When the COVID-19
pandemic made the Indian government impose one of the strictest lockdowns in a country
of a billion people, the man on the street was caught unaware. Reliant on small
businesses, bereft of financial security, the Indian worker, mostly migrant,
was thrown out on the street at a time being on the street was illegal.

Indian workers,
who had migrated from the country’s vast rural ramparts, to make a little space
for themselves in tiny rooms of sprawling slums in Indian metropolises, had
lost everything and returned home, having walked miles on foot. Now, a couple
of years later, not many Indian workers are looking for jobs.

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Centre for
Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a Mumbai-based private research firm, has
found that more and more Indians are quitting the Indian labour force,
especially women. The data obtained by the firm show that labour force
participation in India dropped from 46% to 40% in the last five years.

For women, the
numbers are starker. With 21 million women having quit the workforce, only 9%
of the eligible population is currently employed or seeking employment.

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Nearly 900 million
Indians, roughly the populations of the United States and Russia put together,
don’t want a job anymore, according to CMIE. This, at a time when one of the
world’s fastest-growing economies was relying on its demographic dividend to
escape the middle-income trap which has been the fate of many industrialising
economies such as South Africa and Brazil.

Two-thirds of the
Indian population is aged between 18 and 64 now, a prime age for the world’s
largest democracy to make the switch from a developing to a developed nation.
But the kind of jobs available in India are letting down the young.

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In a swiftly
privatising economy, with the political establishment focused on
disinvestment, millions line up to score the few “stable” government jobs.
Engineering colleges, which have cropped up on every streetcorner, and are
attracting millions of applications every year. But the engineers aren’t
finding jobs or aren’t getting jobs they like.

A transition away
from agriculture, a sector which continues to employ the largest number of Indians,
will require India to create 90 million non-farm jobs within 2030, a report by
McKinsey Global Institute published in 2020 said. For this, India’s GDP will
need to grow 8-8.5% annually.

But despite tech
giants, such as Apple and Amazon, making their way into the country, India’s
dependency ratio, the demographic indicator gives insight into the number of
people of nonworking age, compared with the number of those of working age, is set
to rise.

Further, the
moving away of women from active workforce is an indication of a deep sociological
malaise and threatens to undo the work done to reduce gender inequalities over
the last three decades. “Women do not join the labour force in many numbers
because jobs are often not kind to them,” said Mahesh Vyas of CMIE.

“For example, men
are willing to change trains to reach their job. Women are less likely to be
willing to do that. This is happening on a very large scale,” Vyas told Bloomberg.
Despite women making up 49% of India’s population, they contribute only 18% of
its economic output, nearly half the global average. This, however, is also due
to the disproportionate pressure on women to do unpaid domestic work.