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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

India: Labour Surplus and Economic Development

BBC Radio 4 - From Our Own Correspondent Podcast, Ear cleaners and road sweepers

"In Delhi at dawn, an army of workers found out to do the jobs you're unlikely to find in such numbers anywhere else. Men and women with reed brooms sweep pavements. Full time chauffeurs meticulously wash their employers’ cars. Nannies, maids, cooks and cleaners perform every tedious chore. Men on bicycles pedal out to collect recyclables. Others sell balloons, fruit, or even cheese and booze door to door.

For a tiny sum, you can get your shoes mended, trousers and dresses made to measure, your head massaged, even jewelry repaired all by hand.

India wouldn't be India without this glut of cheap labor, making life easy. If there's a job to be done, no matter how menial or niche, here you'll find people to do it for pennies.

This is down to the fact that half of India's population of 1.3 billion people is under the age of 25. Each month, a whopping 1 million come of age. Each year, 8 million of those new workers seek jobs. In a country with little Social Security, corporate jobs with good pay, and government jobs with lifetime security are the most fiercely sought after. Thousands of applicants vie for a single position...

I enter one of six lifts with the crowd of well dressed office workers. Inside, under a noisy fan whirring to keep the 40 degree heat at bay, Ahmed presses the buttons to deliver people to their destinations... He doesn't wear white gloves or a special uniform. He's paid below the minimum wage, though he does have a stool to sit on. It's not physically taxing work, he says and I stay cool in the heat. This job supports me and my family of five.

Ahmed’s job and the jobs of other button pushers, for example, in Delhi's new underground car parks exist only because labor is so cheap and ubiquitous. More than 80% of India's workforce is informal, meaning they earn less than minimum wage and don't enjoy the rights of even a basic contract. In this cutthroat economic environment, any job is better than no job.

So I'm not surprised when I see one man on a pavement doing nothing but selling ordinary rubber bands from large stainless steel bowls. A job I have never seen anyone doing before anywhere in my 22 years as a journalist.

I've come across some extraordinary jobs in India, from professional ear cleaners to people who dive into sewers to unblock them to professional hangmen to a woman employed solely to neatly refold the clothes in her clients cupboards.

Why is a country with an economy growing at more than 6% a year not creating more quality jobs? Like much of the planet India's growth is capital intensive. Burgeoning sectors like oil and gas need machinery not people to power them. An economic slowdown isn't helping.

And some argue that Prime Minister Modi’s own policies are to blame. In 2016, when he suddenly withdrew most of India's bank notes from circulation to tackle corruption, replacements were not ready for weeks. This crippled many small businesses reliant on cash. They went bust or had to downsize, laying off scores of workers.

Why then did so many people vote for Narendra Modi even as they're struggling to secure jobs? Door to door salesman Ahmed Kumar who has holes in his socks and fraying trousers told me that despite his bitter disappointment with his own job prospects, he voted for the BJP. It's not that I agree with their Hindu nationalist ideology, he said. But in my village when electricity first came, we were so surprised we’d shout wow. Now it's on for up to 18 hours a day and everyone's used to it. We need to give the BJP at least another five years to develop the country"
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