Saturday, February 7, 2015

The employment/ unemployment conundrum

Sikkim, used to awards and all round appreciation, ended the year 2014 with the rather disconcerting broadcast that it has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Needless to add, this created quite a flutter, much embarrassment, quick denials and strong criticism.
This statistic is also in contradiction with other socioeconomic indicators of the State since Sikkim does boast a very high per capita income and has registered growth of a faster clip than most other states of the country. While in eyes of the lay people, employment and unemployment are clear cut identifiers, in the hands of data crunchers, it becomes a complicated status update. This leads to contradicting reports and widely different projections by different agencies. The unemployment rate in Sikkim also appears caught in a similar conundrum.
The matter came into limelight in the first week of January 2015 when the fourth Annual Employment & Unemployment Survey Report for 2013-14 was released by the Labour Bureau of the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment. This report announced that maximum unemployment was found in Sikkim at 158 persons per 1,000, followed by Arunachal Pradesh at 140, Kerala at 118, Tripura at 116 and Goa at 106. Apart from attracting sniggers at the expense of State Government’s claims of development, the report also provided fodder for political barbs. Be that as it may, the matter brought an important issue to fore – even if the Labour Bureau report is flawed, it cannot be denied that Sikkim lacks accurate data on the number of unemployed people in the State. By now, especially given Sikkim’s small size, the government should have developed a detailed directory of its employable youth, segregated into the level of skills and qualification.
On its part, the ruling party has demanded that a comprehensive employment-unemployment survey be carried out in the State. This is likely to happen in the next State Socio-Economic Census.
Meanwhile, responding to the Labour Bureau report, Lok Sabha MP PD Rai has rejected it as “flawed and self-contradictory”. He has enumerated what the ruling party sees as “anomalies” in the report and demanded that the State Government take cognizance of this and a full-fledged comprehensive employment-unemployment survey be conducted in the next State Socio-Economic Census.
Mr. Rai informs that traditionally, the National Sample Survey Organisation conducts the employment-unemployment survey, but it is undertaken only every five years. Owing to their vast experience in conducting surveys, NSSO data was often considered by planning bodies in framing policies. Other sources of unemployment data include Census 2011 and the Sixth Economic Census (2013). While Labour Bureau and NSSO are sample based surveys, Census is comprehensive in its data.
Mr. Rai also pointed out that the Labour Bureau had first pointed that Sikkim has the highest unemployment in its third report- for the year 2012-13. However, this data along with the current data, is in contradiction to various other sources of unemployment data like NSSO (66th round for 2009-10 and 68th round for 2011-12), Census 2011 and Sixth Economic Census (2013), he points out. “All these reports had given different figures of unemployment in Sikkim and we noticed that Labour Bureau's data has been inconsistent from that given by other reports,” he states.
He adds: “This is the fourth report produced by the Labour Bureau which started conducting such surveys from 2010, due to global economic scenario. The findings of the survey for Sikkim are based on a sample size of 1773 with 953 people in rural areas and 820 people in urban areas providing the responses.”
The NSSO website meanwhile informs that its all-India household survey collected information on various facets of employment and unemployment in India through a schedule of enquiry (Schedule 10) adopting the “established concepts, definitions and procedures”.
And even as the Labour Bureau report was making the rounds, a World Bank report on ‘Social Inclusion and Sustainable Development in Himachal Pradesh’ revealed that Sikkim stands first in rural female labour force participation in the country.

The different agencies and even different political parties can keep arguing over which data is accurate, and even as this argument stretches out, what cannot be lost sight of is how Sikkim, its government departments and even lay people understand the status of being “employed”. While NOW! was working on this story, it came to understand that in Sikkim, employed means only those who are regular employees serving under government departments and undertakings! Everyone else qualifies to get an unemployed certificate, and hence, by definition, get counted as unemployed. According to the Department of Personnel [DoP], at present Sikkim has more than 40,000 regular government employees who get counted under the existing “definition” of “employed”.
“This is the situation in Sikkim where only regular government employees are regarded as employed,” confirmed the Department of Personnel Secretary AK Chettri when contacted for comment.
He also made it a point to challenge the Labour Bureau’s figures collected by National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) under Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, contending that the figures were totally wrong and could tarnish the image of the State.
The Department of Labour, Sikkim, was also in a flap and confused over how the Labour Bureayu arrived at its findings.
“Our office was never contacted in this regard,” said a senior official of the Labour Department here.
As one digs deeper into the issue, it transpires that data maintenance on such matters is extremely poor in Government departments. The DoP, regarded to be the nodal agency for government employee data, for instance, does not even have the exact figures of “regular” employees on the government roll. It appears that DoP maintains records of only the gazette officers, with the non-gazetted employee records being maintained by individual departments. There is no agency which maintains any updated record on the unemployed. Earlier, the “employment card” issued unemployed job-seekers used to be issued by the DoP, but now the responsibility has been passed on district administration. There does not appear to be any working system in place for centralized data collection.
“We have asked all departments to submit the list of its employees but no complete data has reached our office till date,” a senior DoP official said, adding that it is a similar silence on updates from the districts on “employment cards” issued.
It is further learned that the Department of Economics, Statistics, Monitoring & Evaluation [DESME] is compiling data on unemployment and that this is expected to be made public shortly.
As things stand then, DoP, on 07 November 2013, submitted a figure of 34,151 persons as unemployed, to the Chief Minister’s Office. This is the number of people who had been issued with local [un]employment cards. Interestingly, this figure also counted the 3,187 Muster Roll employees who have been on government payroll for more than 15 years and whose services were recently regularized, and also those still serving as MR, Adhoc, Workcharged and employees having employment card but serving under various private institutions.
The Labour Department, in turn, which is responsible to register the numbers of casual labourer’s figure working in Sikkim recorded 23,991 labourers all over Sikkim under Sikkim Labour Protection Act in its 2013-14 annual report.

The state of being unemployed needs to be defined first for Sikkim. Universally, “unemployed state” is defined as: ‘An economic condition marked by the fact that individuals actively seeking jobs remain unhired. Unemployment is expressed as a percentage of the total available work force. The level of unemployment varies with economic conditions and other circumstances.”
The Census of 1991 offers an interesting insight if this definition is used. As per Census 1991, only 1,864 persons [which was less than one per cent of Sikkim’s population at the time] admitted to be looking for jobs. Analysts remark that this number could be an underestimation. That said, the same data, when expanded to cover employability of job-seekers, revealed that one-third of those looking for work [in 1991] were illiterate. The Census of 1991 further records that as one moves up the scale of education, the rate of unemployment falls. But then will come the question of how many of these “employed” persons are under-employed in Sikkim. So there you have it, the issues of employment and the condition of being unemployed present a complicated challenge, but a challenge that Sikkim’s policy makers will be best advised to approach from all possible angles, especially since skill development and the opening of employment opportunities figure so high in the priority list of government interventions.

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