A Howling Headcount

The first part of the final census 2011 exhibits a low growth rate, an improved literacy level in otherwise militancy affected belts and a nosedive in working population of the state. Wajahat Qazi deciphers the message that the numbers convey.

The first tranche of final Census 2011 released last week on J&K is a wealth of information and statistics. While it touches and dwells on a range of indicators and facts, perhaps the most salient and significant snapshot it presents is the data on education and employment in the state.
In last 10 years ending 2011, there has occurred a significant increase in the population of the state. The total population of the state, as on 2011, stands at, 1,25,41,302 persons. It has increased by a percentage of 23.64. This increase in the population of the state is matched (unevenly, of course) by an increase in the literacy rate which, on 2011, stands at 67.16%. This, most probably could be a reason why the decade growth rate is down by 5.99%.
The distribution and break up of these figures and stats is revelatory: it is the militancy affected districts that have registered an increase in literacy rates. For instance, Kupwara has registered an increase by 21.3%, Ganderbal by 17.6% and Bandipore by 17.3%. The gender break up of these stats is also revelatory: the female segment of the population is getting educated at a rate that is better than the male segment. Female literacy has improved by 13.44% while as literacy in the male segment has increased by 10.15%.
However, these positive developments are complemented by stats in the nature, structure and composition of employment and unemployment in the state. The people who are employed in gainful work have decreased by 8.32% to 26.44 lakhs. The percentage of cultivators and allied workers in the primary sector has fallen by 7.53% – a significant development in an economy which is of an agrarian nature.
These stats raise a set of questions. Of these, the most significant and salient are: what accounts for the increase in the population and what is the nature of this change? What is the reason behind the exponential increase in literacy rates? What is the significance of the increase in literacy rates? What are the implications and consequences of increased literacy rates amongst females? What accounts for the decrease in the workers population? Is this an aberration or a trend? What can the state do about it?
The increase in J&K’s population is a multi-causal phenomenon. It can be attributed to the increase in fertility rates, increase in mortality rates, better health and health indicators and other allied and ancillary developments and factors like nutrition and economic development. The concomitant increase in literacy rates is but an inevitable and axiomatic consequence of the increase in population. This assertion needs to be qualified: an increase in both indicators and stats cannot, ipso facto, mean increase in literacy rates unless there is a corresponding effort or opportunity provided by the state for people to get educated. Despite the mismatch in the provision and supply of this public good and the demand, there has been an increase in literacy rates. This redounds to the state’s credit.
RUSH-(3)The increase in the population rate and literacy rates means that the state is in the grips of a demographic transition. The state’s baby boomers are coming of age. The obvious implication or even inference that can be drawn from this is that the forces of modernization are at play in the state and are in full force albeit in a zigzagged manner. The shape of this modernization is somewhat Z shaped because of the structural impediments and issues that operate in the state, society and economy of the state-institutional discrepancy arising out of protracted militancy and insurgency, the rebuilding of institutions from the detritus of conflict and the means at the disposal of the state.
The increased incidence of literacy rate in militancy affected districts is intriguing. Education is a universally sought after for public good and that there is a correlation between peace, education and literacy levels. All in all, the trends that these stats reveal are ominous and salubrious.
Another significant development noted is the increase in the literacy rate of females. This increase is noteworthy because in traditional societies, there is an element of gender bias at work where women’s role in society is ascribed and fixed as wives or/and child bearers and rearers. This structural and socio-psychological feature condemns an entire class of persons to non productive and non pecuniary role wherein their productive potential, in the least. Remains latent, at best or remains untapped and unexploited at worst. The increase in the literacy rates of females then reveals a contra trend where females are now availing and taking advantage of the opportunities for getting education. An educated workforce, especially, an educated female segment of society means a more productive, aware and educated society for obvious reasons. It also means a low fertility rate, better reproductive health and in a tangential way translates into a demographic dividend. A demographic dividend is always a boon for society and can translate economically into improved savings and even investment.
All this is well and good. However, these trends and developments also reveal a disturbing theme: these will potentially decrease the workers population of the state vis a vis the working and other segments of the population. In conjunction with the democratic transition and the attendant education boom there is the possibility of change in the skill structure of the population and the structure of employment. In combination, these will increase, albeit inversely the dependency ratio and lead to a frustrated and angry underclass of persons with unmet and unsatisfied expectations and aspirations. What can be done about this?
Before formulating a response to this, it is exigent to dwell on unemployment and employment. There is, it should be said, no such thing as full employment. No economy can ever fully utilize the resources it has at its command. The failure of the planned economies in the former Soviet Union and those countries which followed this model is an eloquent testimony to this. Even market economies cannot make full employment possible. Economists have even coined a term or phrase, ‘The Natural Rate of Unemployment’ to classify this feature of an economy. The Natural Rate of Unemployment is determined by an economy’s supply side, production functions and institution. It is, by and large resistant to economic levels and manipulation of economic instruments.
And at any given point in time, and in any economy, there are forms and varieties of unemployment at work. These are:
•    Frictional Unemployment: it is the form of unemployment that occurs because it takes workers some time to move from one job to another;
•    Cyclical Unemployment: it is the form of unemployment that occurs on account of the business cycle, eg, recessions or depressions;
•    Structural Unemployment: is the form of unemployment that occurs when there is a mismatch between worker skills and employers’ needs. Structural unemployment is worrisome and is long term;
•    Seasonal Unemployment: occurs when there is variation in the demand for workers over a period of time.
Establishing that no economy can have full employment and that there is always some form and degree of unemployment in any economy and society does not mean that nothing can and should be done to accommodate youth bulges. This is especially poignant in J&K state. The question, however, is what can be done to make employment more realistic in the state? There are no easy answers to this question. The state has limited absorptive capacity and there is almost a natural limit on what it can do to absorb surplus labor.
The effect of the demographic shock- increase in population – and increase in literacy rates coupled with the decrease in the population engaged in the primary sector means that society is meandering and moving towards a knowledge economy paradigm or template. This is not a trend but a putative development. The state can respond to this development by focusing on sectors that demand a new skill set and structure pertaining to knowledge and information and develop these sectors. This cannot and should not be a solo exercise by the state. This is where political economy enters the picture. By this is meant the ‘right’ mix between markets and the state. Broken down, this means that the state can take the role of a public goods provider and create an enabling environment for its people. More specifically, it means the development of human capital that speaks to the needs of the times and the markets. It is in this way, that the surplus labor, the demographic boom and the increase in literacy rates can be harnessed for the good of society and the economy.
J&K and its society is at a very delicate phase and time. Supply, demand mismatches in population and literacy rates, stress on labor markets and the absorptive capacity of the state can be a deleterious combination. It is about time that proactive measures in the nature of futuristic planning and scenario analysis is conducted and the discordant trends be aligned. It is all in the domain of the possible.

-(Wajahat Qazi is J&K Government’s Policy Analyst)


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