It was early 2011. I remember talking to Arvind Kejriwal and his plans for an anti-corruption movement. We discussed how to mobilise angst in people into mass action. It was then that I came up with the idea of using a missed call to show support. In the next 9 months, nearly 3 crore people gave a missed call to show their support for India Against Corruption, the movement which had tapped into an inner frustration of people across urban India.
Now, I see a similar moment. What corruption was in 2011, unemployment and underemployment are in 2018. The angst and frustration about not being part of the prosperity story is simmering. It is, as we will see, showing up in different ways. And like it cascaded into a national movement which shook the political establishment then, we may be on the cusp of something similar now.
Here are the seven reasons why I think we are very likely to see a new national movement among the youth centred on the issue of jobs:
1. UNEMPLOYMENT INCREASING:
Let’s start with the data. 5 crore people have registered in employment exchanges to look for a job. Every day, 30,000 new youth come looking for a job. Less than 500 people are getting a job every day. This is the harsh reality for India’s youth. In a country where 70,000 youth become eligible to vote every day, less than 500 new jobs are getting created. It is therefore no surprise that unemployment came up as the number one issue in two recent Mood of the Nation surveys conducted by ABP-Lokniti and India Today. In addition, 77 percent of Indian households have no regular wage earner. 90 percent of formal sector jobs in India pay less than Rs 15,000 a month. Given that NREGA gets people Rs 6,000 a month, it is fair to say that most of those working are earning between Rs 6,000 and Rs 15,000 a month – barely enough to live a decent life. It is no surprise then that the median household income in India is just Rs 10,000. The hope of a few years ago has been replaced with the despair of income stagnation. The angst is there – just below the surface. Like a volcano waiting to explode.
2. RURAL TRAP:
Rural distress has also been rising. Traditionally, the way out has been to leave the villages and move to the urban areas to take up jobs in manufacturing and services. But, over the past few years, the private sector has been saddled with its own challenges of demand and debt. As a result, private sector investment has not been a driver for employment. The real estate sector which is typically a first starting point for jobs has been in the doldrums – hit by demonetisation, RERA and GST. The poor in rural areas are trapped.
3. GOVERNMENT JOBS NOT THE SOLUTION:
The movements we have seen in the past couple of years wanting more reservation in government jobs are an outcome of some of these frustrations. But there is no solution. Reservation cannot be made to 100%! Government jobs are few and far between. For the disaffected youth, it means a bleak future – stay on in a village, take up part-time job or live in a make-believe world created on the smartphone.
4. FAILED EDUCATION SYSTEM:
India’s education system should have been transformed by now to address the needs of a country that needs to so desperately capitalise on its demographic dividend. But this has not happened. If a young person does not have a job today, it is highly unlikely that the same person will have one a year from now. We are creating permanently unemployable youth. Their aspirations are rising, but their opportunities for upward mobility are shrinking. This is a dangerous gap.
5. MISSING STRUCTURAL REFORMS:
Governments across India have failed to do the structural reforms necessary in labour and land to drive employment. Take a look at the garment sector. China has lost millions of jobs in the garment sector – but these have not come to India, and have gone instead to countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh. India had its moment in time. With wages increasing, China needed a China of 30 years ago. India could have filled that gap and ensured many decades of growing employment and wages from its low base. The train unfortunately did not leave the station.
6. IMPACT OF AUTOMATION:
Artificial Intelligence and automation are further reducing existing jobs. Companies are investing in robots and software to do work which people are doing. This trend is only going to accelerate, and without re-skilling and focus on cognitive and creative learning, the workforce in India will be hard pressed to cope. Bots are also invading traditionally human bastions like sewing and stitching. India is ill-prepared for the effects of AI and automation.
7. SAVVY NEW YOUTH LEADERS:A new crop of young politically smart leaders is rising across India. We have seen it in some of the recent agitations, and especially in the year prior to the Gujarat elections. Armed with smartphones, WhatsApp and youthful energy, they are mobilising others. Traditional political parties with their hierarchical structures are no match for the network-driven agility of these new groups. With elections coming up, the time is ripe for the emergence of a new national platform which coalesces these youth groups into a unified movement for jobs and prosperity.
India has seen two national movements in the past quarter century – the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement and India Against Corruption Movement. The first was focused on the past of religious justice. The second was centred around the present corruption. The next movement is likely to be built on the future of India’s youth, their dreams and aspirations. They may be first-time voters, but they are not yet their own bhagya vidhatas.
With elections coming up soon and passions running high, it is highly likely that we will soon see a new movement that addresses the real concerns of India’s youth. The past few years should have made them realise that agitation alone will not make the governments listen and change. Without electoral activism, their aspirational and prosperous future will stay a distant dream.
When India’s unemployed youth stops sitting at home and decides to come out, you can be sure this will upend all political calculations – just like the previous two movements did. Politics has a way of surprising. Could this emergent, bottom-up movement in every village, town and city be the surprise that no one is expecting?