There is mass unemployment among India’s graduates. What can be done for them?
In 2005 I spent time with a student named Rajesh in Meerut College, in Uttar Pradesh. Rajesh was in his early 30s and had been studying in Meerut for 13 years. Like many long-time students there, he described himself as “unemployed”, someone “just waiting”.
There are many like Rajesh in Meerut and across northern India. Behind the image of tech-savvy IT specialists in India lies a dispiriting picture common throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America: a multitude of educated but unemployed young men.
The sources of this problem are not difficult to identify: rising education rates have led to higher aspirations around the world. At the same time, governments have often cut the public sector jobs upon which educated people formerly depended. The result in numerous places has been the “overproduction” of educated people: the “men hanging out on the street” that seem to feature in so many travel accounts and contemporary anthropologies of poorer countries.
Over the past 15 years I have been doing research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on the problem of educated unemployment in Uttar Pradesh, whose 190m people make it India’s most populous state. Many parents in Uttar Pradesh are able to finance school and university education for their children. But these graduates find it impossible to obtain salaried jobs.
The sheer scale of the problem of youth unemployment is staggering. There are regularly more than 10,000 applicants for a single government post in Meerut. Students there tell me that to get a job it is now necessary to possess “source” (social connections) and “force” (the money for bribes).
Students’ anger is compounded by their fury at educational decay. Lack of investment in higher education and widespread corruption in many universities has undermined the value of students’ degrees. Things came to a head in 2006 when it emerged that, as an economy measure, the registrar of a prominent university in Meerut had been sending masters theses to be marked by school pupils, some allegedly as young as eight. When students discovered what had happened, they came into the streets to burn their degrees.
Some young people in Meerut give up on the search for salaried work and return to farming or manual labour. There are MAs, even PhDs, working in the fields of Uttar Pradesh. But like Rajesh, many students respond to unemployment by simply remaining in education, collecting degrees, and hoping that their luck will change.
What are the social and political implications of this mass unemployment? At the family level, the impact is marked. Those unsuccessful in finding decent, permanent jobs often face parents who resent scrimping and saving for their sons’ education. Parents often complain about the sacrifices they made to educate their children. Moreover, young women sometimes work in the field to keep their brothers in college – and this has led to many tensions between siblings.
What of political unrest? Commentators in the past have tended to imagine these men as either politically apathetic or violent threats to civilised society. My research – which involved years of interviewing and hanging out with young men – has tried to move beyond these stereotypes. To be sure, some unemployed young men have been involved in violence, such as the Hindu/Muslim riots and pogroms that erupted in India in the early 1990s. But the reality may be more mundane. Jobless young men have adopted one of two strategies in contemporary Uttar Pradesh. Some use their free time and skills to advocate on behalf of the poor. There are many such “social reformers” in Meerut, who often voice critiques of the Indian state, but tend to avoid violence.
A second group work as political entrepreneurs at the local level: they call themselves “fixers”. These men traded on their knowledge of how politics works at the local level, to sell places in private universities, extract bribes from government officials, or steer contracts towards favoured businessmen. These men do use violence and their actions encourage the further proliferation of corruption in Uttar Pradesh.
Mass unemployment among the educated in India may have contradictory implications. On the one hand, it may lead to the emergence of a set of people who can play key development roles in the countryside and small towns. These bright young “social reformers” are keen to find outlets for their zeal. On the other hand, there are many young men whose joblessness has provoked aggressive individualism and an “anyhow” mentality when it comes to making money. The Indian government and international organisations need to get much better at enrolling the first group into processes of planned development, and persuading the second group to redirect their energy in more positive directions.
The time is also ripe for a broader discussion of mass unemployment among educated young people across the world. What do they have in common? How do their responses differ? How might governments and others address the problem? The answers to these questions are likely to reveal a great deal not only about youth the world over, but about the chance of progressive social change in places like India.