Unemployment is probably one of the most hackneyed words used in political discourses across the globe and is usually employed to build a narrative against any incumbent government. In India, the Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi launched a scathing attack throughout the party’s campaign on the Narendra Modi led NDA government over the latter’s failure to create jobs, accusing it of withholding the data which, if published, would have proved that the country registered the highest unemployment in four decades under the NDA government. The NSSO’s PLFS Report, published after the elections, proved that the accusation wasn’t at all unfounded. Even the far-right parties from Brazil’s Social Liberal Party led by Bolsonaro to France’s National Rally Party led by Marine Le Pen made unemployment the kernel of their campaigns, despite the fact that far-right parties’ major priority lies elsewhere.
How could Sikkim’s politics be devoid of such an issue that, which even a naive politician knows, never fails to strike a chord with young voters? In fact, the issue of unemployment dominated Sikkim’s politics to such an extent that almost every other issue was virtually pushed into oblivion. The (then) opposition party SKM kept raking up the (supposed) failure of the SDF government in curbing unemployment in the state. Then came the ‘One Family One Job’ scheme by the SDF government which caught the attention of the national media and caught the fancy of the educated youths of the state. Sensing the table turning against it, the SKM party lost no time in promising regularization of jobs under OFOJ within 100 days of coming to power against SDF’s promise of regularization after five years, apart from promising job to every educated youth of the state.
That’s how much the issue of unemployment dominated and continues to dominate the political discourse in Sikkim. However, the purpose of this article is not to dig into the lofty poll promises made by political parties on unemployment but to try to understand as to how the unemployment in the state soared up to such an alarming level. As per the Annual Employment-Unemployment Survey (2015-16) Report by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India, Tripura has the highest percentage of unemployed in the country at 19.7% followed by Sikkim at 18.1%. In Sikkim’s case, it’s a disturbing increase of 4.5% within 3 years and 7.1% in Tripura’s case.
Not much information about Sikkim’s employment status at the time of the merger is available. However, a cursory glimpse at the Fifth Quinquennial Survey of the NSSO for 1993-94 throws some interesting figures. As per the report, Sikkim’s rural unemployment was just 1.2% and urban unemployment was just 3.1% while the national average for rural and urban were 1.8% and 5.2% respectively. Self-employment at the time is shown very high, at 54.9% in rural and 48.8% in urban Sikkim, while the national average was 55.3% and 40.4% for rural and urban respectively. The figure immediately brings up the question – what caused unemployment in the state to skyrocket in two decades, from 1.8% in 1994 to 18.1% in 2017-18? Providing a conclusive answer to this question is almost impossible. There are certain factors which I believe have contributed largely to this spike in unemployment.
Among other factors, the one I consider most prominent is the fact that some semblance of pride as well as entitlement is attached to being unemployed. The ‘unemployed’ tag gives one an easy excuse, as it were, to ask for various kinds of favours from the government and stake claims on numerous schemes and loans the government doles out from time to time. Also, there is a trend in Sikkim to consider oneself unemployed unless one has a government job, and rarely does a person call herself self-employed in Sikkim. During the course of implementation of a software project in 2009 at Melli Dara and Turuk, I was immensely surprised to find that many who I knew reared poultry had marked themselves ‘unemployed’ in the form that they filled up, and so did almost all who worked at Yuksom Breweries at Melli. Almost all of those who worked as casual worker marked themselves unemployed. As per the International Labour Organisation’s definition of unemployment, most of those who marked themselves unemployed in the form cannot be considered unemployed. Now imagine how many of such people might have marked themselves unemployed in the surveys that were conducted by agencies such as Census, DESME, NSSO etc. This is not to say that we don’t have unemployment in the state. We seriously do and it’s real. However, despite there being a sizeable number of farmers in the state (around 68,000 families do farming in the state), 80,000 plus government employees and more than 70% of families covered under MGNREGA an a plethora of employment opportunities made available by booming tourism and pharma companies, this spike in unemployment somehow doesn’t add up. Thus, in all likelihood, most of the casual workers, self-employed and those employed with dissatisfactory income must have ticked themselves unemployed when surveys were done.
Another equally surprising as well as alarming trend in Sikkim is the excessive obsession with government job. It’s the holy grail that every educated youth is after. Though there is nothing wrong with it, what is saddening is that in the quest for a government job, every other employment option is relegated as a second-class option – often looked down upon. The obsession with government job has invaded our collective psyche so much that when a person gets asked about her profession, the inquirer invariably asks – ‘Which department do you work in?’ The question doesn’t stop there if we answer in affirmation. The inquest runs further – ‘Regular ho?’, ‘Kun post ma?’… No wonder then that hundreds of our educated youths resigned from their private jobs and signed up for job under OFOJ scheme rolled out by the SDF government. The situation created kind of a crisis for private companies and firms to the extent that some local entrepreneurs vented their helplessness even on social media. If we care to find out how many of the Sikkimese educated youth resigned from their private jobs for OFOJ job, the percentage might be well over 95. There’s one incident from Namchi which merits mention here. A person from working for an MNC in a managerial rank in Chennai was forced by her parents to leave her job and work as an ad-hoc teacher in Sikkim for a quarter of the salary she used to draw in the company!
Upon closer examination, this obsession with government job appears more a compulsion thrust upon the educated youth both by their parents and the society (to some extent) rather than their conscious choice. I’ve met many educated youths who are ‘unemployed’ because their parents want them to find a government job while they want to pursue their dreams, and during the entire intervening time while this clash of interest is sorted out, they remain ‘unemployed’. There are some who’ve followed their dreams much to their parent’s chagrin and are very well established today, much to their parents’ total satisfaction! Our educated youths today are full of potential, brimming with talents and creativity and want to pursue their dreams. However, their wings are clipped by this obnoxious obsession with government job not always on their part but invariably their parents’. The ever-soaring unemployment in the state can at least be tamed to a great extent if government job is no longer considered a yardstick to measure the achievement of an educated youth with, thereby liberating the youths from this constraint and letting them pursue their dreams. And yes, we must stop considering ourselves unemployed just because we don’t have a government job!
About the Author: Santosh Subba is by training a software programmar with deep interest in literature and politics. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @sonupondhak
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