Vol. 4 Num 187 Thu. December 04, 2003  

Fury over railway recruitment: Wages of jobless growth

If someone wanted to discover a fast track to the triumph of extreme ethnic-chauvinism in India, they couldn't find a better example than the three-week-long rampage in different states over recruitment of Category-D employees by Indian Railways. This has claimed scores of lives, over 50 in Assam alone.

What triggered off the orgy of violence was the denial of entry to 50 students from Bihar to Railway examination halls in Assam on November 9. The backlash began immediately. Trains bound for the Northeast were attacked in Bihar, and some of their occupants manhandled.

In reaction, the All Assam Students' Union organised a protest. This escalated into a senseless witchhunt of ethnic Biharis living in Assam, many of whom have never even been to Bihar.

Since then, extremist groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom have taken over the "agitation", perpetrating murderous attacks upon the poorest of Biharis, such as rickshaw-pullers and casual workers.

Biharis have become the targets of xenophobic violence in Maharashtra too. There, the ethnic-chauvinist, quasi-fascist Shiv Sena organised vicious attacks on people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh arriving to sit for Railways recruitment examinations. They were mercilessly beaten and bullied into missing the test.

The Sena wants Railway jobs reserved exclusively for "Sons of the Soil". In Assam, Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav has tried to apply the salve. His remarkable initiative to mobilise people against ethnic violence is worthy of emulation by other national leaders.

In Maharashtra, no tall public figure has countered the malign hate-politics of Mr Bal Thackeray. He again threatens to send all "outsiders" packing from Mumbai. Meanwhile, the BJP is playing characteristically sectarian politics by demanding the resignation of Congress-led governments in Assam and Maharashtra.

Worse, it's stoking exaggerated fears of Bangladeshi "infiltrators" in "destabilising" the Northeast. This is of a piece with ULFA's ethnic-xenophobic appeal. Indeed the Assam Chief Minister alleges collusion between the two!

The Railways' reaction to the violence is to suspend all-India tests and break them region-and local quota-wise into 67 divisions. This is in keeping with Railway Minister Nitish Kumar's short-term "pragmatism".

The decision is ill-advised. The Railways are an all-India network and a symbol and agency of national unity. Under Article 16 of the Constitution, they cannot discriminate among candidates on regional or linguistic grounds. Mr Kumar's decision to abandon national-level recruitment will further sharpen ethnic-regional "Us and Them" divisions.

This blood-stained crisis over Railway recruitment reveals a terrible sickness afflicting Indian society. Quite simply, the Indian economy has stopped generating jobs.

That's why more than 75 lakh youth apply for a mere 20,000 Railway posts, involving the roughest of unskilled labour as khalasis or gangmen.

Their 55 lakh valid applications translate into 275 eligible candidates for each menial job --much greater than the 120 examinees who compete for each seat at the Indian Institutes of Management. If one considers all of India's management schools, 15 candidates compete for each seat -- a number 18 times lower than 275.

Clearly, the competition for jobs is cut-throat at the lowest end of the labour market. The minimum qualification for a Category-D Railway job is the Eighth Standard. The vast majority of applicants are over-qualified.

Railway gangmen start on a meagre Rs 5,000 p.m. And yet, so many young people are prepared to go to any length -- even to kill -- to join the Railways. Even after considering the special attraction of government jobs because of pensions, healthcare benefits, etc, the number is extraordinarily high; it speaks of desperation.

The larger social disease is jobless growth. Despite 5-to-6 percent GDP growth, India is not producing enough jobs. Official figures show that India's organised sector workforce has actually shrunk during each of the past five years. It shed 4.2 lakh jobs in 2001-02, and accounts for a mere 7 percent of total employment. The organised sector has 9.1 lakh fewer jobs than in 1997. So much for "reform!"

The fall is not made up by the small-scale or informal sector. In fact, trade liberalisation and growing industrial oligopolies have destroyed many small factories. Micro-studies from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka report a 20 to 35 percent decline in their number.

Unorganised sector employment has been annually rising by a mere 1 percent. The population growth rate is almost double this. As for the quality of employment among the 369 million in the informal sector, especially their working conditions, the less said, the better.

The latest Economic Survey admits that overall employment growth has decreased from 2.7 percent a year to just 1.1 percent over the past one and a half decades. In the past, an additional output of 10 percent created 6.8 percent jobs. Today, 10 percent more production means only 1.6 more jobs -- a huge 76 percent decrease!

Rising unemployment even in agriculturally developed states like Punjab has induced thousands of people to flee abroad illegally as the Daler Mehndi scandal reveals.

Even 8 percent GDP growth will not reform this situation. Perversely, higher GDP means less employment and lower income for the people (or most of them). India's rank in the UN Human Development Index has slipped from 124 to 127 (between 2000 and 2001).

In GDP growth terms, India belongs to the top 20 percent of all countries. In HDI terms, it belongs to the bottom third.

This speaks of social regression and a grossly unjust situation in which the elite rules by making groups of underprivileged people fight one another on fake identity issues.

Such situations create cesspools of inequalities, disparities and discontent in which extreme Right-wing ideologies and politics thrive. Nazism and Fascism couldn't have triumphed in Europe without the Great Depression's havoc.

The Shiv Sena wouldn't have grown dramatically in the late 1960s and early 1970s without the terminal decline of the textile industry and growing unemployment -- and all the social chaos it produced. We stand warned.

Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist.