March 21, 2021

Employment Crisis in West Bengal: A Decade of TMC Governance

Soham Bhattacharya / Manikantha Nataraj

AMIDST the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent series of sporadic lockdowns, the loss of lives and livelihoods in West Bengal have exposed the inherent economic crises that the state’s economy is undergoing. The massive influx of poor migrant workers returning back to the state, seeking help and support from the authorities, has become an unfortunate reality in recent times. A decade long governance by the TMC government in the state has worsened working conditions as well as opportunities of work in West Bengal.

We have compared the employment and unemployment data from the NSSO’s Employment and Unemployment Survey of 2011-12 and Periodic Labour Force Survey of 2018-19 to understand the magnitude of the crisis. More importantly, a cautionary and critical review suggests that the stubborn inaction of the state government along with a systematic informalisation of the workforce has worsened this employment crisis.

There is a three-pronged crisis that the current phase of employment in the state is going through. First, there has been an increase in unemployment in all sectors. But the rate of unemployment is much higher among the educated population. Second, there has been a significant decline in public sector employment, particularly among salaried workers. Third, the incessant attack on any form of collective action, especially through violence perpetrated by state, has attempted to liquidate all forms of job securities of the working people. The principal concern raised in this note is that although the working age population of the state has grown by almost five per cent in the last decade, it has not been complemented by the creation of new jobs.

Unemployment in the workforce aged 15-59 years has increased by three percentage points. In absolute terms, 8.3 lakh people in rural areas and 6.5 lakh in the urban areas are currently seeking work. Significantly, this section has not received even at least one month’s work during 2018-19. The rate of unemployment appears much more shocking when we consider the educated workforce in the state. In rural areas 12 out of every 100 persons in the working-age population, and who have at least completed higher secondary education, are unemployed. This proportion is slightly lower in urban areas, where 10 per cent of the educated working-age population is unemployed. The increase in the rate of unemployment have taken place, from 10 per cent to 13 per cent during 2011-12 to 2018-19, for youth, who are between the ages of 18 to 30 years. The situation is worse for women in the working age population. About 9.3 lakh women in rural West Bengal have lost jobs during the last decade. Considering the fact that the proportion of working age population engaged in education has remained stagnant since 2011 at 22 per cent, this reduction in employment reflects an acute lack of employment opportunities in the State.

Another feature of the last decade in the state’s employment scenario is a significant decline in the share of public sector jobs among the total salaried and regular jobs for the working-age population. During 2011-12, in the rural areas, 37 per cent of all salaried jobs were in state enterprises; it was 31 per cent in the urban areas. However, by 2018-19 there was a sharp decline in employment in the public sector. In 2018-19, only 30 per cent of the all-rural salaried jobs and only 23 per cent of urban salaried jobs remained in the government sector. A specific instance to cite, the state government has deliberately discontinued with the regular employment provision through School Service Commission examinations. Along with this there has been a sharp increase in malpractices and corruption in recruitment. The waves of protests in Kolkata and other places in the state, reflect this demand for fair and just employment. The lack of employment opportunities, on the one hand, and a declining share of relatively better public sector employment, on the other hand, characterises the last decade’s governance of the state government.

The overall pattern of growing crisis in employment in India is characterised by two factors that reinforce each other.  There is an absolute decline in employment opportunities, which is coupled with a push towards greater informalisation of the terms of employment. During the lockdown several of BJP-ruled states have dismantled labour legislation, which will eventually rob workers of the little rights that protect them at the workplace, and which have been gained after heroic struggles. In West Bengal, the liquidation of a strong trade union movement, by violence and by a constant threat from the administration, has eventually led to a crisis of job security even among the salaried. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) has identified an organised/formal work by three criteria: the availability of a written job contract, provision of paid leave and regular mode of payment, and availability of at least one social security benefit (Provident fund, gratuity, etc.). In West Bengal, within the regular salaried jobs, a little over two-thirds of jobs in the urban sector and almost three-fourths of jobs in the rural sector are unorganized in nature, according to these criteria. In the context of the ongoing pandemic, which has disrupted economic activity, even the most secure employment is under risk. The situation is of course far worse for those employed casually. It is obvious that the state government, by acting as a mute spectator, is aiding and abetting the process of informalisation.

Much of the paid media attention has focused on the tussle between the BJP and the TMC on trivial issues, which have no consequence for the people of the state. The two parties’ utter silence on the growing problem of unemployment, reflects their anti-people politics. The TMC’s conduct reflects the reality that the TMC, in the matter of economic policy, is no different from the Narendra Modi regime in the centre. This denial of rights to livelihoods and to decent and secure jobs, debunk Mamata Banerjee’s claims to the so-called welfarism, especially during the pandemic.