Unemployment, it is
often said, is death by a thousand cuts. It pushes families into hunger,
snatches away children’s education, prevents medical care, and propels people
into debt. And, if you are already poor and disadvantaged and living on the
edge, unemployment is like a death sentence.
A few days ago, new
monthly unemployment estimates were released by Centre
for Monitoring Indian Economy or CMIE. Bihar’s jobless rate was nearly 10%
in October 2020. It’s the 21st consecutive month of double-digit unemployment
rate. [See chart below] That’s an unbearable burden that the people of Bihar
have been shouldering and it is this that is making them see the ongoing
election as a chance to change course, set things right (hopefully) and step
back from an abyss they are staring into.
During the two months
of complete lockdown – April and May – Bihar registered some of the highest
jobless rates in the country – around 46%. Half the workforce was without jobs.
Remember that Bihar is one of the poorest states in the country and for a large
majority of people, the heartless lockdown meant going hungry, surviving on
minimal food and putting aside their pride to await patchy government handouts.
Now, things are supposed to be back to normal – which means they are back to
double-digit joblessness, out-migration and the daily struggle to survive.
It is not as if
joblessness is happening because new young entrants into the job market are not
getting jobs. That may be true, but even existing jobs are being lost, as the
chart below shows.
In October 2017,
around the time Nitish Kumar betrayed the people’s mandate and switched sides
to join hands with Bharatiya Janata Party and continue as Chief Minister, Bihar
had an estimated 286 lakh (2.86 crore) employed persons. Since then this number
has been declining steadily, though going through an up and down cycle, which
is determined by the largely agriculture-dependent economy. During the lockdown
this number dropped dramatically to just 160 lakh (1.6 crore) – a 44% decline.
Since then, it has increased – people have to work to survive – but the latest
October figure shows that the number of employed is 257 lakh (2.57 crore).
These are ‘jobs’
mostly related to agriculture or casual labour in the non-farm sector. These
are back-breaking jobs and give very poor returns. These are also seasonal, so
people may not earn for weeks before getting a few weeks of work. It is the
bottom rung of economic activity.
Contrary to the
perception that women usually find work in largely agricultural economies,
Bihar has the most shocking rates of women’s work participation in recent
times, according to CMIE, as well as the
government‘s own Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS). [See chart below, based
on CMIE data]
From a ‘high’ of
about 8% in May-August 2016, women’s participation fell to just 2.4% in
January-April of 2017, and since then it has remained around that level. In
May-August 2020, it was recorded at 2.2%. This is the lowest work participation
rate among all states in the country.
The PLFS report for
2018-19, too, reported that in Bihar women’s work participation rate was just
4.2% in rural areas and 6.2% in urban areas, giving an overall rate of a mere
4.4% for the state.
Part of the reason
for this tragic state of affairs is that there are no jobs and agriculture is
the only sector that is absorbing all the job seekers. Under such conditions,
men tend to displace women from all work. Another factor is that many of the
agricultural activities that were traditionally done by women, like weeding and
caring for crops, are now being done through use of chemical weedicides etc.
which are done through sprayers used by men.
The drastic fall in
women’s work participation has caused overall work participation rate to dip to
unprecedented levels – in October this year, the overall work participation
rate in Bihar was just 35%, according to CMIE. That means only about a third of
the working age population in the state is working. This is catastrophic for
the people and a macabre waste of human capabilities.
All this will require
a major reorientation of governance and policy- making. The Narendra Modi
government at the Centre and its junior partner, Janata Dal (United), in Bihar
is working in the reverse direction – by bringing in new farm laws it plans to
hand over agriculture to big traders and land owners, and agri-business
companies. By diluting labour standards, it is further crushing workers into
The people of Bihar
have come to understand this instinctively – that’s why the mood is to throw
out the incumbent Nitish Kumar government. And, for that, they are willing to
rise above caste and religious divisions.