No big social unrest in India to reflect inadequate job growth

How many jobs India produced or extinguished over the past few years has become a controversial question. The new data that have emerged look bad: CMIE’s survey counts 11 million (or 1.1 crores) jobs were lost in 2018, bringing the unemployment rate to 7.38 percent, while a leaked NSSO report put that figure at 6.1 percent, the biggest in more than 4 decades. The Narendra Modi government’s unwillingness to release the unflattering numbers muddies the waters even more, causing its partisans to deny that there is a problem at all and the rest to fear that the actual reality is far worse.

Soon after the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) figures came out late last year, a hard-nosed analyst friend argued that 11 million jobs lost don’t pass the smell test. If that many jobs were lost, he contended, wouldn’t there be protests on our streets? As then, I got a similar reaction from many people, not all of them supporters of the Modi government. Even Arun Jaitley, Union minister, said as much: “If the economy is growing at 12 percent nominal growth for the last five years, it would be an economic absurdity to say that such a large economic growth, the highest in the world, doesn’t lead to the creation of jobs… If no job creation takes place then there is social unrest. This has been a peace period where no major social agitation has been witnessed in the last five years.

So where is the social unrest?

First, over the past few years we have seen plenty of activities — ranging from village vigilantes to political gangs to mass agitations by Jats, Patidars, Kapus, Marathas, farmers and so on — that included large numbers of people of working age. Not all of these involved direct demand for jobs, although some of them diffusely did so through the demand for job reservations. What is clear though is that there are a large number of people who can afford to spend days engaged in the physically demanding task of holding protests. Such people are unquestionably un- or under-employed.

Whether or not these objections increased in numbers and frequency after 2014 is a loaded political question, which will receive partisan answers. The jobs debate has become political in an election year as this kind of issue ought to be thrashed out — this is a metaphor — openly in public. Yet whatever the political persuasion, no intelligent person can argue that social unrest involving tens of thousands of people of working age is something we can afford to ignore; or that such protests would be less intense and less common if many of those protesters had jobs that gave them good pay, satisfaction, and status.

So yes, there is social change in the country, exacerbated if not caused by the presence of underemployed people. Luckily, this unrest merely involves people making political and economic demands on the government; but in a few cases — it has generally not crossed into the dangerous territory of challenging the authority of the state.

The link between joblessness and unrest is not honest. As Christopher Cramer, a British scholar points out, “There are no grounds empirically for the commonly made claims that there is a strong, automatic causal connection from unemployment, underemployment, or low productivity employment to violence and war.” In other words, joblessness does not on its own cause violence.

Whether or not the risk becomes realized depends on our perception of what makes people engage in unrest. In his classic work Why Men Rebel, Ted Gurr suggests that people are pushed to complain when the gap among their perceived entitlement and their perceived reality becomes large. The gap can be widened, for instance, by populist politicians who convince people that they’re worse off than they think and are entitled to more than they believe. If socio-economic and political conditions don’t provide avenues for venting this discontent, protests follow.

In Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington renders another example of how social frustration can lead to political instability. In his view, things can be kept under control if economic development, mobility opportunities, and political institutions keep pace with social mobilization. This gives us some hints as to why there has been no social unrest despite inadequate job growth: the economy has grown, spreading prosperity; people are migrating in search of better opportunities, and they are not excluded from the democratic process. The result is that economic growth, migration, and democracy are restricting the unrest that might have otherwise occurred.

So, there is no room for complacency: India needs to create 20 million jobs a year to escape determined agrarian crisis and avoid a demographic disaster. At the same time, politicians must avoid stoking grievances, promote economic growth, discourage nativism and keep all democratic routes open. That, sadly, is exactly what our political leaders are not doing.

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