By: Dipak Kurmi
India, not only renowned for exporting cow dung to countries like the United States, Singapore, and the Maldives, holds the distinction of being the world’s largest exporter of manpower. With a diaspora exceeding 30 million, Indians have sought refuge abroad, driven by the unmet promise of a secure and prosperous life within their homeland. The quest for a better living standard continues to propel millions to seek opportunities beyond these shores.
If New Delhi succumbs to the appeal of Israel’s Builders Association, requesting around 100,000 construction workers to replace the 90,000 Palestinians dismissed after the October 7 Hamas attack, the number of Indian expatriates may see a marginal increase. Despite the potential desire to accommodate Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, India should not overlook the harsh realities of the situation. The cancellation of Palestinians’ work permits by Tel Aviv serves not only as a response to Hamas’ attack but also as a means to plunge the people of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank further into poverty. Accepting this request could make the Indian replacements unwitting instruments of Israeli exploitation, entangling them in a morally complex, century-old conflict that doesn’t directly concern them.
The racial dimension adds another layer to the situation. The majority of Israelis belong to the European Ashkenazi Jewish community, while the Palestinians are of Arab and Asian descent. The distinction was starkly underscored by Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who derogatorily referred to Palestinians as “human animals.” This racist rhetoric, as noted by the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, is not isolated but rooted in historical contempt. Rafael Eitan, the chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), openly expressed the dismissive attitude in 1983, stating that once Israelis had claimed the land, Arabs would have no choice but to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle. India must remain mindful that economic migrants often face a lack of respect.
The Ministry of External Affairs acknowledges a significant development: a record 225,620 Indians renounced their citizenship last year. While this could be deemed an exception, possibly fueled by dissatisfaction with the NDA government’s economic management, the average annual migration of 120,000 to 140,000 people implies a persistent dearth of opportunities at home. The recent proclamation by the National Sample Survey, asserting a decrease in the unemployment rate for urban individuals aged 15 and above from 8.2 percent to 6.8 percent, contrasts sharply with the reality of migration trends. The official celebration of the job market echoes the ironic sentiment expressed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”
Dr Manmohan Singh’s painstakingly built-up robust economy has not only been squandered but has also incited criticism from West Bengal’s former finance minister, Dr Amit Mitra. The hollow nature of the Prime Minister’s “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” slogan was pointedly highlighted by Dr Mitra, an economist of notable distinction. Quoting the World Bank, he revealed a bitter truth: during the festive month of October 2023, a staggering 47 million people, primarily youths, were unemployed. Emphasizing the magnitude of this figure, Dr. Mitra drew attention to its equivalence to the entire population of Spain.
The stark reality, as highlighted by Dr. Mitra, is that youth unemployment soared to a record high of 23.22 percent last year. This figure becomes even more damning when compared to the relatively lower rates of 12.9 and 14.4 percent in Bangladesh and landlocked, resource-poor Bhutan, respectively. This revelation poses a significant challenge, considering India’s pride in the “youth dividend,” with half of its 1.4 billion people aged below 25 and 65 percent under the age of 35. This demographic advantage has long been seen as a trump card against a more dynamic China, positioning India favorably to harness its youthful workforce while China grapples with the challenges of an aging society.
The situation takes on an even more ominous tone when considering a potential future marked by destitution. Many educated young individuals find themselves compelled to resort to manual or casual work, or engage in deceptive forms of self-employment. Official propaganda, championing “start-ups” as a symbol of the so-called “digital” future, has contributed to the normalization of these precarious alternatives. Admittedly, there has been an increase in the quantum of loans under the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, initiated by Narendra Modi in 2015 to provide loans of up to Rs 10 lakhs to non-corporate, non-farm small and micro enterprises. Similarly, the numbers of start-up registrations and tax returns have also witnessed an uptick.
The number of people involved in self-employment, encompassing unpaid household work or the operation of small businesses, rose to 57.3 percent from 55.8 percent a year ago.
This evidence, however, might be misleading. There was a time when buses, taxis, and auto-rickshaws pledged to nationalized banks were celebrated as indicators of dynamic enterprise. Yet, a significant portion of those loans had to be written off, as the political standing of the borrowers often outweighed their economic competence. Despite India’s aspiration to become the world’s third-largest economy, currently holding the position of the fifth largest, its nominal GDP ranks a modest 139th globally. Additionally, it continues to linger at the 132nd place on the United Nations Human Development List.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown proved catastrophic for the informal sector, which accommodates 80 percent of the workforce. Similarly disastrous was the manner in which the Goods and Services Tax was implemented in 2017. While these events were, to some extent, beyond the government’s control, the same cannot be said for Prime Minister Modi’s decision to introduce partial demonetization in November 2016. This not only resulted in the loss of 95 lakh jobs but also caused a decline in the employment rate to 42 percent.
In 2000, China held the 13th position, but since 2010, it has consistently secured the second spot, trailing only behind the United States. During the period from 2000 to 2022, Indonesia experienced a significant leap from the 27th to the 16th largest economy. In that same year, Saudi Arabia advanced from the 18th to the 17th position, and Argentina rose from 28th to 22nd place.
The skills of Indians have the potential to flourish if only resources are not diverted towards a Rs 3,000-crore statue, a Rs 150,000-crore capital redevelopment project, and a Rs 615-crore moon landing. The more pertinent approach would involve India’s complacent leadership heeding N.R. Narayana Murthy’s advice. Specifically, allocating a billion dollars annually to enlist 10,000 retired teachers from around the world to train educators in STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). This strategic investment aims to ensure that the unemployed youth are not left unemployable. The resulting prosperity might even inject substance into India’s currently hollow claim of being a “Vishwa Guru.” (the writer can be reached at email@example.com)