Debating India

Targeting `outsiders’


Monday 15 December 2003, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 25, December 06 - 19, 2003.

The violence against `outsiders’ in Assam and Maharashtra, triggered by a Railway recruitment test and exacerbated by parochial political forces, highlights among other things a consequence of the market-oriented economic policies - a drastic shrinking of employment opportunities.

in New Delhi

OFFICIAL unemployment statistics in India convey a picture of beguiling placidity. Comparisons with the figures routinely issued by competent authorities in the industrialised world indicate that the problem in India is of a relatively minor order. The most adverse measure available under the "current daily status" indicator of employment yields an unemployment rate of 7.2 per cent for the most recent round of national surveys. This should be cause for concern, though not for serious alarm, since the unemployment rate in the industrialised countries is currently running at over 6.9 per cent. If the industrialised world can cope without serious risk of social strife, then so should India.

Employment statistics in India are derived from a variety of sources, but they all invariably involve a relationship between enumerator and respondent. The respondent is asked to assess his/her status by one among a range of criteria: what was his/her "usual status" over the preceding year, what is his/her "current weekly status", or what is his/her "current daily status". Each of these questions is known to yield, when aggregated over a large number of respondents, sharply different estimates of employment. But every one of them involves an exercise in self-assessment by the respondent.

Questions of status and self-esteem, of not admitting to vulnerability and affirming a sense of autonomy, invariably influence these responses. And with social security systems and safety nets being virtually unknown, mechanisms of coping are continually in play. In the circumstances, a positive response to a question on employment status should be the rule. The massive incidence of self-employment in India - estimated to be 55 per cent of total employment in 2000 - is of course a thin camouflage for the grim reality of very poor quality and intensity of employment.

Matters could not be otherwise when the assets base of the vast majority of the population is either non-existent or rapidly eroding. When even these mechanisms of coping begin to falter and then fail, other varieties of self-perception force themselves into the picture. Real convergences of interest with others in similarly straitened circumstances begin to dissolve in the assertion of primordial identities and the rights that these putatively confer.

The social cement of shared economic adversity vanishes, as does the mutuality of interests in overcoming this condition through joint struggles. In their place comes the worst form of economic competition on ethnic lines. Metropolitan India, content in the benefits that the decade of globalisation has brought it, has been shocked by the ethnic violence that the Railways’ recent recruitment efforts provoked. This reaction among the elite was as much testimony to the power of self-delusion as an index of the extent to which they have managed to coccoon themselves in the complacent belief that the market was an undiscriminating ally of economic progress - that all boats would be lifted by the rising tide of liberalisation and globalisation.

All this while, evidence to the contrary has been accumulating in the very centres where the policies of globalisation have been framed. A recent World Bank report (India: Sustaining Reform, Reducing Poverty, July 2003) records that there has been little evidence of "convergence of per capita incomes" across States. Economic growth, it observes, has been "unbalanced" with the States that were poorer to begin with faring considerably worse than those that were more advantageously placed.

It should occasion little surprise again that Assam and Bihar, the two States most visibly involved in the recent upsurge in ethnic strife, should figure among the bottom four in terms of per capita income. The case of Maharashtra, of course, is the most serious anomaly in this thesis of poverty and economic backwardness being the proximate trigger for ethnic strife. If the city-states of Chandigarh and Delhi were to be omitted, Maharashtra with a per capita income of over Rs.15,000 tops the rankings among Indian States. In comparison, Assam has a per capita income of just over Rs. 5,000. The figure for Bihar is well below that threshold.

This, of course, is not the only curiosity that Maharashtra represents. By and large, the recent upsurge in ethnic strife was the work of disorganised mobs that melted away after banding together briefly with the limited purpose of fomenting chaos and violence.

The only two organisations that have not hesitated to claim responsibility for the violence have been the Shiv Sena and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). Of the two, the latter is a banned organisation, recognised for its terroristic streak. The former is a partner in the ruling coalition at the Centre and a strong contender for power in Maharashtra when Assembly elections fall due next year.

Economic competition oriented around the market can often engender forms of political contestation that spill over the bounds of civic peace and order. A failure of the government to perform two of its perceived social roles is involved in this phenomenon. In one of these perceptions, the government (and indeed, the public sector) figures as a direct provider of opportunities and employment, and in the other, it is seen as the final assurance of fairness and equity in access to opportunity. The decade of globalisation has brought about a virtual abrogation of the first of these roles. And the record of the main party of the coalition at the Centre, as also many of its partners, as exponents of an exclusionary idiom of governance, is rather poor advertisement for the sustenance of the role of the Government as guarantor of fair and equitable access.

In 1990, the total organised sector employment in the country stood at 26.4 million. Estimates for 2001 put the figure at 27.8 million. This meagre growth of the population that can claim the security and protection that should be any worker’s due is rather poor advertisement for the virtues of globalisation. But a few other figures would highlight why the competition for a piece of this slowly expanding pie should literally become a matter of life and death in some of India’s most depressed regions.

Within the organised sector, the government and its agencies and companies account for over two-thirds of total employment. And the Indian Railways, with its manpower complement of over 1.3 million, accounts for almost 5 per cent of organised sector employment and close to 7 per cent of total public sector employment.

Being one of the few public undertakings that is seen as responsive to populist demands in a milieu of growing economic uncertainty, the Indian Railways is seen less as an infrastructure service and more as a medium for welfare and patronage dispersal. Add to this the fact that the government-controlled sector has afforded its employees not merely better security, but also much higher emoluments than private sector workers in comparable jobs, and the picture should be complete.

The World Bank has estimated in its study cited above - using data from the National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO) 50th and 55th rounds of sampling - that average wages in public sector employment, which were 92 per cent above equivalent private sector emoluments in 1993-94, were, by 1999-2000, running 133 per cent higher. The only domains in which there is a rough equivalence in employee compensation between public and private sectors are engineering and health care.

The relative security and prosperity of the organised sector should be placed in the context of the larger fact that the NSSO in its latest round, has estimated that the workforce in India numbers over 330 million. After taking away the 7.2 per cent who have not hesitated to declare themselves unemployed, over 37 per cent of the work force is registered as "casual workers".

This is an alarming order of increase from just over 31 per cent in 1983. And most of this has occurred at the expense of the self-employed category.

In other words, one form of coping with adversity has given way to another, just as the assets of the vulnerable sections have been sharply eroded with globalisation and liberalisation. NSSO estimates also show that youth unemployment, registered as a proportion of the population between ages 15 and 29 that have entered the work force, has increased from 10.1 per cent in 1994 to 12.1 per cent in 2001. Demography suggests that in future years, the younger age groups will become numerically more significant within the total populations.

Cheerleaders for the globalisation process have purported to see in this a significant economic advantage for India as it enters the turbulent waters of global competition. But without assets or employment, the youth segments could well become a source of perennial political discord and instability.

Some of that destructive potential was brought home to metropolitan India with the upsurge of ethnic violence between Assamese and Biharis. Continuing self-delusion about the "feel-good factor" that has possessed a "shining India" could well see the pathology becoming endemic.


Pic1: RITU RAJ KONWAR; A candidate from Bihar for the Railway Recruitment Board examination being attacked in Guwahati.

Pic2: DEEPAK JOSHI/INDIAN EXPRESS; At Kalyan station in Mumbai, Shiv Sainiks attack a candidate who came to take the examination.

Pic3: RITU RAJ KONWAR; Union Minister for the Development of the Northeast Region C.P. Thakur with Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, Union Minister of State for Home Swami Chinmayanand and Assam Home Minister Rakibul Hushain in discussion in Guwahati after the violence broke out.

Pic4: RITU RAJ KONWAR; Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Prasad Yadav addressing Biharis in Guwahati on November 25. Three Biharis were killed in Darrang district of Assam during his visit. The families of most of the Biharis in Assam have lived in the State for generations.

Pic5: RITU RAJ KONWAR; Sanjoy Chowhan, a seven-year-old Bihari boy from Khanbari village of Darrang district, who was attacked during the violence, undergoing treatment at the Guwahati Medical College.

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