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Opinion

Another government database is not going to help India's unemployed

Duplication and inefficiency are rife in IT systems connecting workforce with jobs

| India
Migrant workers wait for transport in Ahmedabad on May 20: it was the lack of local job opportunities that had driven over 100 million people in India to migrate.   © Reuters

Medha Uniyal is a social entrepreneur who co-heads an India-based nonprofit focused on rural workforce development and entrepreneurship.

As lockdown sent India's unemployment rate soaring from 7.8% to 22% and millions of famished migrant workers walked back to their villages, the Indian government had an unexpected response to the problem: collecting data.

It unveiled an ambitious plan of skill mapping -- surveying its very large workforce to determine their abilities, potential mobility and experience for future employment. The government said its intention was to "provide workers with job opportunities closer to their homes," while not addressing the problem that it was the very lack of local job opportunities that had driven over 100 million people in India to migrate.

Within a week of the announcement, over 6 million internal migrants and 15,000 migrant workers repatriated from abroad had registered on the skills database. However, the endeavor would likely have been greeted with much more enthusiasm if it had not been the latest uninspired reboot of past policies.

India, it seems, continues prioritizing setting up databases rather than creating jobs.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party came into power in 2014 with the agenda of creating jobs. Within six months, it had set up a Ministry of Skill Development, which immediately announced a grandiose plan to assess and map the skills of 402 million workers, or the entire workforce, by 2022.

In the same year, different ministries launched two other initiatives to collect the information of all job-seekers, leading to a triplication of effort. The Ministry of Labour launched the National Career Service and the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprise launched the Digital Employment Exchange.

Both intended to connect workers to jobs, however with one difference -- the former connects job-seekers to any enterprise while the latter connects job-seekers only to enterprises with less than 25 employees.

It took over a year for the two departments to notice similarities and integrate their systems, perfectly demonstrating the complete lack of communication between independent departments and central and state governments.

This is not to say that India is not in need of reliable data about its workforce or that the workforce itself does not need information about jobs. Bridging this information imbalance is crucial to India as it undergoes multiple transitions: from farm to nonfarm, rural to urban, unorganized to organized and school to work. On average 4.75 million youths entered the workforce each year between 2012 and 2015.

Job seekers fill up forms for registration during a job fair in Chinchwad in February 2019: on average 4.75 million youths entered the workforce each year.   © Reuters

Even today, most of India's hiring is managed informally, through personal connections or labor contractors. Middlemen, to maintain their positions, block the free flow of information -- to young people, who receive incomplete details about jobs, wages and choices of cities for relocation, and to employers, who are unable to pick the best candidates.

The ubiquity of informal hiring testifies to the failure of the government's interventions which have not kept jobs at their heart. For instance, the Ministry of Skill Development's initiative to reach 400 million people had to lower its target and only reached 3.3 million workers in five years.

Successes, so far, have come from initiatives with either a government push of offering benefits to workers or a private sector pull by drawing in employers with job offers. The government-run Building and Other Construction Worker registration scheme attracted 35 million construction workers, out of 50 million total, by increasing the ease of accessing social entitlement benefits through just one application instead of many.

Private attempts like the National Skills Registry by NASSCOM, an Indian IT trade association, had quick success with their strong industry links, which brought jobs and worker registrations. Newer job portals are a faster version of the same, with more options.

In the last five years, there has been a proliferation of matching portals for blue-collar workers -- many of which draw in over a million users a month. Yet despite the surge in mobile phone ownership, these portals have a long way to go in the absence of digital literacy and with a trust deficit about urban jobs, for which fake offers are common, which personal networks help mitigate.

What this sector needs are community-based platforms with better digital support; the clear pull of jobs and employment-linked social entitlements; and a shift from being statutory data-collectors to service providers which help young people to receive useful information in return for giving up their data.

India cannot launch another initiative to collect labor information, learn nothing new and relaunch it. It does not lack ambition, but is falling short in imagination as it continues to repurpose databases as an end, rather than the means to an end they are supposed to be.

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