It is a four letter word which punctuates every discourse on the state of the economy. The answer to whether jobs are being created depends on who is asking the question and who is answering it – both within and outside the government. The frequency and time series indicators put out by the government and the claims made by ministries contradict and confound the matter further. Clearly, not enough is known – and this is manifest in the creation of a committee to suggest ways to track job creation.
What is known is that the issue has political implications. The issue has come to occupy centre-stage in the arena of ricocheting rhetoric. The phraseology of “jobless growth”, once successfully deployed by the BJP whilst in the opposition, has come to haunt the party at the Centre and in 18 states where it is in power on its own or with allies. And it is not just the Opposition which is raising the decibel level. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates have expressed disappointment with the sense in society about unemployment and ratcheted up calls for the government to focus on job creation.
Unsurprisingly, there is a flurry of activity – ministerial groups, committees of secretaries, inter-departmental working groups, a task force under the NITI Aayog and so on and so forth. The rush for enabling policy and conditions for job creation is all good – and hopefully, some of the motion will translate into movement.
Stark in all this activity and this discourse is the absence of attention to the elephant in the room.
There are over 20 lakh posts vacant across central and state governments.
Just the central government has over 4.2 lakh vacant posts. How about filling them up?
The cohabitation of vacant posts amidst outrage over rising unemployment – or poor job creation, if you please – is a starkly Indian paradox. What’s more, neither the parties in the ruling regime nor those in the Opposition have held the governments – whether at the centre or in the states – accountable for the persistence of these vacancies.
The vacancies are at the intersection of public need and political failure. The existence of vacancies is a reflection of willful neglect and electoral exigencies of political parties. The impact, the consequence of these vacancies is reflected in the many visible failures of governance – outcomes governments are constitutionally obliged to ensure for taxpayers.
Consider the list of vacancies and the intersectionality of need and failure.
That the protection of life and liberty of citizens – particularly children, women and the disadvantaged – is a priority for governments can hardly be overstated. India ranks poorly on the police to population ratio – and that it must be bolstered is a consistent chant.
Yet as of March this year, 5,49,025 posts for police personnel are unfilled.
As per data released by the Union Home Ministry, Uttar Pradesh, with a population of nearly 21 crore, has a sanctioned strength of 3,63,785 police persons—of this 1,81,958 posts or every second post is vacant. Following close are Karnataka and West Bengal—where a third of the posts are not filled.
The broken state of the education system is scarcely a secret —Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the deputy prime minister of Singapore, described it as India’s biggest crisis. The drone in the policy circles is about absenteeism. It should be about the absence of capacity too!
There are 523,963 teacher vacancies, of which 417,057 are in elementary school under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
The largest number of vacant posts are predictably in states with poor outcomes —Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan.
Malnutrition is a silent crisis in India.
2,36,479 posts of Aanganwadi workers and helpers lie vacant across the states.
Bihar and Uttar Pradesh lead the pack followed by Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Odisha —and six of the top ten with highest vacancies are NDA states. Aggravating the crisis is the sorry state of primary healthcare —inadequate coverage worsened by over 40,294 vacancies for doctors and health assistants. Indeed, the six newly established centres of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences too are wracked by inadequate staff strength —vacancies tote up to over 22,000.
The Indian Railways is the arterial and capillary connector of India’s social and political economy. The top two issues haunting it are security and safety. The rash of analysis suggests it is about money but it is about manpower too.
The Railway Ministry informed Parliament that over 225,823 posts, described as those for “safety and security”, are vacant.
These are big-tag gaps in manpower. There are other critical areas with gaps. India faces multiple threats —left-wing extremism, militancy, cross-border terrorism.
- The Central Armed Police Forces, tasked with confronting these threats is understaffed. According to the Home Ministry, there are over 78,000 vacancies at different levels – some of which are being filled.
- India Post, another connector of India with Bharat, has 49,000 posts vacant.
- The Income Tax Department has a gap of over 32,000 between its sanctioned and working strength.
There are many reasons why these posts are vacant. The Ministry of Human Resource Development, for instance, lists procedural delays, non-availability of professionally qualified persons, an insufficient number of candidates, and lack of subject specialists as reasons for the backlog of vacancies. Surely these are not insurmountable —and as for skills, isn’t this an area for the Ministry of Skill Development And Entrepreneurship to step in?
There is also the issue of funding the headroom in the budget.
The choice is between the cost of doing and the price of not doing—has any economy grown without investing in elementary education or primary health?
Can India’s growth aspiration afford low levels of human development?
Then comes the ideological debate. Popular perception about government is that big government is bad! It could be contended that the role and relevance of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. —which has over 1,50,000 listed vacancies —needs reexamination. It is a strategic call that demands a debate on whether India is ready for a ‘private only’ communications landscape.
Similarly, it is arguable that the manual ‘safety and security’ posts in the Railways are redundant, that the current spate of accidents is riveted in antiquated material and systems; that there is a need for induction of technology to deliver safety and security. This approach must be preceded by a timeline and demands redefinition of redundancies.
Even as we mull over these arguments it is worth worrying about the possible conflation of extent of government and essentials of government, of minimum government and minimum governance. Governments are obliged to ensure the security of individuals and that of institutions. The role of the state is inescapable and irreplaceable. Human development —health and education for instance —requires the investment of funds and functionaries.
It is possible that digitisation will obviate the need for manpower in many sectors —teaching apps for teachers, tele-medicine in rural health, online processes to replace manual accounts and so on. The question: Is the societal and systemic landscape ready to leapfrog? What must be the road ahead for modernising governance? Has India had that conversation?
Meanwhile, there is the need to bridge the gap between political promise and public failures in governance. There is also the challenge of ensuring the dignity of employment to ensure social harmony and political stability.
Shankkar Aiyar, political-economy analyst, is the author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution; and Accidental India.
The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.
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