Over 73 million people, mostly youth, are currently unemployed in India. This is perhaps the largest army of jobless people India has ever seen, and definitely the biggest in the world. According to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s monthly estimates, the unemployment rate stood at 7.7% in December 2019, the ninth month in which it has been above 7%.
In urban areas, unemployment was even higher at a staggering 8.9%, upending the widely held belief that urban centers are engines of job growth. Even in the rural areas, which act as a cushion by absorbing people in what is nothing but ‘hidden unemployment’, the jobless rate has been varying between 6% to over 8% for the whole of last year. It is an out of control crisis – and the far-right Narendra Modi government has absolutely no clue how to deal with it.
The demand for jobs has thus become a key demand of the workers and employees and it is included in the charter of demands, for which hundreds of thousands will be striking work on January 8, 2020 across the country.
The strike has been called by 10 central trade unions and several independent federations. This is the fourth all-India strike by this joint platform since Narendra Modi first swept to power in 2014. Significantly, over 100 farmers’ organizations, under the umbrella platform called AIKSCC or All India Kisan Sangharsh Co-ordination Committee (All India Farmers’ Struggle Coordination Committee), have decided to join the January 8 strike and have called for a ‘Grameen Bandh’ (rural strike) on the same day.
Short-sighted policies of Modi government
The responsibility for creating and fueling this jobs crisis must rest squarely on the Modi government’s tragically short-sighted policies. Instead of trying to expand demand by boosting the buying power of people, it has opted for the now-discredited neoliberal formula of giving concessions to the corporate sector, in the naïve hope that this will encourage investment, which in turn will create new jobs. Following the same dogma, it has put a deathly squeeze on government spending, believing that the less the government spends, the more the private sector will move in.
Both these preposterous strategies have been tried in the past in countries across Europe and Latin America, with disastrous results. The only thing that happens is that corporate profits continue to grow, while incomes of working people fall, joblessness grows, and social protests grow.
Through cuts in corporate tax rates, concessions to foreign portfolio investors, giving funds for promoting exports, announcing a treasure chest for failing real estate barons and a slew of public sector sell offs, the Modi government has set a dubious record of giving freebies to corporates. In just three months, it had announced 33% more concessions than the whole of last year. In the combined five-and-a-half years of the Narendra Modi-led Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) rule since 2014, USD 80 billion worth of corporate freebies have been announced.
But despite all this, the unemployment rate has continued to climb relentlessly, providing more evidence that such policies don’t help.
Impact on livelihood
Unemployment is death by a million cuts. Not only does it push families into abject poverty, it has a long-lasting impact on health and nutrition, education of children, and pushes families into debt. It forces people to undertake very low paying jobs of seasonal and temporary nature, creating mass insecurity. It also builds up anger, especially because people have not forgotten that it was the same Modi who had promised jobs to 10 million people every year. He had also promised ‘achhe din’ (better times). All that is now turned to ashes.
Besides the impact on families of those who cannot find jobs, there is another very grave fall-out of mass unemployment of the kind that India is seeing – wages for existing jobs are getting depressed. If there are 100 jobless people outside the factory gate desperate to get a job, even of the lowest paying kind, those who are working inside cannot raise their voices for increase in wages or better facilities. Because, they can always be dismissed and new workers hired at lower wages.
In fact, in the ongoing slowdown, this has taken place across industrial belts. Contract workers, who are the easiest to get rid of, have seen a wave of dismissals, followed by new hiring at lower wages. To protect their profits, owners cut the cost of labor.
Labor law changes
As if this misery was not enough, the Modi government has introduced a series of changes in existing labor laws, which have taken away the limited protection offered in terms of job security, wages and various benefits. In fact, the new labor codes enshrine a new regime of more working hours, more workload, more dependence on owners for retaining jobs and less rights to organize or legally challenge exploitative practices.
The new laws, which are set to be notified in the coming months, will ease penalties on managements for violation of laws, make it more difficult for workers to nail down such violations, hollow out the labor inspectorate system that was supposed to implement these laws, and pave the way for more and unbridled exploitation.
The January 8 strike is also calling for a complete rollback of these hostile labor law changes. It is significant that the trade unions/federations have also called for simultaneously fighting against all communal and divisive tactics of the Modi government, including the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Not only do such measures inspired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [the fascist paramilitay organization that is the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party] divide people along religious lines and erode basic constitutional values, they also become weapons to disrupt the struggles of workers.
However, such is the scale of anger against the present regime that the campaign for the strike is reportedly receiving unprecedented support across the country. The threat to unity of the people is being rebuffed by the working people.