As West Bengal approaches voting day, chief minister Mamata Banerjee is increasingly bragging about having created 12 million jobs during her 10-year rule. Trinamool Congress (TMC) billboards in Kolkata laud her for drastically reducing the state’s unemployment rate. These claims fly in the face of some rather grim data that Mamata’s rivals are using to question her report card on employment and livelihood creation, especially for the youth.
As of date, the state’s employment exchanges have nearly 3.5 million registered job-seekers, having added 100,000 people in 2020 alone. Data from government departments indicates that over 200,000 permanent posts are vacant. Another 150,000 teaching posts in government schools are yet to be filled. If it’s any consolation, many states have done worse, including, for example, highly industrialised Haryana, where unemployment stood at a staggering 26.4 per cent in February 2021, according to the CMIE (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy). At 6.9 per cent, the national average for the same month was also marginally worse than West Bengal’s 6.2 per cent.
It’s not as if no government jobs were created in Bengal, but critics argue that the bulk of it were contractual. “In the past decade, instead of permanent appointments, more than 200,000 people were hired as contract or casual (no work, no pay) workers in the government,” says a former state bureaucrat, on condition of anonymity. Moloy Mukherjee, general secretary of the Congress-affiliated Confederation of State Government Employees, claims that by recruiting 225,000 people on contract or casual basis, including superannuated employees, the Mamata government has saved more than half the expense of having permanent staff. Adds the former bureaucrat, “The expenses on contractual workforce have been around Rs 2,000 crore a year whereas permanent employees would have cost the state exchequer over Rs 4,500 crore a year.”
With a debt burden of Rs 4.31 lakh crore and over Rs 55,000 crore spent on debt servicing in 2019-20, the Mamata government perhaps didn’t have the fiscal elbow room to do any better. “For 2020-21, the government is spending around Rs 5,000 crore a month on the salaries of 800,000 government employees,” says a state finance department official. This is despite the number of permanent government employees falling over the years, because Sixth Pay Commission grades have been introduced and dearness allowance has been increased. The last Left Front government had spent about Rs 3,000 crore a month on the salaries of a million government employees and pensioners.
Contractual government service in Bengal is broadly of three types. In the first category are those workers who draw meagre salaries but are entitled to the same number of leaves as regular staff, a 3 per cent annual increment, continuity of service till age 60 and a one-time grant of Rs 3 lakh on retirement. Another category is of contract workers on the rolls through a government agency, WEBEL (West Bengal Electronics Industry Development Corporation Limited), and mostly appointed to lower grade posts, such as clerks and peons.
A third category of employment is on no work, no pay basis and mostly consists of home guards and peons. Apart from this, ‘data entry operators’ are also hired, albeit on piecemeal basis and allegedly on the recommendations of politicians. According to a state finance official, what complicates the job hunt is that contractual/ casual positions are rarely advertised in prominent dailies and the ads do not always explicitly mention that the hiring is for the government.
Recruitments are often not transparent. In 2013, the Mamata government announced it would appoint 130,000 civic police volunteers on contract to help with traffic regulation, crowd management and other duties. This even as the police department was battling an acute manpower shortage and 37,000 sanctioned posts lay vacant. In 2016, the Calcutta High Court censured the civic police appointments as arbitrary. Citing the case of a police station in Bankura district, the judge hearing the case wondered how 1,464 candidates could have been interviewed and appointment letters issued to the successful ones within 24 hours. The court declared the entire recruitment void and instructed the government to streamline it.
A year on, when the Mamata government challenged the order, Calcutta High Court acting chief justice Nishita Matre wanted to know how the administration expected the civic police volunteers to supplement the short-staffed state police without being given adequate powers. Last November, a court petition sought restraint orders on civic police hires by the state government, alleging the ulterior motive of misusing them during the assembly poll.
Experts more kindly inclined to the cash-strapped state government’s efforts to mitigate the jobs crisis feel it deserves praise. “The government has ensured continuity of service for contractual staff, which is almost the same as holding a permanent job. Given the huge pool of unemployed people and the limited financial resources, the government adopted the strategy of providing jobs to as many as possible by accommodating three people against one post,” says Abhirup Sarkar, professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. Sarkar has headed several advisory committees of the state finance department.
Refuting the charge of widespread unemployment under Mamata’s rule, education minister Partha Chatterjee says: “Around 16.3 million people got 2,493 million man-days of work under MGNREGA. There are nearly 8.9 million small businesses operational in Bengal today, which employ 13.5 million people compared to 3.46 million in 2012. The number of factories has shown a 15 per cent increase (between 2010 and 2020) and the average earnings of factory workers are up 77 per cent.”
While Chatterjee’s education department has provisioned for high number of contractual jobs at the Group D (lowest rung) level, thousands of school-teaching posts remain vacant. In November last year, Mamata announced that 16,500 primary/ upper primary teaching posts would be filled from among the 20,000 who had cleared the Teacher Eligibility Test, but the pre-election move was stalled through a high court petition.
Apart from this, some 30,000 MPhils and doctorates are hoping to be empanelled as college teachers through the West Bengal College Service Commission. One such aspirant from Daspur in West Midnapore, whose wait has been four years long, alleges rampant corruption in the process. “In my village, ruling party leaders demand hefty bribes to get anyone empanelled, Rs 10-15 lakh for primary/ upper primary teaching posts and Rs 25-40 lakh for college teaching posts,” he says. A retired government employee in East Midnapore claims young men in his village had to pay lakhs to get civic police appointments. “First, they paid bribes to be recruited, and now give ‘hafta’ from their monthly salaries. Do you think they will still vote for the ruling party?” he asks.
Indrajit Ghosh, a leader of the CPI(M)-affiliated Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), alleges that recruitment scams are not limited to the education department, and that even question papers of the West Bengal Civil Services (WBCS) examination get leaked. “The candidate who topped the 2017 WBCS exam had secured 13 marks in the prelims while the cut-off was 126. He was going to be appointed when a hue and cry put a stop to it,” claims Ghosh.
The job hunt has been equally arduous for scores of others. Around 1.3 million applicants to government clerical posts haven’t got a call since 2018. Another 600,000 who applied for the posts of police constable and sub-inspector haven’t had much luck either. Shrinking prospects have forced even the well-educated to apply for unconventional jobs, such as of dead body-handlers in the post-mortem wing at Malda Medical College in 2017. “Around 300 people had applied for two vacancies. Each one was a graduate and one out of every four was highly educated,” says P. Kundu, principal, Malda Medical College.
The young (age 18-35 years) make up nearly half of Bengal’s 100 million population. Jobs and credible livelihood options are what they aspire for rather than subsisting on government doles and allowances, such as the Yuvasree assistance under which 181,000 unemployed people are getting Rs 1,500 a month. A one-time assistance of Rs 1,000 announced by the Mamata government last year benefitted 223,000 migrant workers who returned to West Bengal during the Covid lockdown. While over Rs 22 crore has been spent on the scheme, conservative government estimates put the number of migrant families at about 1.2 million. But a senior labour department official says the actual number of migrants could be as high as 3-4 million.
The Mamata government also runs livelihood schemes for the unemployed and has extended credit to 350,000 unemployed women to start micro enterprises. Mamata’s thrust is on the IT hub at Rajarhat in North 24 Parganas. She has promised to bring in Rs 3,000 crore worth of investment and create 40,000 IT jobs.
Against this, the BJP is promising the youth of Bengal real economic empowerment and development through a “double-engine government” (BJP rule at the Centre and in states, like in Assam, Bihar and Tripura). At the March 7 rally in Kolkata, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said ashol poriborton (real change) will come to Bengal only when opportunities open up for the youth and there is industrial resurgence. He announced that jobs will be created by wooing investors with modern infrastructure. “Amit Shah has already assured Bengal that employment will be a big priority if the BJP comes to power. Government employees will get Seventh Pay Commission grades and women 33 per cent reservation in government jobs. Around 400,000 fishermen will be provided Rs 6,000 every year, like farmers,” says BJP leader Diptangshu Choudhury.
Mamata is countering the BJP’s promises by claiming that the Tripura government has resorted to massive job cuts. “Take a train to Tripura, talk to rickshaw-pullers and grocers, and find out how they blundered by bringing the BJP to power,” a belligerent Mamata roared at a rally in Bardhaman on February 5. But what about the common refrain among Bengal’s youth: ‘Where are the jobs?’