 100 lakh crore investment in basic infrastructure development, connecting all villages with optical fibre, encourage entrepreneurship, create network of roads from metropolis to villages, set up health and wellness centres which will use telemedicine. All these schemes will give a big boost to employment and entrepreneurship.
Thus, it is clear that the way forward involves investment in and improvement of human capital. In this light, the BJP’s promise to provide financial support as well as startup ecosystem sounds far more pragmatic and relevant than the Congress’ ‘Nyay’ where the source of income has not been identified. The BJP’s promises and path take you towards IT-enabled jobs and entrepreneurship, which is also the route indicated by these reports. We have to shed our traditional outlook towards jobs and explore new avenues. This is not possible without skill development, entrepreneurship and technology because in this age of robotics, artificial intelligence and automation, the nature of jobs is rapidly changing.