All Newspaper editorials in one place – February 21, 2024



February 21, 2024

Calm assessment

Clarity on the nature and extent of ‘deemed forest’ is essential


The Supreme Court of India has put on pause an ambitious effort by the Centre to amend India’s Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, that was brought in to check the wanton razing of forests for ‘non-forestry uses’. According to the Centre, an estimated four million hectares of forest land had been diverted from 1951-75. Under the provisions of the Act, forests could no longer be diverted without adhering to a regulatory mechanism by the Centre. As a measure of its success, the Centre calculates that from 1981-2022, the average annual diversion of forest had reduced to about 22,000 hectares, or about a tenth of what it was from 1951-75. However, the provisions of this piece of legislation largely applied to forest tracts recognised as such by the India Forest Act, or any other State legislation. Illegal timber-felling in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu, triggered the landmark T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad judgment that saw the Court take an expanded view of forest tracts worthy of protection. It also said that forests had to be protected irrespective of how they were classified and who owned them. This brought in the concept of ‘deemed forests,’ or tracts that were not officially classified as such in government or revenue records. States were asked to constitute expert committees to identify such ‘deemed forests.’ In the 28 years that have passed since the judgment, only a handful of States have constituted such committees or made public the extent of such ‘deemed forests’ within their territories.


The Centre’s attempt to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act was ostensibly to bring “clarity” as there were large tracts of recorded forest land that had already been put to non-forestry uses, with the permission of State governments. There is apparently, the Centre says, a reluctance among private citizens to cultivate private plantations and orchards, despite their significant ecological benefits, for fear that they would be classified as ‘forest’ (and thus render their ownership void). India’s ambitions to create a carbon sink of 2.5 billion-3 billion tonnes, to meet its net zero goals have required forest laws to be “dynamic” and, therefore, the rules have sought to remove ‘deemed forest,’ not already recorded as such, from the ambit of protection. This has triggered a slew of public interest petitions as, on the face of it, the amendments appear as an assault on the Act’s ambition of forest protection. While a final judgment is pending, the Court’s order to the Centre to compile and make public, by April, States’ efforts at recording the extent of deemed forests is welcome. At this point it is mere conjecture on the part of the Centre that India’s carbon sink is being impeded due to insufficient private initiative. Only a dispassionate assessment of ground realities can drive forward this very important debate.





February 21, 2024

Keep it wholesome

National cervical cancer control scheme must be made accessible to all


Health is seldom uni-dimensional, and it must not be seen as such. Government policy, particularly, must fathom the entirety of the issue, and assimilate multiple aspects in a field strategy, for optimum realisation of the intended goal. Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement during the presentation of the interim Budget that the government plans to encourage vaccination against cervical cancer for girls aged nine to 14, is no doubt a step in the right direction. While the scheme will be fleshed out post elections, it is also time to question if any programme to handle cervical cancer would be wholesome if it did not assimilate a screening aspect. Cancer of the cervix (literally, the neck of the womb) is unique among cancers because almost all the cases (99%, according to the World Health Organization) are linked to infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus transmitted through sexual contact. While most HPV infections resolve spontaneously and the women remain symptom-free, persistent infection can lead to cervical cancer. It is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in India (over 77,000 annually), and is estimated to be the second most frequent cancer among Indian women between 15 and 44 years. While the good news is couched in the availability of a vaccine, the sobering fact is that the average national prevalence of cervical cancer screening hovers at just under 2% and outcomes depend on the stage of detection.


Ironically, cervical cancer can be easily diagnosed in a public health setting with minimal tools — the human eye, a dilution of white vinegar, and a dab of Lugol’s iodine. These are known as VIA and VILI tests and help look for precancerous lesions and cancer, much before an advanced stage of the disease can be picked up with cytology. A simple, short procedure, cryotherapy, can then be done while the patient is awake, to destroy the abnormal growth. Given that it is easy to prevent, identify and treat cervical cancer, it is unacceptable that so many women are dying of the disease. As the government rolls out its vaccination programme, it must also mandate screening right at the primary health centre, and if abnormalities are identified, offer cryotherapy right then. It is unlikely that vaccination of young girls alone will have a far-reaching impact in the short and medium term. The only way to prevent deaths is to deploy the entire assembly of tools as part of a national cervical cancer control programme, accessible to all women, irrespective of age, education, affordability or social status.




February 21, 2024

Greening growth

Weakening processes of environmental clearances for projects hurt both environment and development


Governments in developing countries face a dilemma, a political-economy conundrum that requires a fine balancing act. On the one hand, in light of climate change and the degradation of fragile and vulnerable ecologies, there is a need for regulation of projects that have a potentially adverse environmental impact. On the other hand, investment and infrastructure development are crucial for employment generation and poverty alleviation. The provision of Environmental Clearance (EC) under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) rules — notified in 2006 under the Environmental (Protection) Act — was meant to strike the right balance between the imperatives of growth and development and the environment. The EC is meant to be mandatory for various projects, including mining, thermal plants, those in river valleys, and infrastructure and industrial programmes. Unfortunately, as a report in this newspaper has shown, the balance between environment and industry seems to be tilting far too much towards the latter.


In 2017, the government brought in a loophole to the EIA and gave a six-month moratorium to all the companies that had not complied with the requirements to receive an EC. This one-time window was made indefinite under the revised Standard Operating Procedures in 2021. The notification was challenged before the Madras High Court, which granted a stay order. The Centre, however, interpreted the order as applying only to Tamil Nadu. Then, in January 2024, the Supreme Court stayed the notification, and the Court’s final decision is pending. In essence, between 2017 and 2024, over 100 projects — they include coal, iron and bauxite mines, steel and iron factories, cement plants and limestone quarries — have been granted ex post facto environmental clearance under the diluted EIA, their original lack of EC notwithstanding.


Environmental clearances for business and infrastructure projects have been a fraught issue for decades. Under multiple governments and environment ministers of varying ideological leanings, the pendulum has swung both ways: At different points, the Environment Ministry has been dubbed either “anti-business” or “anti-environment”. However, by any standard, the weakening of the EIA, and the National Green Tribunal, is a matter of deep concern that needs to be addressed urgently — in 2020, an Environmental Performance Index of Yale University ranked India 168 amongst 220 countries. Perhaps the only sustainable way to do this is to not see “environment” and “development” locked in an inevitably zero-sum game. It’s time to move to environmentalism as development and development as environmentalism. As climate change and sustainability increasingly become a part of the global business conversation, India has the opportunity to be a leader in this regard. This will, however, require a robust policy and regulatory framework, which while facilitating business, allows for a careful assessment of the adverse impacts of projects, and does not constantly search for and seize the loopholes.





February 21, 2024

El Nino, La Nina

But air pollution in Indian cities is because of factors that lie much closer home


A new study has linked air pollution over cities like Delhi and Mumbai to external factors like El Nino and La Nina, and climate change. This is the first time that such external phenomena have been noticed to have an impact over air quality in Indian cities. To be sure, these external factors do not generate any new sources of pollution. But they have the potential to influence the distribution of pollutants over different regions by altering meteorological conditions like wind patterns and temperatures. The study found that the fact that Delhi air was cleaner than usual, and Mumbai air dirtier than usual in the winter of 2022 could, in part, be explained by the record-breaking La Nina event in the Pacific Ocean, which was persisting for the third consecutive year at that time. The study also suggested that under climate change scenarios, expected to exacerbate the strengths and frequencies of El Nino and La Nina kind of events, such external influences might have a bigger role to play in the distribution of air pollutants over Indian cities.


These influences are pretty weak as of now. As the study suggests, only very strong El Nino or La Nina events are likely to have any significant impact on the local meteorological conditions. But this could still have implications for India’s efforts to clean up its air. The influences could potentially grow stronger under climate change scenarios as the study suggests, and that would mean that clean-up measures would face another hurdle that is completely beyond human control. This could result in entirely unexpected scenarios, as was seen in Mumbai in the 2022 winter, something the cities are not prepared for.


Tackling the emissions of pollutants at source still remains the most effective way of addressing air pollution. Air in Indian cities is dirty because the baseload emissions are very high. Once in a while, favourable meteorological conditions might help in reducing the impacts, but there is no short-cut to cutting down on baseload emissions. Fancy, or quick fix, solutions like artificial rain or odd-even schemes are nothing more than window dressing, and quite ineffective at that. The study also recommends that the focus of the government must remain on long-term strategies to reduce emissions from the sources themselves and not rely on quick fix solutions. That would be a win-win solution for both air quality and climate change, it says.





February 21, 2024

Magician from Chennai

No one has plotted the batsman’s downfall as effectively in recent times as off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin


A top-class spinner has to be like a chess grandmaster, plotting a batsman’s downfall over a number of deliveries or overs. There has been no one better at it in recent times than off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. There are 501 pieces of evidence to support this argument. Ashwin is not like Mutthiah Muralitharan — who was more like a wrist-spinner in the garb of a finger-spinner. The Sri Lankan often made batsmen look clueless with the amount of spin he generated, and its direction. Ashwin’s calling card is of a more cerebral nature. He plays with angles, pace and degrees of spin, as also field placement. The batsman knows he is in a battle, and can never afford to take his eye off the ball even if he temporarily enjoys the upper hand.


Conditions and playing surface play a big role in cricket, and they are usually an ally for a spinner in India. But many of Ashwin’s most memorable dismissals have come in England and Australia, where his guile comes to the fore with the track offering him precious little. Among his list of victims are the finest batsmen. He has got the England skipper Ben Stokes 12 times. Other top stars he has repeatedly scalped are David Warner (11), Steve Smith (8), Joe Root (6), Kane Williamson (5) and Kumar Sangakkara (4). Left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja may be a more tempting all-round option, but Ashwin’s skill with the ball is more prosaic in nature when compared to his spin-twin.


India have been invincible at home since 2012, when Ashwin was taking his initial steps in Test cricket. While Anil Kumble, with 619 Test wickets, tops the list among Indians, the Magician from Chennai is a worthy second. There is a risk of taking Ashwin’s dominance for granted. He is 37, and is largely a Test specialist these days. India is considered to have a never-ending assembly line of quality spinners, but whether the next generation will have the all-weather love for the contest, once Ashwin hangs up his boots, remains to be seen.




February 21, 2024

Well Done, Milords

SC did the right thing in overturning Chandigarh mayor’s elections. Poll process integrity defines democracy


Supreme Court yesterday set aside the Jan 30 result of Chandigarh municipal corporation’s mayoral election. AAP’s candidate has been declared winner, in place of BJP’s. The apex court did the right thing. And its judgment is a much-needed reminder that integrity of elections is what builds trust in a democracy.


Complete justice | SC invoked the Constitution’s Article 142 to underpin its verdict. This clause allows it to pass an order that will ensure “complete justice”. It signals the seriousness with which the court viewed the situation.


No case for re-election | Once evidence of the presiding officer’s measures to rig the election surfaced, questions on a re-election came up. SC rightly turned down that argument because a physical examination of ballot papers suggested otherwise. The municipal corporation has regulations that lay out conditions under which a ballot paper is invalid. Not one of those conditions was met. Therefore, the electoral process didn’t have a problem. It was the action of the presiding officer at the counting stage that contaminated the result.


Prosecution as deterrence | The presiding officer not only tried to rig the result but he also misled the court. SC initiated criminal proceedings against him. There should be consequences for tampering with results of an election. Absent that, there’s no deterrence.


Speed is the key | A factor that made SC’s verdict significant for all polls is the short timeline in which it reached a conclusion. In contrast, SC’s verdict on MVA govt’s fall in Maharashtra came almost a year later. For SC to then say Maha governor was incorrect in calling for a no-confidence motion was judicially correct but practically of little use. In electoral malpractice cases, justice delayed is emphatically justice denied.


EC and elections | India’s track record of ensuring integrity of elections has been excellent mainly on account of EC’s efforts. Under difficult circumstances, EC has ensured that India never had to experience chaotic situations like US did in 2020 presidential elections.


Chandigarh’s municipal poll didn’t come under the purview of EC. It was therefore important that SC quickly wrapped up this case. All officials, from police or administration, who will be working for EC during general elections, will now know even more that fairness is non-negotiable.




February 21, 2024

Young, Woman, Liberal

Take note. It is an identity category that has taken off and may change the world


Indra Nooyi says that when she was accepted into Yale in 1978, her mother’s first response was, get married. Because “no single woman is going to go to United States.” Fast forward to today. Nearly half the students applying for overseas courses and those seeking financial assistance to fund their studies are women, data analysis by ET indicates. And a majority of them are likely single. At least in the experience of these women, attitudes of the Great Indian Family have undergone a sea change. In a virtuous circle, so has their self-confidence.


Young Indian women are going places | Education consultants indicate that applications from female students have jumped from 20-30% in FY21 to 40-45% in FY24. That’s a dramatic jump. It’s not confined to the metros either. Non-metro cities and small towns are behaving similarly. Young, educated women are making economically and socially bold decisions. To pursue success in their own rights. Take udaan.

But are young men keeping up? | A 2020 YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey found that even as educated men and women now have no difference in their career aspirations, the latter tend towards liberalism much more. Women are more likely to have close friendships outside their own caste, religion and gender.


Gender gap is global | Actually liberal attitudes between Gen Z women and men seem to be undergoing a global divergence. In US, youth gender gap in identifying as liberal first passed 10 points when Trump took office. It now stands at 15 percentage points, five times larger than in 2000. Germany has a comparable gender divergence of 30 points and UK 25. Chasms in South Korea and China look even wider.


You ain’t seen nothin’ yet | There may be ways in which collective experiences like the pandemic or the preceding #MeToo movement have propelled collective attitudinal shifts. What’s certain is what’s taken momentum is very, very powerful. Patriarchy, you have been warned.





February 21, 2024

Bring Justice to Your Own People, Didi

Railing against criticism and opposition is wrong


Something is rotten in the state of West Bengal. And saying that there may be signs of rot elsewhere, or under past administrations, isn’t an argument worth peddling. The horrific experience of women in Sandeshkhali, an island village in the lower Gangetic delta — alleged systemic sexual assault at gunpoint and reported land grabs over time — brought before the Calcutta High Court fits the bill of criminal horror. The state government has no excuse for not acting against the alleged perpetrators, who are reportedly TMC party functionaries and their aides, as well as collaborators and enablers in the administration and the state police. While arrests have been made, on Tuesday, the court rightly questioned the state police for its failure to arrest the TMC district panchayat pradhan who has been identified as being ‘core of the problem’.


The Supreme Court is right to dismiss the plea for a CBI or SIT investigation. This is a matter of bringing people, some of whom are absconding, accused of heinous crimes, to the dock. In this context, the Mamata Banerjee government must pull out all the stops to facilitate justice for its own citizens, and not treat the alleged crimes as a product of the opposition’s disruptive imagination. For the administration to, instead, order the arrest of a journalist covering the Sandeshkhali saga is Big Brother behaviour at its most knee-jerk oppressive.


Sexual violence as a political weapon is not new to West Bengal or other parts of India. But Sandeshkhali is in the here and now, and no past precedence of ‘looking the other way’ to protect political thugs cuts ice. The irony of a state government headed by a woman not going hammer and tongs against a gang wearing its party colours that has held a community hostage is overbearing. If the Bengal government wishes to repair its reputation, it needs to take clear steps against the perpetrators and their enablers. Like its CM did, then as opposition leader, against such crimes in the past during the era of a past government she would go on to replace.





February 21, 2024

Shrinking CAD Gives RBI a Better Cushion


India’s current account deficit is, according to Shaktikanta Das, eminently manageable. A narrowing merchandise trade gap, robust services exports and a turnaround in FDI are all contributing. Forex reserves have become stable after a patch of vulnerability during a spike in energy prices. India’s import cover is within the policy comfort zone. The rupee faces pressure to appreciate from remittances and capital inflows. Past experience would suggest RBI will utilise most of these favourable trends to shore up reserves while allowing the rupee to creep up within a policy band. This has been the hallmark of India’s exchange rate management since the start of economic reforms in 1991.


The approach, though, has a bearing on interest rate management. With inflation well on its course to its 4% target, a shrinking CAD could offer RBI more cushion over interest rates. The rate-hiking cycle has delivered the demand compression needed to tame core inflation without sacrificing growth too much. If the commodity cycle stays benign, RBI could consider easing its disinflationary stance earlier than anticipated. This will align with interest cuts central banks in advanced economies attempt later this year. The scope for synchronisation should lend greater stability to exchange rates.


India’s merchandise exports stand to gain from the twin prospects of lower interest rates and a stable rupee. The economy is pinning its growth hopes on manufacturing exports in a global realignment of supply chains. The next leg of growth will be driven by private investment that can be facilitated through low interest rates. Emerging relatively unscathed from a global economic crisis, India should push its advantage while energy prices remain soft.




February 21, 2024

Banking on growth

TN’s budget arithmetic conveys a sense of optimism


The Centre has started to use the levers at its disposal to bring about greater accountability in States and make State Budgets more transparent. This much is evident from the Tamil Nadu Budget for 2024-25. The State was forced to provide ₹17,117 crore for funding the loss of TANGEDCO, its power utility arm, from its budget for 2023-24 and provide ₹14,442 crore for this expenditure in the next fiscal year.


Failure to provide would have led to a like amount being deducted from the State’s borrowing ceiling fixed by the Centre. Besides, the 15th Finance Commission has also allowed States to increase their fiscal deficit by another 0.5 per cent of GSDP in addition to the 3 per cent, on implementing the required reforms in the power sector. The provision has expanded the fiscal deficit for FY24 to 3.45 per cent of GSDP compared to the budgeted figure of 3.25 per cent, causing a fiscal slippage. The fiscal deficit for FY25 is also elevated at 3.44 per cent of GSDP owing to this allocation. While the Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Thangam Thennarasu was critical of the Centre for trying to “stifle our State by exercising arbitrary and discriminatory control over our finance,” such actions appear necessary to instil fiscal discipline and transparency in State budgets.


TANGEDCO carries an accumulated loss of ₹1,50,000 crore and its operations are being funded through loans which are guaranteed by the State government; these are contingent liabilities for the government. The debt accumulated by TANGEDCO currently stands at ₹1,60,000 crore, but it does not form part of the State government borrowing. Tamil Nadu is struggling to control its revenue expenditure, thanks to the large outgo on salaries and pension, which amount to ₹1,22,594 crore for FY25, accounting for almost 28 per cent of its total expenditure. The increasing interest payment on its large outstanding debt of ₹8.33-lakh crore, along with the announcements of new social welfare schemes, has resulted in increasing the revenue expenditure by 9.7 per cent in FY25, compared to the revised numbers for FY24.


The State is having to cut back its capital expenditure to fund revenue spends. The capex for FY24, according to revised estimate, was 4.5 per cent lower than the budgeted figure. This does not augur well for development. Some of the assumptions behind the budget numbers do appear optimistic. The budget estimates nominal GSDP growth at 15.89 per cent for FY25. Although Tamil Nadu is growing faster than the national average, the estimate is far higher than the 10.5 per cent nominal GDP growth projected by the Union Budget for the same period. The GSDP growth assumption was similarly stretched in the budget estimate for FY24 too, and the finance minister conceded that the GSDP growth for FY24 had to be revised lower. Rosy growth and revenue estimates do not add to a budget’s credibility.





February 21, 2024

Opportunity lost

Farmers’ rejection of govt scheme is disappointing


The rejection by farmers’ representatives of the government’s proposal to buy the marketable surplus of five non-wheat/non-rice crops over the next five years at their minimum support prices (MSPs) is a lost opportunity to find middle ground between the strikers’ maximalist demands and the Centre’s fiscal capabilities. The government’s latest offer entailed buying masoor (lentil), urad (black gram), arhar (pigeon pea), maize, and cotton over the next five years at their declared MSPs from those farmers who would switch to these crops from wheat and paddy. The purchases under this scheme were open-ended — there were no quantitative restrictions — and would be done by the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (Nafed) and Cotton Corporation of India (CCI), under contractual agreements. Apart from partly meeting the legitimate demands of farmers in Punjab and Haryana, the two states at the centre of the farmers’ agitation, for a guaranteed relatively risk-free return on their produce, the scheme would have gone some way towards addressing a looming crisis: Chronic over-cropping of paddy in the north, which has taken a heavy toll on the water table and degraded the soil with heavy fertiliser use. At the same time, it would have enabled acreage to be diversified to crops that consume less water and fertiliser and promote a healthier diet; the scheme would also have addressed domestic supply shortages in lentils and gram and met the needs of biofuels and livestock feeds. Though not perfect, the scheme offered the chance to address multiple issues with one solution.


Leaders of a faction of the coalition that led the farmers’ protests in 2020-21 have rejected this offer on two grounds. The first is linked to its key demand for an open-ended legal guarantee of MSP for 23 crops. The leaders quoted some experts as saying that MSPs for all 23 crops would cost the exchequer Rs 1.75 trillion. They contend that the government already spends this amount to import palm oil, which is harmful to the environment and human health, from Malaysia and Indonesia. It could spend the same amount on the MSP for oilseeds and save  on import. There is merit in this observation, but the figure quoted for all 23 crops is certainly an underestimate. Government and independent estimates suggest that the annual cost of procuring all 23 crops in 2024-25 would be an unsustainable Rs 10-15 trillion. Though the government announces MSPs for 23 crops, its procurement is mostly limited to wheat and paddy, which includes purchases for the foodgrain buffer stock. In 2022-23, the government spent a substantial Rs 2.28 trillion on foodgrain purchases alone.


That said, the farmers have a valid argument in suggesting that limiting the scheme to those who switch from paddy and wheat cultivation will distort the market for those who grow these five crops. The fact that it will take place under agencies that have limited experience in large-scale procurement is also unlikely to raise confidence in it. As things stand, suggestions from respected agricultural economists such as price-deficiency payments (paying farmers the difference between the MSPs and the market price of a crop), and loosening stock limits and arbitrary export bans are all in the mix as a way out of the impasse. But this latest rejection suggests that lasting solutions are becoming increasingly elusive.





February 21, 2024

Caring for the elderly

Longevity dividend can be both a burden and an opportunity


Sights of dying Italian villages populated only by the elderly and empty apartment blocks in China being demolished tell us a lot about the grim challenge of unfavourable demographics. In India too, an ageing population, coupled with a decreasing fertility rate and increased life expectancy, is set to offset the country’s demographic dividend in the years to come. Senior citizens, ie people aged 60 years and above, comprise a little over 10 per cent of the population, translating into about 104 million. By 2050, however, the elderly population is projected to rise to 319 million, approximately 19.5 per cent of the total. In this context, a recent position paper released by the NITI Aayog on senior care reforms in India does a remarkable job at contextualising the needs of the senior population, and also identifies the deficiencies in regulatory provisions, accessibility, and poor implementation of services in senior care. Population ageing in India is associated with a shifting disease burden, rising dependency ratios, evolving family structures, altered consumption patterns, and structural changes in labour markets. The rise of nuclear family systems and increased medical expenditure, for instance, add to the vulnerability of the elderly.


The paper emphasises some of the disturbing realities of India’s senior care industry. Close to 75 per cent of the elderly suffer from one or more chronic diseases, while one in three have depressive symptoms and complain of low life satisfaction. The high disease burden is aggravated by lack of proper geriatric illness management. Additionally, their lives are made difficult by inaccessible physical infrastructure, weak and fragmented social safety nets, deficient financial planning, food insecurity, and loneliness. For instance, 54 per cent of the elderly women are widows, and 9 per cent of them reside alone. At the same time, 78 per cent of the elderly live without a pension while only 18 per cent are covered by health insurance.


There are important lessons to be learnt here. An average Indian worker receives less than eight years of education. The process of educating a population takes time, and is generational. Tackling social attitudes that favour boys over girls is even more difficult. India has not done well in either, and this does not augur well for the country’s growing elderly population. On the health front, the paper calls for better wellness and therapeutic interventions to strengthen physical and mental health services and emergency response infrastructure. Integrating technology with health care through the use of wearable devices, artificial intelligence-based smart housing, and a well-developed telemedicine market have a huge potential to transform the lives of seniors. Increasing the coverage of pensions, geriatric health insurance plans, goods and services tax reforms on senior care products, and encouraging the “reverse mortgage” mechanism can bring the elderly within the ambit of formal financial institutions. Private-sector and non-profit voluntary organisations need to step in to fulfil these needs. In most countries, the care economy is run by private agents, and that includes both paid and unpaid work related to supporting people. Increased life expectancies also call for a transition to more flexible working models where rigid employment careers are no longer necessarily the rule. Instead, the government and the private sector must rethink the retirement age to unlock the longevity dividend. It not only keeps people young for longer, but is also fiscally sustainable. After all, the exchequer benefits from higher income-tax revenues and improved labour market incentives.




February 21, 2024

Youth joblessness

As government jobs are limited, reforms and skill development are needed for private employment


At a time when Uttar Pradesh is rolling out a “red carpet” to woo global investors, nothing illustrates the seriousness of youth unemployment in that state more than the recent instance of 5 million candidates vying for 60,224 police constable posts. A better description of this reality is jobless growth. An adequate number of jobs for the young are not being generated despite economic growth. In other words, growth is not employment-intensive enough. Unemployment is the biggest concern for educated youth, who prefer to wait for better opportunities, especially in the government, which offer the prospect of greater security. But this cannot be an indefinite wait and can force them to accept even lowly positions of peons and constables, for which they are over-qualified. This endless wait often erupts into violence, as has happened with the Agnipath scheme for recruitment into the army a couple of years ago. That year also witnessed rioting in Bihar due to the non-transparent hiring process in the railways, for which more than 10 million aspirants signed up for 35,000 openings. These bleak prospects are also observed in other states.


In urban India, the latest unemployment rate for those between 15-29 years of age is 2.5 times higher at 16.5% than the overall rate of 6.5%, according to NSSO’s latest quarterly periodic labour force survey for October-December 2023. This is a current weekly status estimate that captures those who sought or were available for work during the reference period of a week preceding the survey. A growing reserve army of unemployed youth portends serious strains on the country’s social fabric. As the electorate that swept the Bhartiya Janata Party into power in 2014 and 2019 was predominantly young-from villages and small towns-the ruling regime must expeditiously address the challenge of youth unemployment, which is rising in the relatively poorer states like Uttar Pradesh for both males and females. Among females, almost a third of the labour force was jobless in the October-December quarter of 2023. In fact, female candidates accounted for a third of the applicants for police constable posts.


Unfortunately, the challenge of youth unemployment cannot be addressed through fiat or mandating the filling of government jobs ahead of important assembly and national elections. Government jobs are, in fact, limited. Only a miniscule fraction of less than 1% of the annual average of 27.5 million applicants for central government jobs from FY15 to FY22 were selected, according to the minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pensions in a statement in Parliament a couple of years ago. The situation is much worse for jobs in the state governments. There is accordingly a need for generating more employment-intensive growth besides labour reforms and incentivising India Inc to invest more to generate employment.


The country presents a paradox of skill shortages despite a situation of labour surplus, with India Inc concerned that it is not getting enough skilled labour for their operations. More flexible labour markets through reform help in a big way. There is evidence that states which reformed labour laws witnessed an increase in average plant sizes and higher employment in the organised manufacturing sector. This is the way forward to enable millions of young people to get absorbed in manufacturing and services than wait endlessly for the mirage of government jobs in urban India.


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