Critical task of employment generation missing

The workers look to government jobs to protect them from the insecurity of everyday life, but they draw a blank. Generalised economic distress has hit the young people badly. The only option is the informal economy & jhuggi-jhopris. They make our cities, but the city has no place for them. So, they appropriate public land and build crude huts. India has not fostered the creation of a working class; it has encouraged migrants.

Neera Chandhoke

The BJP retained power at the Centre in 2019 and unfurled the agenda of Hindutva through ill-thought-out laws. Since then, the country has been wracked by agitations: the anti-CAA protests, the farmers’ sit-in and the recent anger at vicious comments made by a spokesperson of the BJP on an irresponsible TV channel.
Today, we confront another serious situation. Young people across the country have violently demonstrated against Agnipath. Unemployment is rampant, and all that they are offered is a four-year contract. After that, the youngsters will be packed off with a handful of cash and thrown on to the not-so tender mercies of the market. The rage of the young cannot be supported, but we understand the cause of this anger. The same aspirational youth that brought the BJP to power, expecting achhe din, have been deceived.
Today, they are caught between the proverbial devil and the deep sea. The rural sector has been periodically wracked by agrarian distress. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2009) does not grant a generic right to work. The organised working class forms but 8 per cent of the workforce. The conventional distinction between formal and informal working people has almost disappeared. Within the formal organised sector of the economy, the increasing use of contract labour, sans job security, has weakened the bargaining capacity of the employees.
This is the outcome of, what the Report of the National Commission on Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (2009) established by the UPA government, referred to India’s ‘lopsided transformation’. India has not moved structurally from an agrarian economy to an urban-industrial system based on standard labour contract, worker mobilisation and welfarism.
The young have no option but to migrate to the cities. Here, they manoeuvre some space for themselves in a jhuggi-jhopri cluster, defined by filthy open drains, overflowing garbage and ramshackle shelters made of cardboard and roofed with asbestos. They procure high-risk and low-paid employment in the hazardous and exploitative sweatshops of the informal economy and churn out commodities, from nuts and bolts to exotic designer clothes.
It is estimated that the number of migrant workers is 45 crore. They form a major part of the unorganised labour that constitutes more than 90 per cent of the workforce. Many migrants do not have the vote at their place of work. According to newspaper reports, 30 crore voters, out of the total 91 crore electors, did not vote in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 for this reason.
Admittedly, the informal labour is everything that Marx wrote of the lumpen proletariat. Workers compete with each other for jobs, they work for long hours in return for what Marx called a ‘mess of pottage’, they are ready to undercut and drive down wages, and they are prepared to offer an alternative to the organised working class. Yet, they matter, because they are citizens of this great country. They should be accommodated, protected and rewarded for their labour.
But informal workers are not even protected against the risks of everyday life. This was made tragically clear when on March 24, 2020 the Government of India declared a national lockdown. Unfeeling owners of small and medium enterprises shut their doors on workers, cold-hearted landlords demanded rent from penniless tenants, food ran short, and the government watched callously as more than 4 crore migrants began to walk towards their villages with torn and bloodied feet, backs bent under the weight of their pitiful belongings, eyes dimmed by loss of hope, bellies distended by hunger, and throats hoarse for lack of water. Most of them walked in the hope that when they reached home, they would not remain hungry.
But the village that beckoned thousands of workers is not the rural utopia picturised by the Mumbai film industry. What option do the young have?
They look to government jobs to protect them from the insecurity of everyday life; they draw a blank. Perhaps, the government has its reasons, but generalised economic distress has hit the young people badly. The only option is the informal economy and jhuggi-jhopris. They make our cities, but the city has no place for them. So, they appropriate public land and build crude huts.
India has not fostered the creation of a working class; it has encouraged migrants. What we have on our hands is what the authors of the urban places have called ‘restive publics’. In the squatter settlements, people live under the rule of the mafia lord and the local politician, who taps simmering discontent to manufacture communal riots and create mayhem.
But violence works both ways. Our aspirant youth, betrayed regularly by elected governments, can erupt in mindless anger because their expectations of achhe din are dashed. They can turn against the very politician who uses them for his ignoble ends; they can turn against governments that have used them to engineer riots. They can set fire to trains, to depots, to the offices of the ruling party. “Though nothing can be immortal which mortals make; yet, if men had the use of reason they pretend to, their Commonwealths might be secured, at least, from perishing by internal diseases,” wrote Thomas Hobbes.
The commonwealth, it appears, has not been secured for reasons this government knows best. We will face more of these violent protests until the ruling class gives up its fascination with politicised religion and handouts and turns to the critical task of employment generation.