India's jobs crisis: 25 million applicants for 90,000 vacancies

One million Indians enter the workforce each month, but the number of jobs being created is a fraction of that number

People shout slogans as they block train services during a protest demanding recruitment into the railway services in Mumbai, India, March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
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More than 25 million people have applied for 90,000 vacancies in India’s state-owned railway operator, an imbalance that illustrates the country’s struggle to find jobs for its employable millions.

The positions advertised by Indian Railways in February cover a variety of roles around the country: engine drivers, signalling staff, welders, porters, track maintenance workers, electricians and mechanics, among others.

About 62,000 of these jobs are open to applicants who have passed their 10th-grade school examinations and are between 18 and 31 years old. Salaries for these positions start at 18,000 rupees (Dh1,015) a month.

The selection process will begin with an online examination, conducted in English and 14 Indian languages, that all 25 million applicants will have to take in the next few months.

Indian Railways, which has 1.3 million people on its rolls, is the eighth-largest employer in the world. But the vacancies it is seeking to fill have built up over time.

“We’ve not been recruiting for the last couple of years, and attrition is already there. And so we require people,” Ashwani Lohani, the chairman of Indian Railways, told Reuters.

A job with the state railway operator is considered a prize. Employees are eligible for flats in state-allotted housing complexes, pensions, medical care and free travel on trains. Added to this is the security of long-term employment – as with most government jobs, layoffs never happen.

Such positions are even worth agitating for. On March 20, hundreds of students in Mumbai sat on the city’s commuter rail tracks, holding up train traffic to protest against one of Indian Railways’ newer recruitment policies.

For decades, Indian Railways had taken on students as apprentices in its technical workshops and hired them once they completed their training. In 2016, however, the company decided stop the automatic recruitment of apprentices, offering to hire just one in five of them.

"They give us training but then don't want to employ us," Somit Singh, an apprentice who had travelled to Mumbai from Gujarat, said during the protest. "How is this fair?"

The desperation for these jobs highlights a long-standing criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s four years in power: that his government has failed to create employment.

When he was elected in 2014, Mr Modi promised an economic revival that would create many avenues for employment. Vowing to build up the manufacturing sector, for example, he said that his "Make in India" initiative would create 100 million jobs by 2022.

But the numbers show that Mr Modi has struggled in this regard. In February, India’s unemployment rate hovered around 6.1 per cent, the highest in 15 months, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a think tank based in Mumbai.

About two thirds of India's population of 1.25 billion is under the age of 35, and around one million Indians enter the workforce each month.

Yet India’s eight biggest sectors – manufacturing, construction, trade, transport, IT, education, health care, and hotels and restaurants – added just 155,000 new jobs in these sectors in 2015 and 231,000 in 2016, government data showed. The figures for 2017 have not yet been published.

In 2009, by contrast, under the opposition Congress party, India added a million new jobs.

The difficulties of providing employment have accompanied a slow turnaround of the economy, in a phenomenon that economists call “jobless growth”. India’s gross domestic product grew by 7.2 per cent in the final quarter of 2017, having slowed to a three-year low of 5.7 per cent between April and June last year.

The problem of joblessness is fast becoming a liability for Mr Modi, and providing ammunition to the Congress ahead of a general election next year. “While China is creating 50,000 jobs every 24 hours, our Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite launching Make in India, Startup India, and Digital India, creates only 450 to 500 jobs” in the same time, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, said at a state election rally in Karnataka last month.

Any aspirations that India's youth have to a white-collar life are being stymied by this lack of jobs, said Mihir Sharma, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank based in New Delhi.

The political impact of such a trend will be significant, Mr Sharma said. “The lack of career options … might give rise to anger and concern that times are becoming tougher, and not better, for young Indians.”