Unemployment is rife in Haryana, but it was not a poll issue

The poll campaigns of the major political parties, for the recently concluded assembly elections in Haryana, focussed on a range of issues but overlooked the employment crisis brewing in the state. Parveen Kumar / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
23 October, 2019

The predominantly agrarian state of Haryana voted to elect its fourteenth legislative assembly on 21 October. As voting ended at 6 pm, the state had registered a voter turnout of 61.92 percent, a sharp drop compared to the previous state elections in 2014, which saw 76.54 percent of the electorate exercise their franchise. According to Munfaid, a 26-year-old from the Nuh tehsil in the eponymously named district at the southern-most tip of the state, these elections were “just a gimmick.” When I asked him why, he said, “The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government under Manohar Lal Khattar has neither created jobs nor has a concrete plan for us, the youth of Nuh.” Over the past week, I travelled through the three southern districts of the state—Rewari, Mahendragarh and Mewat, which was renamed Nuh three years ago. In the run-up to the elections, the lack of employment was a constant refrain across the region.

Munfaid said that the scale of unemployment in Nuh was so pervasive that “even the option for daily-wage labour is not available here.” Munfaid has a vocational degree—he trained as a multi-purpose health worker—but he works as a driver as he could not find a job. “Where are the jobs anyway?” He had applied for several government jobs but, according to him, “the officials give priority only to those who can buy the posts by paying a hefty amount.”

Nuh, with a population of 10.89 lakh, has a literacy rate of 54.08 percent, the lowest among all the districts in Haryana. But even with such a small pool of educated youth, jobs are hard to find. The state itself is currently facing an unemployment crisis. According to a report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a business-intelligence firm, between May and August 2019, the unemployment rate in the state was the second highest in the country, at 21.38 percent. Mansoor Ali, a 30-year-old shop owner in Nuh, told me that “the youth of Nuh at best get the jobs of drivers or as computer operators in the few shops here and earn a meagre income.” Ali pursued a bachelor’s degree in science from a college in Chandigarh, the state capital, but came back to his hometown to open up an electronics shop “so that I can expand my business in this neglected region and create some jobs here.”

The lack of employment is compounded by the seasonal nature of agriculture in this region and acute water shortages. The region is primarily suited for mustard cultivation, which has a short growing and harvest season and does not provide work throughout the year. According to Nasir Hussain, a social activist based in Nuh, the region is primarily dependent on seasonal rains, and the lack of adequate water supply hinders round-the-year farming. He told me that consequently, most of the educated and uneducated youth of the district are compelled to travel to other parts of the state to work as drivers and are paid a meagre amount of Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 a month.

“I am sure that Nuh lags behind to such an extent that some of our population has not even seen a train till date,” said Nasir. He also mentioned how the administration changed the rules on the renewal of driving licences in 2016, forcing “almost thirty thousand of our youth who were working as drivers to stop going to work as their license could not be renewed.” Nasir said that this has been a huge “setback to the possibilities of employment here.”

While the men in this region migrate to find work, the situation is starker when it comes to the women. Nuh’s female literacy rate stands at 36.6 percent according to the 2011 census, and social mores restrict the ability of educated women to travel for work. A few kilometres from the Nuh district headquarters is the village of Shahpur Nangli, which has a population of 4,162. According to the villagers, the family of one Abid Hussain was the most “progressive” in the village. Abid works for a non-profit called the Sehgal Foundation. His wife, who requested anonymity, told me that their daughter was in the eighth standard. “I have not gone to school ever but it is good that I got married to a graduate still.” She told me that their household was not as “oppressive” because her husband was educated. When I asked Abid whether he would send his daughter outside the village to work or pursue higher education, he said, “You are standing in Nuh, the most backward region of Haryana. Our girl is getting schooling but has not got exposure.” He did not think it was safe to send “a girl with so little awareness outside. She will study till Class 10 for sure.” They did not allow me to speak to their daughter.

Out of all the educated women in the village, only five were employed while the rest were homemakers. Shivani, a 21-year-old, had a bachelor’s degree in science from a college in Gurugram and was the most qualified woman in the village. “I will work out of station only if I get a government job,” she told me, as her parents refused to let her take up a job in the private sector. The general perception in the village was that private-sector jobs are unstable and not suitable for women.

Rekha Suralia, a social activist who I met in Rewari, told me that nothing has changed for the young women of Haryana in the last few decades. “On one hand, the current government has left no stone unturned in popularising the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign and slogans,” Suralia said. But “in retrospect, after empowering and educating these daughters, they have not paid any attention to rid the state of the curse of unemployment.” Suralia mentioned the case of one Rekha Rani, the first PhD scholar from the department of journalism and mass communication at the Chaudhary Devi Lal University in Sirsa, who is still unemployed. She told me how young women with doctoral degrees were taking up jobs as peons via the Group D recruitments of the Haryana Services Selection Commission, and even those jobs were hard to come by.

The lack of jobs in the public sector was another recurring theme throughout my travels in the region. In the run-up to the elections, the ruling BJP government in the state claimed that between October 2014 and 2019, the state hired over 69,000 people. Out of these, 18,000 posts were for Class 4 employee positions—this includes peons, gardeners, animal attendants, among other—across 11 districts in the state. However, according to Subhash, a right-to-information activist, the government’s claims are false. He works with the Haryana Soochna Adhikar Manch, an organisation comprising activists and retired servicemen who aim to spread awareness about the RTI act. As per their RTI findings, the state has hired 40,000 people and not the figure claimed by the government.

About 105 kilometres from the town of Nuh is the Mahendragarh district. I travelled to the village of Goad in its Nangal Chaudhry constituency. It was the same litany of joblessness and lack of opportunities, for men and women alike. I could hardly see any women during the gatherings held for election campaigns in Goad. The few women in attendance would invariably be consigned to a corner with veils drawn down to their waist. Karan Singh, a resident, told me that “villagers in Mahendragarh have not received much exposure to education till date. Most of us survive on agriculture and bajra, wheat and mustard are our main crops.” Other villagers echoed Singh and said that there were no avenues for work in their village and even in the surrounding towns.

The poor implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is another key reason for unemployment in the rural parts of the state. According to a report by the Centre for Policy Research, a think-tank focussed on public policy, in the financial year 2017–2018, the state government generated an average of 33 days of work per person, the third lowest in the country. The provisional figures for the next financial year are even lower, at 28 days of work per person. However, the Haryana government seems to have ignored the demands of various MNREGA unions in the state as well as their protests.

In addition, Rajat Kalsan, a Dalit-rights activist from Hisar district, said, “a lot of nepotism is practiced in hiring for government jobs in the state.” He said that the state discriminates against members of the Scheduled Castes who are “mostly considered for Group D vacancies.” He was critical of all political parties in the state and said that “no government in the last two decades has taken up the task of clearing the backlogs in the seats reserved for SC candidates.” The state is obligated to reserve 20 percent of the total vacancies in the public sector for members of the Scheduled Castes.

Across the southern belt of the state, jobs—or the lack thereof—was the most common topic of conversation. Ironically, unemployment has not found mention in the campaigns of the ruling BJP and the main opposition party, the Congress. The BJP manifesto revolved around pricing of agricultural produce, skill enhancement, special benefits to industries, staff salaries, pensions and women empowerment. But the party was silent on job creation and unemployment. The Congress, on the other hand, promised Rs 10,000 to all unemployed youth with post-graduate degrees, and a monthly allowance of Rs 7,000 to unemployed graduates in its campaign—but nothing on facilitating employment opportunities.

Instead, the smaller political parties in the fray in these elections have made unemployment one of the core campaigning issues. Dushyant Chautala, the chief of the Jannayak Janata Party—the JJP is a first time entrant in Haryana politics—has promised to reserve 75 percent of public-sector jobs in the state for the locals. He has repeatedly slammed the BJP over allegations that the ruling government gives preference to outsiders rather than residents of Haryana for public sector jobs. Swaraj India, which contested 28 seats out of the total 90 constituencies in its electoral debut in the state, has promised to generate 20 lakh jobs in Haryana. Yogendra Yadav, the national president of Swaraj India, was highly critical of the Congress’ cash doles. “I see it as a bad plan. I believe in creating employment. We plan to generate 73,000 jobs in education sector, 22,000 in health centres,” he told me.

I spoke to a group of young men at a chai shop in Nuh. When I told them that I was looking into the dearth of opportunities in the region, one of them said, “We have all the time on earth to tell you about our unemployment. That is actually how jobless we are.”