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100,000 applicants for 400 jobs shows fault lines in India's economic miracle
Agence France Presse - February 6, 2011
New Delhi – Last week 100,000 jobseekers traveled to a small northern Indian town for a recruitment fair that ended in tragedy, revealing much about the limitations of the country's economic boom.
The crowd of mostly young men converged on the town of Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, crammed into all forms of transport, many of them traveling hours from states across the deeply impoverished plains of north India.
On offer was the chance of joining the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. A paltry 416 jobs were available as washermen, barbers, water carriers and other lowly positions with a starting salary of 5,200 rupees ($115) a month.
This remarkable turnout for so few vacancies might have gone unreported except for violence when applicants grew frustrated with the registration process and a gruesome accident as the disappointed hordes headed home. Returning on the roof of a train that had been filled far beyond its capacity, 18 men were killed when they failed to react in time to a low-hanging bridge.
The blame game that erupted afterwards highlighted problems common to accidents in India.
But the events in Bareilly send deeper signals about the Indian economy, social change and poverty and tell a different story from the 9 percent growth figures and hype about the country as a world economic power.
"Right now, the problem of unemployment has not fully appeared, but it's a bomb in a dormant state," said J. Manohar Rao, an author on development and professor of economics at the University of Hyderabad.
He describes a cocktail of steep food inflation of nearly 20 percent that is causing severe hardship in rural areas, a fast-growing young workforce and slow development of the industries that could generate mass employment.
"These people at the jobs fair, they are not completely uneducated farm workers like before," he said.
"They are half-educated and they have a feeling of being educated. They have feelings of pride and they don't feel like working in the fields.
"Their expectations are rising, their aspirations are increasing, but the market is not providing."
While nobody suggests India is in danger of the sort of upheaval seen in the Arab world recently, warnings about population growth, unemployment and rising aspirations sound particularly ominous in the current context.
Rao, like other experts, including the chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, Javeed Alam, underlines that India's economic boom has been driven by IT and services and high-end manufacturing.
These have conferred prestige on India and there have been plaudits for its economic growth rate, but what the country needs is the development of an industrial sector that can employ millions of jobless farm workers.
The unemployment rate for 2009-10, according to the state Labor Bureau, was 9.4 percent nationwide, rising to 10.1 percent in rural areas, where two-thirds of the 1.2 billion population live.
"This exodus from villages is people looking for low-skilled or semi-skilled jobs."
Derek Scissors, an Asia economics expert at The Heritage Foundation, says underemployment as well as unemployment is endemic in rural areas.
He believes the Bareilly employment fair also shows how cheap transport and communications have changed India.
"People in rural areas have much better information about what's going on far away from them. That's a good thing most of the time," he said.
"On the other hand, you can get mass movements of people across the country and they can overwhelm the ability of any environment to handle them."