Was that a bouncer to the political opposition or was that a googly to Prime Minister Narendra Modi from an esteemed colleague in the cabinet?
Trying to decipher Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari's latest jibe at caste-based quota seekers in government jobs amid protests by Marathas in his home state of Maharashtra is as tricky as discussing the current valuations of Sensex stocks or whether Cheteshwar Pujara would have helped India win the lost first Test against England at Edgbaston.
Where are the jobs when technology is shrinking banking posts and the government is freezing recruitment, the minister has said. When he happens to be the former president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), no less, he indirectly or inadvertently hits the government on the creation of jobs in a certain election year.
You are not sure if it is a case of hit wicket at this end or run-out at the other end of the pitch. Not surprisingly, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi appeals "Howzzat!" on Gadkari's claim.
The relatively good news for the government is that demonstrations on the streets are over job quotas for castes in public sector jobs, unlike circa 1974, when India witnessed large-scale economic unrest over unemployment and inflation during the JP Movement. But Gadkari may be right in his own way. India's population has doubled since the 1970s and quality jobs are a key issue as about 5 million people enter the workforce every year.
Late last year, Gadkari was speaking of 150,000 jobs emerging in export units around Maharashtra's Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) area alone. He may be currently cribbing more about direct public sector jobs. There is evidence that the Narendra Modi government has been remiss in filling up even existing vacancies in its system. This week started with a report that says as many as 2.4 million government sector posts have been lying vacant including crucial ones for school teachers, railway workers, policemen and anganwadi workers.
Big Question Number 1: Has the NDA government in its zeal to crack down on black money with adventurous steps like the demonetisation of high-value notes or trying to please foreign investors by keeping in check its fiscal deficit missed job creation opportunities in its own home base?
Economists, journalists, and voters may all have different ideas of joblessness. The respected Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy said last month that formal employment in India may have shrunk marginally over the past year, with zero growth. This contradicted sarkar-friendly economists who have been citing payroll data (such as the number of people covered by provident fund accounts) to claim a rosy picture. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to use payroll data to claim success but its statistical methodology has been questioned. Government statisticians said as many as 4 million jobs were created in a mere eight months until last April, but data watchers are not impressed.
Big Question Number 2: Is the economist's idea of job creation the same as that of ordinary people -- say, the quota seekers on the streets of Maharashtra? It doesn't help that Maharashtra, the site of recent protests, joined Gujarat and Tamil Nadu among the biggest job spinners as per the government's own claims. However, salary structures of a majority of those employed in the organised sector are very low. Payroll-based data showed that over 75 percent of those new jobs offered salaries of not more than Rs 15,000 per month.
One recent report suggested that India is adding literally millions of jobs in industries like e-commerce, logistics, and warehousing involving mobility and contract labour. Think of those boys delivering food for Swiggy, tops for Myntra and courier packets from your bank. Or maybe, the man who drives an Uber or Ola cab with a loan to pay back.
Big Question Number 3: Is there an increasing informalisation of jobs in the Indian economy, which is just enough to keep people afloat but not for long? Signs seeking graduates for business process outsourcing or call centre jobs, or the girls who smile as they serve you an overpriced coffee at a mall may not be exciting enough for a government that roared with a 'Make In India' slogan soon after coming to power in 2014. Foreign direct investment crawled by just 3 percent in 2017/18 while private investment fell by 40 percent in 2017. A big pile of non-performing assets (NPAs) has kept the banking system busy fixing old problems at the cost of new investments. All that in an election year can be ominous.
Big Question Number 4: Is there a time bomb that may tell on Narendra Modi's economic policies as India goes to the polls -- and is there a dissident in disguise in Gadkari? Narendra Modi lovers may say it is just not cricket.
(The author is a senior journalist. He tweets as @madversity)
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Updated Date: Aug 06, 2018 18:01:46 IST