Whither Jobs?

A still-raging pandemic and unending political uncertainty have dented the economy and pushed the job market to the edge, both in the private and public sectors. With the unemployment rates roaring in Jammu and Kashmir, well-read job seekers are now finding solace in menial jobs, reports Minhaj Masoodi

The graph stating the state of unemployement in Jammu and Kashmir by the end of October 2021. KL Grpahics

In the chilling cold, at a construction site in Umarabad, in Srinagar outskirts, Mudabbir is labouring hard. The house owner is looking from a distance. Mudabbir’s phone rings. He picks his phone and starts talking flawlessly, in English.

The owner is taken aback. After Mudabbir finishes his call, the owner calls him and makes enquiries. Turns out, Mudabbir is a master’s degree holder in Chemistry. A resident of Ganastan, near Sumbal, poverty and need for money forced Mudabbir to work as a labourer in Kashmir’s construction sector.

Mudabbir’s father died a few years ago and the responsibility to earn fell on his shoulders. He had wanted to go for higher studies but the need to provide for his family forced him to look for a job. He tried for a year. But he did not get many offers. The trade and the private sector companies had stopped hiring people as the uncertainty dominating Kashmir for long, particularly post-2019, has seriously impacted the business. The ones he got, they were paying well below his bare minimum expectations. He decided to work as a labourer where wages and the time slots are fixed. Right now in freezing cold, a construction labourer works for Rs 700 plus a day.

ATM Guard

Farooq Ahmad Dar is an ATM guard. A resident of Ganderbal’s Tulmulla, Farooq was also compelled to settle for a low paying job because of his precarious financial condition. With a bachelor’s degree in Arts, he even had to drop out of his master’s degree midway.

Farooq was barely five years old enrolled for the nursery when his father, a daily wager was killed in a blast during the 1996 elections. His already financially weak family was forced into penury.

Farooq recalls that period with a perceivable lump in his throat, his voice cracking. “Farooq Abdullah came here personally to guarantee our family a job under SRO 43 but that has not materialized yet,” the young man said. “In 2006, my mother was forced to remarry. She also died for us. I was studying in PUC (11th standard). I used to work as a woodcutter on the side to support my family.”

Despite, facing hardships, Farooq did not leave his studies. “I faced a lot of criticism and torture from people. I was almost prevented from appearing in the matriculation examinations had a teacher not intervened on my behalf.”

Farooq completed his bachelor’s in 2011 amid tremendous financial stress. In 2014, he enrolled himself for a master’s programme. But owing to financial instability he had to discontinue his studies after appearing for two semesters.

“I had to take care of my little brother, my grandfather who was ill, daily expenses at home, and then my own studies at the other end. I had no option but to drop out.”

Now, after all these sacrifices, on a personal and familial level, Farooq now works as an ATM guard on a meagre salary. “All my sacrifices and my hard work has finally led me to become an ATM guard,” he said.

The lack of employment opportunities is the key tension in youth. Somehow, if some of them are lucky enough to get one; the returns are much less than their expectations. The soaring inflation has added to their woes further. This situation has led some of them to accept jobs even if with the least salaries in the hope that once the situation improves, their wages will appreciate.

Farooq said that he knew of an acquaintance in his locality, who had done master’s in English and Phonetics but now earns money by selling peanuts on a handcart.

The upsurge in the unemployment rate has pushed the youth in Jammu and Kashmir towards new invisibility. KL Art Work: Malik Qaiser

Disturbing Data

The unemployment charts have soared since the reading down of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. The figures provided by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy Private Limited (CMIE) paint a grim picture of Jammu and Kashmir. According to the latest report, the unemployment for the month of October was 22.2 per cent as against 21.6 per cent in September. The figures made a quantum jump of 7 per cent from August to September.

The unemployment figures in Jammu and Kashmir are almost thrice the national average in India. At present, Only Haryana at 30 per cent and Rajasthan at 29.6 per cent have worse figures than Jammu and Kashmir. For the month of September, Jammu and Kashmir topped the unemployment chart across India.

These figures are in stark contrast to the ‘realities’ projected by the Central Government after the reading down of Article 370 and punctured a hole into their claims.

Since August 2019, the figures have crossed the 20 per cent mark at least seven times and 15 times since January 2016. The figures had although come down to single digits during the BJPDP government in December 2018 and in November 2020. The only time, the figures were worse, was at the peak of 2016 unrest, when the figures almost touched 30 per cent. Then, Kashmir was literally locked for almost half of the year.

Shrinking Avenues

The employment avenues in Jammu and Kashmir have been far and few. The government agencies have been the primary recruiters in the region as the government was always emerging as the ‘employer of last resorts’. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman during her recent visit claimed that almost half of the five lakh people on the rolls of the Jammu and Kashmir government have come through backdoor. She said, post abrogation of special status, the processes have been made transparent.

Kashmir health workers in a unique drive conduct tests and vaccinate shopkeepers in Srinagar business hub Lal Chowk to control the surge of Covid-19 infection, on June 15, 2021. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

In the government sector, Jammu and Kashmir has Jammu and Kashmir Public Service Commission (JKPSC), Jammu and Kashmir Services Selection Board (JKSSB), J and K Bank, Police, Army and Paramilitary forces as the main recruiters Unlike JKPSC, all others are hiring youth against non-gazetted positions. The magnitude of the joblessness can be assessed by the fact that the key recruiting agency, the JKSSB has collected Rs 77 crore as examination fees between March 2016 and September 2020 from job hunting candidates, according to an RTI application.

The response of the people to the job applications can be gauged from the fact that when JKSSB advertised around 8000 jobs for Class IV employees, more than half a million aspirants applied for the jobs, with many among them holding post-graduate degrees and doctorates.

“Overqualified”

Eventually, an order was issued, which asked “overqualified” people to withdraw their applications ‘voluntarily’ or risk the punishment of never being considered for a position that JKSSB will advertise.

Some of the candidates challenged the order in the court of law but the Jammu and Kashmir High court observed that any higher qualification than on prescribed for a particular post may not be a suitable qualification and that the employer in its wisdom is justified in excluding the candidates with a higher qualification from the ambit of selection.

“…higher qualification than the prescribed 10+2 may not be suitable for many reasons; the first being that a highly qualified person may not be in a position to discharge the menial work which is required to be done by a Class-IV employee; secondly, if such highly qualified candidates are allowed to compete with candidates with lower qualification, as prescribed, it is but obvious that they will score above them and would get selected to the detriment of the candidates possessing the requisite eligibility; and thirdly, such candidates of higher qualification, if selected, would always be looking for a better job and, as soon as they are selected in some other better discipline, they would leave the Class-IV post rendering the entire selection as useless, besides forcing the employer to get those posts re-advertised and re-filled,” the court order had read.

Aamir, one of the JKSSB aspirants with a master’s degree in zoology has since withdrawn his application. “I wish I did not have a master’s degree. I regret going for higher studies,” he said. “At least, I would have been eligible for this job.” He now works as a day labourer.

“Under the fast track recruitment, 20,323 posts stand advertised by Jammu and Kashmir Service Selection Board (SSB) since July 2020 and presently the selection process has been completed with respect to 9,205 posts,” a JKSSB official was quoted saying last week. “Around 5,000 more selections will be finalised up to December 31.”

The Bank Balance

Jammu and Kashmir Bank’s 1800 job vacancies that it had advertised in 2019 got embroiled in controversies, despite the fact that more than 1,40,000 candidates had applied. Initially, the cut-offs were to be taken district wise. But, owing to the ouster of its chairman, the examinations were re-conducted after allegations of “mismanagement” were made by Jammu based political parties. After conducting the examinations afresh, a uniform pan-Jammu and Kashmir cut off was imposed, in which close to 1500 people were selected from Jammu and roughly 300 candidates were selected from Kashmir, according to insiders in the bank.

Demand And Supply

With no job opportunities around, the educational institutions within and outside of Jammu and Kashmir are pushing thousands every year from the campus to the market. Most of them lack a skill.

As per data provided by the University of Kashmir, in 2019 alone, 6509 students appeared in the final examinations across various programmes out of which 5373 students were awarded the degree upon qualification of the exams.

There are a total of 13 universities operating across Jammu and Kashmir. Besides, a significant number of students study outside the valley, in various states of India while many others study abroad, who also continue to enter the system every year in search of potential jobs.

With the universities and the colleges churning out a lot of people every year, the supply side is hugely impressive, unlike the demand. Right now there are almost 8000 engineers and trained dentists sitting at home for many years now.

A few years back, even if the government would not create new positions, it would not alter a grand thumb rule that the government will get almost 10,000 vacancies merely because of deaths and retirements.

The restructuring of a reorganised government saw a lot of changes within and will take a long time to actually understand how it happened. Many windows got closed.

However, the recruitments in police, paramilitary forces and the army continued. Though the new recruitments are not known, almost 2000 youth moved out in the field after a year-long training in different regimental centres across Kashmir and Jammu. Only last week, the Jammu and Kashmir Police have sought applications for almost 800 sub-inspector positions. BSF is in the process of raising a women battalion each for Kashmir and Jammu.

Stumbling Blocks

And the competition for the limited number of posts remains extremely high. Even for the generation of those posts, certain measures have acted as a stumbling block.

Civil Secretariat Jammu.

The increase in retirement ages of people has been one of the factors leading to the drop in the number of posts available. The government employees initially used to retire when they attained an age of 55 years, following which the bar was raised to 58 and then to 60. In certain institutions of higher excellence, the retirement age is 62.

As a result, the posts which would have been rendered vacant after retirement are being occupied for longer durations, thereby forcing the probable candidates to either wait longer or look for employment avenues elsewhere. Though the administration has been pushing for an age slab to reconsider the continuation of its employee, the political decision-making through the security route is triggering more questions than answers.

Extensions

Similarly, in various sectors, particularly in the universities and health institutes, people are given extensions after they have attained the age of superannuation. While, in some cases, it may be mandated due to paucity of experience and probable candidates, but there is an overwhelming majority of people with creditable records waiting on the sidelines for an opportunity. In such cases, the tendency to grant extensions heavily weighs over the employment opportunities for many deserving candidates.

In many places, they are employed on contractual basis with paltry salaries while the senior members are granted extensions.

One such person who wished not to be named has been engaged on a contractual basis for over 15 years in one of the degree colleges in South Kashmir. While there have been assurances from the top about their jobs being made permanent, no headway has been made.

A vast section of the workforce on the government rolls are actually not employees. Most of the colleges are being managed by the contractuals who lack good pay, a service rule, no CP Fund and no leave system. This is almost the same with the huge population that runs Jammu and Kashmir’s public health system. The basic health workers who are literally running the show had to put a huge battle with the system for getting considered as Covid19 warriors.

If all these positions are formalised, Jammu and Kashmir will open up for a huge number of jobs. This, however, sounds unlikely.

Private Sector

Private sector on the other hand, which had taken baby steps to establish itself in last few years, has been dealt severe blows due to successive lockdowns in last three years. The already meek private sector has been in a free fall for most of the last 30 years but the satiation post-2010 has been gruesome.

Private organizations are going for rationing of profit margins, laying off staff, reducing salaries in a bid to keep their businesses afloat.

A deserted view of Lal Chowk Srinagar during the strike against new land laws on Saturday, October 31, 2020. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

ATM guards being supplied to Jammu and Kashmir Bank by a contractor are working on wages far below the Minimum Wages Act.

In the last few years, a number of start-ups, which had started on a note of good promise failed to sustain in an environment of economic uncertainty. It impacts the trend of start-ups and a fall in the number of people they usually engaged.

Most of the private sector is otherwise under pressure from the banks. Not understanding the impact that a series of incidents – unrests in 2008, 2010 and 2016, devastating floods in 2014 and the political situation since 2019, have done to the business, sections within governance structures are keen to use the same set of rules in Srinagar as they will have in Delhi. Right now, one major trader in Srinagar said, “the main objective is to ensure the company accounts does not turn into an NPA. The rest can wait.”

A passing our parade at the JAKLI centre in Srinagar in November 2016

Sustaining Business

Saadat Rafiqi, owner of Parsa’s at the IUST said that he was almost forced to wind up. He said that during the lockdowns, an absence of any business led him to cough up his staff’s salaries from his own pocket.

Although Saadat did not lay off his staff, he reduced their salaries during that time. However, without a running source of income, the salary had to be paid from his personal savings.

“We reduced the salary cap by mutual consent with our staffers. Then, I had to pay their reduced salary from my own savings, whatever little I had,” Saadat said. He had to raise a loan to retain his flock.

When the business activities partially opened, Saadat said some of his fellow restaurateurs applied for loans mortgaging their restaurants in the process, in order to prevent their businesses from going bust.

Another local start-up Lalchowkonline, an online book store that had started its business during the fag end of 2017 also faced a lot of hiccups in the last two and a half years. One of its co-founders, Haseeb Ashai said that their plans to expand to other districts were thrown into total disarray due to the situations that arose in the last three years.

“Although, we are doing okay at the moment, but we have faced lots of problems. We even had to lay off some of our staff.”

Liquidity Crisis

SRO-Kashmir’s founder, Mohammad Afaaq Sayeed said that his organization has received many requests for help from people who were earlier doing well but are now in a state of abject penury. “We have a lot of data of people who have requested us for help with regard to their day to expenses. There are a lot of people who are in financial distress.”

Afaaq in July this year had also shared a post on Facebook about one such incident where a small time shopkeeper had asked for assistance because he was unable to sustain his business.

With the private sector already in shambles and a lack of new avenues, there is a bankruptcy at all levels. Lockdowns for the last three years have meant that people have exhausted all their savings and have no financial cushion to fall back onto.

A former tailor in Bemina area, who wished his identity not be revealed said that he now sells fruits on a cart. He was forced to leave the tailoring business because he could no longer afford the rent of his shop as his business was not able to recover from the shocks of subsequent lockdowns which not only exhausted his savings but also forced him to shut his shop permanently.

Racing for career, Kashmir young girls at a JK Police recruitment rally at Humhama Srinagar in June 2021. Photo: JKP

The Government Says

Lt Governor Manoj Sinha recently said that they will be having Rs 30,000 crore investments by the year end and these investments will create 450,000 jobs.

“My goal is to reach out and engage about 80 per cent of the young population of Jammu and Kashmir within the next five years and make it possible for them to be an engine of growth for the overall socio-economic transformation of the UT,” Lt Governor Sinha told Harvard US India Initiative (HUII) in February 2021.

There are a lot of projects under construction. But neither of these mega-projects is being implemented by the local contractors or the labour force. “On paper, you may have a lot of investments but the fact is it is not tricking in any kind of turnover at a basic level,” one teacher of economics in a college said. “Lack of local handholding is what is missing.”

FinMin Speaks

 Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who is literally the defacto finance minister for Jammu and Kashmir as well, spent two days in Jammu and Kashmir. She said Jammu and Kashmir is “rapidly passing through a developmental phase” and its economy will double in the “next two years”.

Asked specifically about the surging joblessness in Jammu and Kashmir, Sitharaman said it is not a Jammu and Kashmir specific trend but a country wide phenomenon. Several schemes have been launched by the Government to ensure employment to youth, she said, insisting these schemes have resulted in youth being taken back on their jobs by their employers and fresh recruitments done by new units.

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