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Burning coaches of trains, widespread arson, and stone pelting on the streets, the last few days have been dominated by youth resistance to India’s new military recruitment scheme, Agnipath.

That the demonstrations became ugly is not debatable, public property worth an estimated Rs200 crores have been damaged, nor did those who went on a rampage learn anything from Farm laws protests, that only peaceful movements have the momentum.

This uncontrollable anger by any prospective job seeker is an own strike. No employer — government or private sector will hire an individual with a violent track record. But unfortunately, this is new India where aggression in public is almost a daily occurrence normalised equally by leaders and media. As protests over Agnipath have shown, the common man is watching.

Enabled, India’s youth across several states also took to the streets ruthlessly knowing repercussions are only for a selected few. And they were right, instead of making arrests, a police official dismissed the torching of trains and buses as minor incidents.

Elephant in the room 

As a fallout though some tuning to the scheme is being done almost daily but the elephant in the room remains- the issue of rising unemployment in the country that witnessed similar extreme reactions in February when job aspirants in Bihar- which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country claimed irregularities in the railway recruitment board’s selection process.

13% of India’s educated are now unemployed and it is the fear of this uncertain future- those recruited under Agnipath will be guaranteed only four years employment, that led to the widespread protests.

Along with a sense of security, government jobs in the country carry a prestige that even the private sector finds hard to challenge. In middle class India there is a certain pedestal that a government employee is put on and what adds to its shine is the promised pension after retirement. The new scheme takes away this intrinsic incentive of a government job.

But the problem is far bigger, the overall labour participation rate (LPR) fell from 46 per cent to 40 per cent between 2017 and 2022 and more than half of 900 million Indians who can legally work quit the workforce as per recent data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).

The report says, “Millions left the labour markets, they stopped even looking for employment, possibly too disappointed with their failure to get a job and under the belief that there were no jobs available.” The labour force shrunk by 3.8 million during March 2022.

A big concern that was flagged last week in Gulf News is the disappearance of 21 million women from the workforce leaving just 9% who either have a job or are employable. This all but negates India’s advantage of a young labour force driving growth as 65% of India’s population is below the age of 35.

Shrinking window

However, even without external factors this demographic stares at overwhelming odds that come with being part of the world’s second most populous nation. For any job, medical seat or engineering college admissions the number of applicants far outweigh the openings. For instance, 35,000 jobs in the Railways received 1.25 crore applications.

90 million non-farm jobs need to be created within this decade for India to achieve economic growth if the country does not want to miss the window of utilising its young, says a report by think tank McKinsey Global Institute with the caveat that an annual GDP growth of 8-8.5 per cent needs to be the par for the course.

The government recently promised to create a million jobs in the next 18 months, a fraction of the number promised ahead of elections, claims the opposition. While the push isn’t a day too soon implementation may not be that easy. Will the public sector alone be able to cater to a demand of this magnitude in such a short span of time? How will it go about it?

India’s job crisis is not overnight, the signs were there before the pandemic when unemployment average was 7.2% between 2018-2021 as against the global average of 5.7%. The last two and a half years have made the issue of joblessness, extreme.

In August 2020 a report by the International Labour Organization and the Asian Development Bank estimated that 4.1 million youth lost jobs, the unorganised sector is not always part of the data crunching. But what is certain is that the cascading impact could be felt for years.

What will not help matters are new fears of a global downturn just around the corner and the apprehension that India may not remain isolated. It is a distress India’s disillusioned youth desperate for a job can ill afford.