First, let’s face an unsaid truth about the latest countrywide debate regarding ‘one nation, one election’. Besides other things, this simply boils down to the job, career, and prospects of India’s political class whereas millions of jobless in all other fields are left to wait in the cold. Most of them have little hope about their future. And as a result, they have to rely more upon fate than their ability to make a difference to their tenuous lives anytime soon.
Seldom before has an entire upcoming generation of jobseekers been so distraught and dejected. A huge army of able-bodied young adults with varying levels of education, skill, training and competence is languishing in despair like their not-so-equipped or privileged counterparts who have no option other than to look for manual labour. This is a pan-India phenomenon.
Many who fall in the first category routinely line up to seek hard physical work alongside the bigger unskilled workforce. At daybreak they throng some of the city squares—which are called ‘labour chowk’—in anticipation of getting some work. Some are hired either by contractors to work on a construction site or by someone who needs a few extra pairs of hands for some sundry job at bare minimum wages. But as the day progresses, barring a few lucky ones who get hired on daily-wage basis, most go home empty-handed, only to return the next morning to repeat the cycle.
This is how workaday life goes on for millions across India. The government statistics of the unemployed, semi-employed and underemployed in the country is scant, patchy, or inadequately updated and shared in the public domain. So, even officials rely on the figures routinely rolled out by a privately-run think-tank called Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). Available estimates suggest that just 332 million people in a country with a population of 1.4 billion do paid work. This includes both the formal and informal sectors. But no less than another 286 million workers look for work or better work, which could bring them suitable or justifiable returns.
This is so when the proportion of labour force participation in India is 20% below that of China or Brazil. Pointing this out, the report of the People’s Commission on Employment and Unemployment released in October 2022, and summarised by Professor Arun Kumar, says that among its results are that dependency of unemployed family members on the employed member is more, the per capita family income is less, and the non-contribution of 20% of the country’s workforce to the economy reduces the potential of India’s GDP. In other words, India is paying a substantial opportunity cost due to this unproductive labour force.
Women and educated youth suffer more than others because of the high rate of unemployment. Of late, the unemployment rate in the country has been varying between 7% to 8%. The CMIE figures point out that only 12.8% of employed people are graduates or have higher qualification, 39.6% have education of between Class 10 and Class 12, while a whopping 47.6% fall under the category of education up to Class 9. So, a low percentage of educated people getting employment is an obvious trend. This raises questions about the quality of education and its being or becoming a route to employment.
Today these and many more similar issues dog most people and their families throughout the country. This is also how India is still categorised as a low-income country with poor quality of life. So far, the government has been talking about ‘ease of living’ and ‘ease of doing business’ to change this. But suddenly, the debate has turned to ‘ease of holding elections’ by ensuring simultaneous polls from municipal and village level to that of Assembly and Parliament. Presumably, the emphasis is on reducing the cost, energy, and time that multiple rounds of polls and electioneering entail. It’s also being said that these are hampering the task of development.
But it’s a known fact that, besides the burden imposed on the State, polls require huge expenditure by parties and candidates too. The first occurrence may or may not be curtailed by holding polls for multiple legislatures simultaneously, but the amount raised from a myriad of sources and spent by candidates if the country opts for ‘one nation, one poll’ most certainly won’t come down. At best, it may be reduced by some extent for the parties. This may well be of more help to big parties than the smaller ones. This would be more so since several curbs brought in to ensure fiscal propriety on the part of contestants have so far failed.
Elections are a test for political parties and their candidates and so are they for voters. But the latter often fail the test as compared to those who win the polls. This is all the more true in a developing country. What are the underlying reasons? Education and economic security have so far played a big role in making the West or even some of the Eastern economies what they are today. Europe grew sufficiently industrialised early to wipe out mass poverty and bring voters on a par with or closer to those who make it to legislative forums.
So, if in India, CMIE can categorise workers in just three broad categories—uneducated, schooled upto Class 9, and graduate or above—why can’t the government have data on these and summon the will and wherewithal to ensure universal employment just like universal franchise?
Why can simultaneous exams or trials not be held for the three categories of potential employees to assess their abilities before offering them suitable jobs through a regulator? If it is the task of the citizen to prove his worth before getting a job, the duty to enable him to properly utilise it falls upon the government, whether Central or state or both.
These are some issues crying out for the government’s immediate attention as it merrily rolls out an exercise to weigh the possibility of introducing its ‘one nation, one election’ plan by forming a panel under none other than a former president of the country.