Agnipath protests manifestation of anger bottled up among youth against rampant unemployment in Modi regime
Demonetisation and GST triggered unemployment crisis for which Modi govt never took meaningful action. Millions of youths are no longer willing to be fooled by Modi’s big slogans and empty promises
The unprecedented unemployment crisis in independent India that has been building up with the sharpest ever hike in joblessness since 2014 finally exploded on June 14, 2022, when the Centre announced Agnipath (literally the Path of Fire) scheme for short term recruitment in armed forces.
Thousands of unemployed youths suddenly came out on the streets and went on a rampage, setting trains on fire, torching vehicles, damaging both private and public properties, and even attacking houses of leaders of the ruling establishments.
The protests spread to Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Telangana, Odisha, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Jharkhand, and Assam in a very short span of time, and continue to spread.
June 20 was marked as a day of spontaneous Bharat Bandh and by the morning, as many as 483 trains had to be cancelled. Even the Union Ministry of Home is unaware of who gave the call for the bandh, which was finally attributed to various ‘groups’.
The reality is that it is a general outburst of millions of unemployed youths against the Modi government whose attempts to divide them along communal lines over the years has obviously failed.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘New India’ ironically has the worst level of unemployment since Independence, both on the usual status (calculated yearly) and current status (calculated weekly) basis, notwithstanding big-ticket slogans generating hope among the unemployed youth who voted his party to power in May 2014.
He had first promised 10 million jobs every year in November 2013 in an Agra election rally if BJP came to power. This itself showed that he did not have the faintest idea of the real unemployment situation in the country beyond some simple data of a Labour Bureau survey report released by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment that put the unemployment rate in 2012-13 at 4.7 per cent.
The 45th session of the Indian Labour Conference was held on May 17-18, 2013, after which the Committee on Measures to Improve Employment and Employability had recommended that the National Employment Policy be finalized as a matter of priority.
However, after he came to power, Modi failed to do much on this front despite getting an insider’s view of the growing crisis. He conveniently dropped the idea of the National Employment Policy, which was simply ignored during the 46th session of the Indian Labour Conference held in 2015. No session of ILC was held thereafter. However, the Modi government has announced such a policy in 2022-23, just two years before the next Lok Sabha election in 2024.
Unemployment rose to 6.1 per cent by the beginning of 2018, according to NSSO data, which was the highest in 45 years. Modi government was trying to suppress the data, but it got leaked out just months before the Lok Sabha election in 2019.
Towards the end of the election, NSSO had even come out with another data which put a question mark on the government’s claim on growth and development by revealing that 36 per cent of the companies whose data were used to calculate GDP were not even traceable.
When Modi won the election, the first thing he did was to merge NSSO with CSO to create a new entity named NSS. It was alleged that the intention was to keep most of the data hidden from public view, releasing only that data which the government wanted to reveal at its own convenient time.
The immediate reasons for the sharp increase in unemployment was his govt’s demonetization move in November 2016, which led millions of enterprises to shut down and countless others to drastically scale down their production. It rendered millions of workers out of job.
Soon after that, GST was implemented from July 1, 2017 without preparation which further increased unemployment to a new high. The Modi govt’s overall economic policy, such as selling or disinvestment of Public Sector Undertakings, and favouring a handful of corporates made it worse.
Instead of taking any meaningful action even at that point, PM Modi chose to simply repeat his five-year-old promise of providing ‘work with dignity for every hand’.
If India had to give work for every hand, it had to create about ’20 million jobs’ and not just the ‘10 million’ promised by him in 2013 in Agra. Suppression of data could not help joblessness among youths, because two-thirds of India’s population is below the age of 35, and around 16 million youngsters attain adulthood every year aspiring for quality job.
However, by mid-2019, it had become clear that almost 20 per cent of urban males and 25 per cent of urban females were most likely to find no jobs at all, not to talk about quality jobs.
At that time, 7 million youths were leaving the farm sector and migrate in search of employment in other sectors every year. Promises were not delivered, but the unemployed youth again supported Modi even though in place of ‘work with dignity for every hand’, BJP leaders had started talking of jobs without social security such as ‘selling pakodas’ on the street. During the lockdown, even such employment avenues became impossible.
The pandemic further exasperated the unemployment situation in the country and it reached a new high, breaching all earlier records since independence in 1947. Usual status of unemployment for age 5 years and above was 0.72 per cent (1.36 million) in 1961, 1.57 per cent in 1971, and 1.62 per cent in 1973 according to an estimate of World Bank.
The current status of unemployment was 5.28 per cent in 1958-59, 3.64 per cent in 1960-61, and 4.34 per cent in 1972-73.
The current unemployment rate rose to 9.06 per cent in December 2020, 8.1 per cent in December 2021, and 7.71 per cent on June 19, 2022, as per CMIE data. With sharply rising prices, especially food prices, and inflation, it makes for a deadly cocktail.
The announcement of only a four years’ tenure in Agnipath scheme, which has now been increased to six years, amounted to rubbing salt on injury. The decision not to roll back the scheme statement and threatening unemployed protestors with being kept out of armed forces on account of indiscipline has further complicated the matter.
The claimed merits of this recruitment drive are also questionable and hence must be debated thoroughly before implementation.
There is no way out for the Modi government except coming out with a comprehensive employment policy.
Views are personal