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Is the politics over jobs data about to be recast?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-05-2017 Prashant Nanda

New Delhi: In May 2014 when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the elections to the 16th Lok Sabha, Manish Sabharwal, chairman of staffing and training company TeamLease Services, had characteristically observed: “If there were nearly 100 million new voters this time, the new government should not forget that there would be a similar number of fresh voters in 2019 as well… So the new regime has to keep in mind the expectations.”

In a country where nearly 12 million people enter the labour force every year, jobs naturally make up the core of the aspirations. Unfortunately, the data flow on it is very limited and often dated, leading to skewed claims and counter claims by political rivals. So much so, the politics over jobs data has obscured the larger problem: policy planners operate in a vacuum.

All this may be poised to end after the Union government sets up a task force on employment to devise ways to collate comprehensive actionable data. In fact, Sabharwal is a member of the task force, which is headed by Niti Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya.

“There are two types of politics in an economy—growth politics and mass politics. While growth numbers in India are good, to showcase mass politics, the government has to show good numbers in employment creation and poverty alleviation,” said K.R. Shyam Sundar, a labour economist and professor at XLRI Jamshedpur.

He said right now the “manufacturing sector is not creating enough jobs despite the efforts, and the organized service sector are seeing job cuts. The only hope for the government is now informal service sector which is adding jobs”.

The tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), from 2004-14, was synonymous with record growth and the size of the economy expanding to nearly $2 trillion. It was also, however, a period in which there was a marked slump in jobs creation, leading to the political charge that it was fostering “jobless growth”.

It is not clear whether regime change has altered this reality. India’s economic growth in the last three years is swinging between 7% and 7.9%. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew 7.2% in 2014-15, 7.9% in 2015-16 and 7.1% in 2016-17. Since there is no official data available, it is not clear whether jobless growth has been reversed.

“Where are the jobs? The corporate sector is not creating enough jobs and construction sector which has the potential to create a lot of jobs largely unskilled is also in a shambles,” said Pronab Sen, a former chief statistician of India. They have to tap the informal sector through a comprehensive survey to capture the jobs being created there, Sen added.

Sen said the current exercise should have started years back and he had suggested to the previous government to expand the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) headcount to carry out surveys. “But bureaucracy holds you up and more so when you talk about adding new government jobs in a body like NSSO,” he added.

But is it possible to collate informal sector jobs? Yes, say both Shyam Sundar and Sen.

“They have to capture it through household survey as firm survey will not throw enough result,” Shyam Sundar said, adding that the exercise is expected to give them some data by the middle of 2018 and the ruling party will be “desperate to showcase the jobs before the 2019 elections”.

“Through this exercise and mass politics, this government is trying to avoid a situation where it will be accused of jobless growth as was the case with the previous United Progressive Alliance government,” he added.

Shankar Aggarwal, a former labour secretary, said that recent efforts like housing for all and the push to infrastructure will create jobs but “when the jobs will show up is the real question”. Aggarwal said the problem in India is not any job but “decent jobs” with a good salary and well-structured social security benefits.

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