Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Jobs in the state budget: Where are they?


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By Bhogtoram Mawroh

In the recently concluded Budget Session, Meghalaya Chief Minister, Conrad Sangma was asked about his claims about creating 5.5 lakh jobs in the next 4–5 years. In reply, the Chief Minister listed the several schemes and programs introduced by the government, which included PRIME, MGNREGS, CM ELEVATE, FOCUS, FOCUS+, and mission mode programs in agriculture. Among the schemes and programs listed, one program stands out from the rest, viz., MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), for not being designed to create employment but actually guaranteeing it for every rural household for 100 days in a year.
It was, therefore, shocking to see that the budget allocation for MGNREGS was just Rs 604 crore, which is Rs 400 crore less than the previous year’s total expenditure for the program, Rs 1042 crore. Either the rural sector does not need the jobs or the rural infrastructure that the scheme creates is reduced by almost 50% from 2023–2024 which is highly concerning. This is despite the fact that in this year’s interim budget, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman increased the allocation for MGNREGS from Rs 60,000 crore to Rs 86,000 crore, an increase of 43%. If the revised figures do not show a change in the original allocation, reducing it by such a large margin doesn’t bode well for the government’s claim of job creation. As a matter of fact, a look at the Chief Minister’s speech reveals that jobs were mentioned only three times in his entire speech, which, in the copy I have, is 29 pages long. Let’s look at those mentions.
The first mention of jobs is in relation to the New Shillong administrative city and the New Shillong Knowledge City that are being planned to be built at Mawkhanu-Mawpdang. The Chief Minister claims, “these two new cities will create 50,000 well-paying jobs.” What does it mean to have well-paying jobs? Surely it means that the average salary in these jobs will be a minimum of Rs 50,000 per month, with a yearly increment and all the other allowances and social security benefits included in the package. It seems highly likely that these jobs will still be contractual in nature, so job security will very much depend on the length of the contract. But as long as the salary is good and there is opportunity for growth in a fair manner without bias and discrimination, these ‘50,000 well-paying jobs’ appear to be a good prospect. However, what was also mentioned in the speech is that the DPR for the New Shillong Knowledge City, estimated to cost Rs 5,400 crore, has just been submitted to the Government of India. It looks highly unlikely that these jobs will be filled by the next budget session, i.e., the 2025–2026 session. These jobs, therefore, are very much in the future, and as such, they do not meet the needs of those who are seeking decent jobs at present.
The second mention of jobs in the Chief Minister’s speech is in relation to the Shillong Tech Park. It was mentioned that the second phase is currently being developed and is expected to create 20,000 jobs. There was no mention of the jobs being “well-paying,” which is a clear indication that these jobs will be of the nature of casual labour where people will be paid according to the daily wage rates. Currently, the minimum wage, including the Variable Dearness Allowance (VDA), ranges from Rs 9648 to Rs 13,512 per month. With the cost of living increasing day by day, these amounts are highly insufficient to enable workers to enjoy a decent way of life. Even at this moment, there are many people who are working multiple jobs to make ends meet. These include the contractual workers working in the different government departments who are driving Rapido before and after office hours (personal discussion). They are compelled to work for almost 12 hours a day, leaving less time for rest and spending time with the family. The “20,000 jobs” appear to be much more precarious than this lot, and therefore, while it is good that jobs are going to be available, it is more important that jobs are ‘decent’ in nature.
Decent Work is actually an international obligation mentioned by the ILO’s Director General, Juan Somavia, during the 87th Session of the International Labour Conference held in June 1999 in Geneva (Switzerland), wherein he stated that the primary goal of the ILO (International Labour Organisation) is “securing decent work for women and men everywhere.” Decent work has four major elements, viz., international labour standards and fundamental principles and rights at work—preventing exploitative working conditions; employment creation—employment not only as a source of income but autonomy, status, self-respect, etc.; social protection—ensuring protection against the risk of losing income, e.g., social security benefits; and social dialogue and tripartism—the rights of workers to form unions or organizations for discussing matters of work with employers and authorities. Will the 20,000 jobs have all these elements?
A good beginning can be made by initiating the discussion on “living wage”, which, according to the Committee on Fair Wages set up in 1948, is “one that should enable the earner to provide for himself and his family not only the bare essentials of food, clothing, and shelter but also a measure of frugal comfort, including education for his children, protection against ill-health, the requirements of essential social needs, and a measure of insurance against the more important misfortunes, including old age.” This is clearly different from the definition of minimum wage, which is “the amount of money that must be made in order to sustain both the productivity of the employees and their ability to meet their basic needs… by covering the price of amenities like education and healthcare.” While the present minimum wage ranges from Rs 9648 to Rs 13512 per month, the living wage will have to start from at least Rs 16,890 per month, which is the minimum wage for highly skilled workers if they were to work for the entire month without taking any break. In fact, unless jobs are ‘decent’ in nature, workers will end up being exploited or exploiting themselves in order to survive. Hence, in the next year’s budget, the Chief Minister should be asked about how many ‘decent jobs’ the government has created. The emphasis must be on ‘decent jobs’ and not only jobs.
This brings us to the third mention of jobs, or actually “job opportunities,” as termed by the Chief Minister in his speech. This was in regards to the women beneficiaries of FOCUS and CM-ELEVATE applicants, which, as claimed, will “generate about 1 lakh job opportunities.” The veracity of the claim has to be judged in relation to what is meant by ‘job opportunities’ and how they are different from ‘jobs’. In a question put before the house, the Chief Minister gave an explanation of what actually is meant by “job opportunities” which, if I have understood correctly means this: suppose there is an SHG or an enterprise focused on value addition of sohiong/blackberry into fruit wine which has been set up with support of the Government in a village; the first level of job opportunity will be for members of the SHG/enterprise – e.g., three members; second level of job opportunity will be the farmers who will sell the fruits to the SHG/enterprise for processing – e.g., two farmers; and the third level of job opportunity will be for the shop who will sell the bottles for the wine – e.g., four helpers and one proprietor of the shop. If all these are counted, the total number of job opportunities comes to ten (10). Now let’s imagine that there is another SHG/enterprise that is also engaged in the value addition of sohiong but for Jam. They also have a similar number of members and are sourcing fruits and bottles from the same farmers and the same shop as the previous SHG or enterprise. The total number of job opportunities in this second case will also be ten. Does it mean that the total number of job opportunities is now 20? But wouldn’t this be a case of double counting? Also, except for the SHG/enterprise members, no new jobs have been created unless the farmers who are selling the fruit would not have been able to sell any fruit before the SHG/enterprise approached, and the shop came up only after the SHG/enterprise. How does one actually calculate job opportunities, and does it really meet the demands of people who are looking for decent jobs? The example I have given above is based on the little I heard the Chief Minister discuss about the concept. I hope that others more knowledgeable will shed more light on it. To me, it appears to be more about strengthening the existing livelihood networks, which will increase income and hopefully encourage more investment and, in the long run, create jobs. But the term ‘job opportunities’ is misleading as it gives the impression that new jobs are being created when that is clearly not the case.
After this, there is no more mention of jobs in the speech. The most glaring omission was noticed in the Ten Guarantees of ‘Mission 10′, which, though quite progressive, fail to mention the provision of decent jobs as part of the mission. That is unfortunate since it is decent jobs that should have been the focus of the speech and the subsequent discussions in the Assembly. But hopefully, this will be rectified in the future, and, especially, the opposition parties will make decent jobs the basis of their critique of the government and part of their own pledges starting this MP election.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organization or institution)


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