Jobs, jobs, and jobs — the three topics that consume young voters in Madhya Pradesh. The official statistics show that despair over unemployment drove 579 youths to commit suicide in the state in 2015, the highest of any state and more than Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra or Gujarat. That is why Namit Mehra, a fourth year engineering student at a Bhopal college, is busy developing his idea for a start-up — the selective targeting of social media influencers to generate revenue — rather than looking for a regular job.
“On a scale of 10, I would say the employment scenario in MP is at best 3-4,” he said. More than 19 per cent of Madhya Pradesh’s 70 million population is in the job-seeking age group of 15-24 years, according to the 2011 census.
The number rises to almost 37 per cent if the age criterion is changed to 18-40. A good number of voters in the state election are going to be first time voters and their profound anxiety about jobs is something the two main parties must perforce address.
The Opposition Congress in its manifesto has promised a salary grant of 25 per cent or Rs 10,000 (whichever is lower) per job to any new industry or expansion of an industry that can offer employment. It has also promised an ‘encouragement’ fee of Rs 4,000 per month for five years to professionals such as tourist guides and lawyers to encourage them to stay in their jobs for five years.
Not to be left behind, the ruling BJP has promised to create one million jobs in a year, along with helping various forms of self-employment. “All this is hum dung,” said an underwhelmed Akshay Hunka, head of Berozgaar Sena, which raises job issues. “The suicide figures show that state and central government policies aren’t having traction on the ground. In Bhopal alone, on average, one youth commits suicide over unemployment every two days,” said Hunka.
Inside the sprawling and shiny Bhopal Smart City Corporation building in the city, some 40 youths are seated in rows of brightly coloured work stations, staring intensely at their laptops and tablets at one of the newest incubators for start-ups in Madhya Pradesh.
The youths have been chosen out of 1,200 applicants in a stringent selection process. The incubator not only provides work space for budding entrepreneurs but also helps to arrange finance and create the eco-system that start-ups need to survive.
“Once they leave this place, the entrepreneurs themselves will be capable of providing jobs to several others. We’ve had bright ideas like using government building spaces to grow crops. The Centre can act as a catalyst for such ideas,” said Rajesh Kumar, Company Secretary of the Corporation.
The fact is, something has to give. Hunka says the state’s own employment exchange data demonstrates that of the 5.7 million youths who have been looking for jobs in the past 15 years, fewer than two per cent have found one.
“Government jobs have dried up, while the private sector isn’t creating any big avenues. As for state government schemes for providing self-employment like the Mukhyamantri Swarojgaar Yojana (the Chief Minister’s Self-Employment Scheme), the Mukhyamantri Yuva Uddyami Yojana (the Chief Minister’s Youth Entrepreneurship Programme), the banks are reluctant to give any collateral and to guarantee free loans which goes against the entire concept of these programmes,” said Hunka.
Some MLAs have borne the brunt of angry outbursts by young voters. In Jobat, local reports said an angry young man heckled BJP candidate and three-time sitting MLA, Madho Singh Dawar, over jobs. A common grumble is that even in the factories and plants which have been set up in the past decade or so, locals have failed to find work: outsiders have taken most of the jobs, or so goes the claim.
“In the Chief Minister’s own constituency of Budhni, there are two big textile plants. How many local youths or youths from nearby villages have found employment in them?” asked Keshav Chouhan, a Congress party worker active in Hoshangabad and Budhni, located on the banks of the River Narmada.
Sitting under a tree, sipping a cup of tea, Chouhan said if the Chief Minister himself can’t guarantee jobs to local youths, what right does he (the chief minister) have to promise a million new jobs in the election campaign? “The entire illegal sand mining mafia in Hoshangabad and other places is being fuelled and run by unemployed youths who don’t have any work to do,” said Chouhan.
Taking a wider perspective, Jawaharlal Nehru University economics professor Santosh Mehrotra points out that jobs are a huge issue in all the three poll-bound states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh.
“What has happened is that between 2004-05 and 2011-12, the number of new entrants to the job market fell to two million per annum, while around 7.5 million non-agri jobs were created. From 2011-12, the situation completely reversed. The number of people seeking jobs rose, while the number of actual jobs created fell, a fact that’s reflected in the fall in private investment numbers,” said Mehrotra, who teaches at the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, School of Social Sciences.
He said between 2006 and 2011, the Gross Enrollment Ratio in the tertiary sector of students after class 12th rose from 11 per cent to 26 per cent. This showed that many people aged between 18-24 would have been looking for jobs. But there was no commensurate growth in job creation.
Some are managing to keep the faith. Sunil Kumar, a student at a government college a few kilometers away from the fancy incubation centre, said that some jobs were there to be had, but it depended on what people were looking for.
“If someone is not getting a particular kind of job, he should look for alternatives. Waiting for the right placement opportunity could boil over into frustration and anger,” he said.
(Some names have been changed on request).