The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

India’s job crisis is worse than people thought — and its government tried to squelch the data

People crowd into a job fair organized by the employment department of the Delhi state government in New Delhi on Jan. 21, 2019. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

NEW DELHI — As Indians prepare to vote in national elections later this spring, one burning question has dominated the debate over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s track record: Has he fulfilled his promise to create jobs for millions of people?

Anecdotal evidence suggests the answer is no: College graduates have been applying for menial jobs by the millions, and daily laborers report that work and wages are declining. A private survey recently showed that the number of people working shrank by 11 million in 2018.

But the government has insisted the jobs picture is healthy. Plus, some officials said, the gold standard of employment data in India is a nationwide survey conducted by the Ministry of Statistics. Until this week, those figures were a closely held secret.

Now that data has been leaked — and it’s bad.

According to a report first published in the Business Standard, an Indian financial newspaper, the nationwide unemployment rate rose to 6.1 percent in 2018, a 45-year high. It’s also nearly triple the jobless rate in 2012, the last time this type of survey was conducted.

The statistics on youth unemployment are even more striking. The jobless rate for young men in rural areas spiked to 17.7 percent since 2012. For young men in cities, it more than doubled, to 18.7 percent.

To say this is a political problem for the Modi government is an understatement. Modi was elected on promises of ushering in “achhe din” — good times — and rising unemployment is a major disadvantage in making his pitch for reelection.

On Friday, the Modi government used its last budget before the polls to offer an array of voter-pleasing measures, including tax breaks and income grants for poor farmers. Piyush Goyal, the minister who presented the budget, defended the government’s track record on job creation by citing a source that economists say is deficient and reflects only a fraction of the economy.

The bad news in the nationwide employment data is only one part of the problem: The government also tried to prevent such figures from becoming public. The jobs report was approved by India’s National Statistical Commission in December, according to its acting chairman. The normal procedure is that the data gets released five days later, said Pronab Sen, the country’s former chief statistician.

Weeks passed and the report did not appear. Then, earlier this week, two members of the statistical commission, including the chair, P.C. Mohanan, resigned in protest — an unprecedented move in India’s statistical community. (When contacted, Mohanan declined to comment.)

India’s government did not deny the accuracy of the job figures reported by the Business Standard. But senior officials at NITI Aayog, the policy-planning arm of the government, held a news conference where they said the leaked data was neither finalized nor comparable to earlier surveys.

Both claims are untrue, Sen said. The policy-planning arm “has absolutely no business in holding forth on the data,” which falls under the purview of the statistics ministry. “Frankly, in my opinion, it was bizarre.”

The furor over the jobs data adds to a broader sense of unease over the Modi government’s handling of statistics. Late last year it revised the way gross domestic product was calculated, to the disquiet of some economists. The updated figures downgraded the economy’s performance during the previous government and elevated it during the Modi years.

While India’s statistical apparatus is far from perfect, it had functioned relatively free of interference, Sen said, particularly with surveys that involve primary data collection, such as the employment survey. Now the “impression you’re giving to the world is that the data put out is the data the government wants put out.”

Meanwhile, the leaked employment data suggests that whoever wins the next election will continue to have a massive challenge ahead. Within two years, the number of people in India between the ages of 15 and 34 will reach nearly 500 million. The share of the working-age population is expected to continue growing for the next 15 to 20 years — a rare opportunity for any country to boost its economic development.

But rising joblessness among young people threatens that scenario.

“What this data tells us is that we’re basically squandering the demographic dividend,” said Radhicka Kapoor, an economist at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. “The problem that is staring us in the face is youth unemployment, and that’s what we need to address.”