Unemployment: Their precarious lives

Unemployment is spreading like an epidemic in India. Those who threw a smoke bomb in Parliament in Dec. 2023 were not terrorists but unemployed youth desperate to be heard by the govt, say neighbours

IYC workers protest against rising unemployment, New Delhi, 20 December 2023 (Photo: Getty)
IYC workers protest against rising unemployment, New Delhi, 20 December 2023 (Photo: Getty)

Sabah Gurmat

Portraits of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, social reformers Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule and the revolutionary Punjabi poet Pash hung on the walls of a community library that served the adjoining villages of Ghaso Khurd and Ghaso Kalan in Jind district of Haryana.

That was until its founder, Neelam Azad, a 38-year-old tuition teacher, was arrested on 13 December 2023 after she and four others orchestrated a ‘security breach’ in Parliament to call attention to the unemployment crisis and farmer distress.

While two men entered the building and released coloured gas inside the Lok Sabha chamber, Azad and two others raised slogans against ‘taanashahi’ (dictatorship) outside.

Leafing through the dust-laden copies of books strewn across the study desks on a sweltering afternoon in May, Mahavir Singh, a 41-year-old farmer from Ghaso Khurd, read out the titles: Dharm, Ek Dhokha; The Works of Premchand; Bhartiya Krishi Mein Poonjivadi Vikas.

“They have jailed her under a law meant for terrorists, but our Neelam was just trying to raise awareness (about unemployment),” said Singh. “Go speak to anyone in these two villages. Children from class 5 to even +2 (class 11–12) would come here to read and learn.”

Singh, who grows paddy, is looking for other work because problems like more pests and crop disease due to heat and erratic rains—problems he links with climate change—are growing. The yield from his 4 acres makes him a profit of barely Rs 1.25–1.5 lakh a year.

A pre-poll survey by the policy group Lokniti–CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) found that rising unemployment was one of the most significant issues on voters’ minds.

Even in a post-poll survey by Lokniti–CSDS, many voters were concerned about the lack of jobs, rising inflation and poor income/financial prospects. In 2017–18, overall unemployment in India touched 6.1 per cent, the highest in 45 years.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the share of unemployed youth in the total unemployed population was 82.9 per cent in 2022. In a paper published in 2023, the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) said the youth unemployment rate (ages 15–24) was ‘shockingly high’ at 45.4 per cent.

In May 2024, a paper by the statistics ministry said the problem of under-employment in the country was ‘surprisingly high’ at 62.3 per cent. (Under-employment is a situation where jobs are either not commensurate with the level of skill, training and education or when capacity is underutilised by not offering workers full or adequate hours of work.)

“At around 15 per cent in 2005, India’s youth unemployment rate was already high… It continued to rise and reached a shocking 25.9 per cent in 2018,” said Kaushik Basu, India’s chief economic advisor from 2009–2012, who currently teaches at Cornell University.

Saraswati Devi in her daughter Neelam
Azad’s room plastered
with GK posters and prep notes for 
competitive exams.
Saraswati Devi in her daughter Neelam Azad’s room plastered with GK posters and prep notes for competitive exams.

“Recent data released by the CMIE suggest matters have worsened, with youth unemployment reaching 45.4 per cent in 2022–23.” Basu said the government could take ideas from Opposition manifestos, such as the Congress Party’s apprenticeship programme, which guarantees placement with government, public or private firms for all persons below 25 years of age who hold a graduate degree or diploma, promising them Rs 1 lakh stipend for a year.


Unemployed despite a postgraduate education

Neelam Azad’s mother, Saraswati Devi, recalls how the TV media barged into their home and asked questions about her “aatankwadi” (terrorist) daughter after she was arrested. Accused of committing a terrorist act and booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and denied bail, Azad has spent nearly seven months in Tihar jail in Delhi.

In Ghaso Khurd, villagers said she was “outspoken” and “always raising people’s issues”. Despite a postgraduate education, her family said she couldn’t find a job and was forced to take up unskilled labour work under the MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) programme for two months, earning Rs 380 a day.

Azad turned to activism when she couldn’t take it anymore. “My daughter had a BA, MA, MPhil. She even gave the NET and exams whose names I don’t even know,” said Saraswati Devi, referring to the eligibility test for recruiting assistant professors in Indian universities.

“Nobody else in our entire family has ever reached such a level of education, but she still couldn’t find a good job.” “She used our home as a tuition centre to teach English and give UPSC prep lessons to students,” she said, referring to the civil services examination. “Then she decided to open a library as well.”

Mahavir Singh (in green gamchha) and Rinku at Ghaso Kalan’s library
Mahavir Singh (in green gamchha) and Rinku at Ghaso Kalan’s library

Azad’s father works as a halwai, making sweets and confectionery, and her mother delivers milk from cattle owners to the local dairy. Their family’s monthly income of Rs 25,000– 30,000 in a household of six people ruled out renting a space for the library, but Azad managed to get a room from a neighbour for free.

But the posters of Dalit icon Ambedkar and the political books included in the mix made the neighbour nervous, and he reneged on the offer. “Neelam isn’t Dalit, but from a backward caste and a very poor family. This man was a Brahmin and took umbrage at the Ambedkar posters, so we finally shifted the reading room and tuition to the neighbouring village of Ghaso Kalan,” said Mahavir Singh.

The library, which found space in the Dalit quarter of the village, was called ‘Pragatishil Pustakalaya’, with a motto of ‘Yuva Soch, Yuva Josh’. ‘No industries, no factories, no private sector’ Ten kilometres from Ghaso Khurd, about 40 to 50 men and women cooled off in an airconditioned reading room and computer centre of one of the only libraries in the northern Haryana town of Uchana.

One of them was 27-year-old Ajay Chahal, who woke up at five in the morning to tend his paddy farm before heading to this library to study until dusk. Chahal has a Bachelor of Arts (BA) from Kurukshetra University and a Master of Arts (MA) in public administration from Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU).

However, since graduating in 2018, he has not found a job. After graduating from high school, Chahal appeared for the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) exams but couldn’t clear the final round. He then appeared for the state-level police exams in 2021, and in the subsequent year, he tried to secure an army job.

This avenue also closed when the Agnipath scheme was announced in June 2022. The ‘Agnipath Yojana’, introduced by the Narendra Modi government to reduce the average age of armed services personnel and to cut expenses and pension costs, is a four-year short-term contractual conscription into the Indian armed forces.

However, the move sparked protests, particularly in states like Haryana, UP and Bihar, where the youth see the armed forces as a path to stable careers and upward mobility, especially for those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds.

“I married just last year, so I am worried about my options... There are no industries here, no factories, no private sector, Where will I go?” asks Chahal.”


Deepening crisis

In its India Employment Report 2024, the ILO estimates that at least 103.4 million of the country’s 371 million youth population fall under the ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’ (‘NEET’) category. One in every three young people in India is neither underemployed nor pursuing an education or training.

In 2000, only 35 per cent of the unemployed youth were educated. By 2022, that figure had almost doubled to 66 per cent, according to the ILO report.

In 2023, the CMIE recorded Haryana as having the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 37.4 per cent. This April, amid the general elections, thousands gathered in Jind for a Berozgaaron ki Baaraat (a procession of the unemployed); there was a similar event in Karnal.

For jobless youth in Haryana, illegal immigration is rising. The realities of fleeing by any means possible was even captured in a Bollywood film last year starring Shah Rukh Khan.

Rinku, 36, who has a BA in history and political science from Kurukshetra University and two diplomas in computer applications, has applied for an MNREGA job card. He gets 15–20 days of work a month and makes a paltry Rs 8,000. “I have a wife and three small kids. Survival is hard,” says Rinku.

“Recently, the Haryana government announced jobs in Israel. Had it not been a war-time situation and if I did not have young kids, I would’ve applied,” Rinku says.

Looking at the now-defunct library in Ghaso Kalan, he says, “What’s left to aspire for?”

(Sabah Gurmat is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. A longer version of this report first appeared in article-14.com)

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