June 14, 2022, was a truly remarkable day for tackling the chronic and worsening employment crisis in India. For the first time in eight years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed all departments and ministries under the central government to fill 10 lakh vacancies “in mission mode” in the next one-and-half years.

While India slipped from “job-less” growth in the UPA-II era to “job-loss” growth in the NDA-II era, the job crisis was never acknowledged officially, nor any attempt was made to fill huge vacancies in the central government and various entities run by it. This was also the first that the Indian government admitted to 10 lakh vacancies in the central ministries and departments (alone). How many vacancies exist in central PSUs, PSBs, central universities, and health and education institutions run by it are unknown.

That this announcement came via a tweet by the PMO tells its own story of how serious the government is about tackling the job crisis. There are no details about the vacancies or when such a large number of vacancies exist and why. There is no indication whether vacancies in other government-run entities will be collected and filled in the next one-and-half years either.

In February this year, the PMO had told the Rajya Sabha that 8.7 lakh (all civilian posts minus Union Territories – not CAPF or armed police forces) vacancies existed in central ministries and departments as of March 31, 2020 – down from 9.1 lakh in FY19 but up from 6.8 lakh in FY18 – reflecting tardy recruitment efforts. About FY21, the PMO had said 78,264 recruitments had been made but the total vacancy was not revealed – thus, not providing an accurate picture as fresh vacancies arise every year with more retirements. Such information is available with the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) at any given time and revealing updated details wouldn’t have been difficult.

Intriguingly, where do the 10 lakh vacancies come from?

Apparently, it comes after the Prime Minister held a meeting with all ministries and departments in April this year to discuss recruitment, following which an updated list of vacancies against “sanctioned” posts was prepared.

Sanctioned posts, in the meanwhile, are steadily falling. The 7th Pay Commission report of 2015 (the last one) revealed that the central government’s “sanctioned” posts have fallen from 41.76 lakh in 1994 to 40.49 lakh in 2014. The number had come down to 38 lakh in 2018, as the Rajya Sabha was told in 2020.

The sanctioned posts would have gone further down by now.

72,000 railways jobs abolished

The Indian Railways, the largest public sector employer, abolished 72,000 posts, mainly from Group C and D, in the past six years because these were considered non-essential. This is ironic when the country has been battling a severe job crisis for years, with poverty, hunger and income inequality going up sharply, particularly after the pandemic. That the government is trying to privatise the Railways in piece-meal (and unsuccessfully) for several years is no secret and shedding employees before privatisation is one of the ways to make the offer lucrative to private players.

Curiously, even amidst the pandemic lockdown, in September 2020, the Finance Ministry had issued a circular putting “a ban on creation of new posts, except with the approval of Department of Expenditure” in all “Ministries/Departments, Attached Offices, Subordinate Offices, Statutory Bodies and Autonomous Bodies”. The ban was to cover all creation of posts under powers “which have been delegated to any organisation regardless of the source of such authority or power”.

Following an uproar, it was clarified that there was “no restriction or ban on filling up posts” but was meant for “creation of posts”. Shouldn’t the government be creating new posts to provide relief, even if for a limited time instead of banking on manual and low-paying (below minimum wage) work that the MGNREGS or PM-GKRY offers?

Ironically, while no new posts have been created, filling existing vacancies hasn’t received the priority it should have.

The railway is a good example. It started the recruitment of 35,000 non-technical posts in 2019, which remains incomplete even now. The delay and allegations of irregularities in the recruitment process had sparked violence from job aspirants in January 2022 in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Following this, the recruitment drive was put on hold and a fresh notification was issued in April 2022. It would take many more months for these posts to be filled.

How many posts have been abolished in ministries and departments since 2018 (when sanctioned strength had fallen to 38 lakh), other than the Railways, is not known.

Vacancies in PSBs and educational institutes

What about vacancies in central government-run entities, other than ministries and departments? There are no comprehensive data. Why so, is a mystery unsolved yet.

In December 2021, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said 41,177 posts in public sector banks (PSBs), or 5% of the sanctioned posts, were vacant, the maximum being in the SBI with 8,544 vacancies.

The same month, MoS for Education Subhas Sarkar said 6,229 faculty positions (teaching) were vacant in central universities (33% of 18,905 sanctioned posts). Besides, 3,230 faculty positions in IITs and 403 in IIMs were also vacant. As for non-faculty positions, Sarkar said there were 13,782 vacancies in central universities, 4,182 in IITs and 543 posts in IIMs. In April 2022, Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan told Rajya Sabha that 6,558 faculty and 15,227 non-faculty positions were lying vacant in central universities and would be filled up in the next 6 to 8 months.

No data is available for PSUs, which employ a large number of people, central government-run hospitals and a host of other entities. Taken together, the total central government vacancies would be far higher than 10 lakh.

Idling workforce

In the meanwhile, prolonged pre-pandemic economic slowdown and the pandemic crisis have forced millions to sit at home. Seemingly, the GDP has recovered to the pre-pandemic level of FY20 in FY22, but the business portal CMIE says, that employment has fallen (by 1.7% in FY22), the labour force has shrunk (1.5%) and the number of unemployed has gone up (by 1.2%) in FY22, compared to the pre-pandemic FY20.

The employment scene in the pre-pandemic FY20 wasn’t anything to be proud of.

The last PLFS of 2019-20 had shown that the worker-population ratio (WPR) or employment rate was down to 35% (current weekly status) for all ages. In comparison, the OECD average employment rate (current weekly status for the working-age population of 15-64) for 2020 was 66.1%.

When most of India’s working-age population, 75% (100-35) are sitting at home, it only means that there are simply no jobs.

In FY22, the situation worsened.

Analysis of the CMIE household survey data revealed that more than half of the 900 million Indians of the working age – the combined population of the US and Russia – didn’t want jobs. The case of women workers was even starker with about 21 million disappearing from the workforce, leaving just 9% of the eligible ones employed or looking for work.

This is not exactly conducive to reaping a demographic dividend or ushering in “Amrit Kaal” that the government promises.

Need for a policy and planning

The dire job crisis calls for a proper policy and planning, not just filling up vacancies – which, in any case, should have been done long back, once the PLFA of 2017-18 revealed that the unemployment rate had touched a 45-year high of 6.1% in FY18.

The PMO’s mere tweeting about filling vacancies doesn’t reflect that a sincere effort is afloat to address the employment crisis. It is no secret that India doesn’t even have a policy or programme in place.

After the Great Recession of 2007-09, even neighbouring Pakistan (2010), Nepal (2017) and Sri Lanka (2012) prepared and adopted their employment policies. China had done it way back in 2002. India started working on it when “job-less” growth haunted the UPA-II.

After the massive distress migration of workers in 2020, there were murmurs in the Ministry of Labour and Employment that the work on a policy would resume. But there is no sign of it yet.

The task of the government is cut out. India needs to identify and fill existing vacancies in the government sector and prepare a policy framework as well as a clear roadmap to create jobs.

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