Interview: ‘We have underestimated the extent of India’s jobs crisis. It is far more serious’

and gosh. one more frikking q&a.

On Thursday, a political storm boiled over after Business Standard reported that, between 2017-’18, unemployment numbers in India reached a 45-year high. The newspaper based its report on a survey, conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation, called the Periodic Labour Force Survey that the government had not made public. 

According to the report, the country’s unemployment rate climbed from 2.2% in 2011-’12 to 6.1% in 2018-’18. Once disaggregated, these numbers look even worse. Joblessness is higher in urban areas than rural areas – 7.8% versus 5.3%. For instance, unemployment among rural men in the age group of 15-29 years rose from 5% in 2011-’12 to 17.4%. 

The report corroborated what the government’s critics have been saying – that demonetisation and the ham-handed rollout of the Goods and Services Tax have resulted in large job losses. In a press conference called on Thursday evening, the government hit back. It claimed other datasets – like that of Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation – show employment in the economy is rising. At the event, Amitabh Kant, the chief executive officer of Niti Aayog, also suggested results of the Periodic Labour Force Survey, based on a new methodology which conducts quarterly surveys, is not comparable with older NSSO surveys.

Do these various reasons offered as defence hold up to scrutiny? Scroll.in asked Himanshu, an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Excerpts from an interview.

On the six factors which cumulatively added up to India’s unprecedented cash squeeze

India’s current cash crunch is a real enigma.

To begin with, there is its sheer unprecedented nature. In all the years since Independence, India has never seen something like it. “We have heard of coin shortages but never a cash shortage,” said MS Sriram, visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore’s Centre for Public Policy. “I certainly have not in my life. This is new.”

How the shortage played out is odd too. It is acute in some states but not in others. For instance, in Tura, the largest town in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills, an official at the main State Bank of India office, which disburses cash to the bank’s other branches in the region, told Scroll.in that cash reserves had dwindled to almost a fifth of the required amount. “There is pressure from other branches to release money, but we have not been able to give even half of what they have been demanding,” the official said.

A clutch of other states – including Bihar, Assam, Maharashtra, Telangana and Karnataka – are facing shortages too. But states like Delhi are less affected.

The discrepancy is visible within states too. In Maharashtra, Mumbai is fine but Nashik is not. In Tamil Nadu, big banks in Hosur say they are getting all the money they need but their counterparts in surrounding villages say the situation is bad. “We contact our sister branches to see if any of them has surplus cash,” said the manager of a public-sector bank in Belathur, a village about 20 km west of Hosur.

There are other puzzles. The cash squeeze showed up not gradually but suddenly. Reports began coming in from several states from February. If the cash squeeze was only due to a growing mismatch between cash supply and the demands of the growing economy, it should have shown up gradually, experts say.

As a report in Scroll.in noted earlier this month, several theories emerged to explain the shortage, covering the gamut from obvious to plausible to off-the-wall. Shortly afterwards, several Scroll.in reporters fanned out across the country, speaking to people in both cities and villages, to try to identify the genesis of this shortage.

Here is what we found.

Out today, with my colleagues Abhishek Dey, Mridula Chari, Vinita Govindrajan and Arunabh Saikia, a more deeply reported piece (than the previous one) which seeks to trace this cash squeeze back to its (idiotic) origins. Do read.

‘Is the pain worth it?’: 50 days after demonetisation, rural South India has a few questions

On November 9, life suddenly came to a standstill in Chikka Tirupathi, Bagalur and Hosur. As in the rest of India, the first day of demonetisation in these towns abutting the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border was marked by problems in conducting day-to-day trading for small businesses and a frenzied hunt for Rs 100 notes for families.

The response to the government action was mixed on that first day. As the cash crunch sank in, small traders figured out that their businesses would take a hit until they replaced their Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. Slightly larger enterprises, such as Jivita who runs a tailoring shop in Bagalur in Karnataka, were more optimistic. “We have enough money for rotation [working capital] for a week,” she said.

On the whole, it was a day of uncertainty. Notebandi was a sweeping decision. People weren’t sure how long it would take to exchange their old cash and for the situation to return to normal. At a branch of the Indian Bank in Bagalur, a bank official was calm. “We will open tomorrow morning,” he said. “People can come with their passbooks and exchange their notes.”

On December 28, Scroll.in travelled the 30 km stretch between Chikka Tirupathi and Hosur one more time. How were people we spoke to on Day One doing on Day 50?

That is it. The last story of 2016. It has been a good year. Intense and packed with learning. Now to see what 2017 is like.

Happy new year, too. 🙂

An update from Patna’s Maroofganj mandi

ten days into #notebandi, patna’s Maroofganj mandi had frozen.

As demonetisation enters its second week, traders in Patna’s Maroofganj mandi are seeing something unprecedented.

In the last seven days, the supply of new stocks in this wholesale market, which supplies cooking oil, spices, rice, wheat and pulses to shopkeepers across Patna, has plummeted. The supply of cooking oil, for instance, is down by 80%.

Talk to traders selling spices, grains or pulses and you hear similar numbers. “Do you see how quiet this market is?” said an accountant at a rice shop. “Till 10 days ago, you would not have been able to walk down this street.”

In the same period, orders from shopkeepers have fallen steeply as well. Most of them cannot buy as much stock as before, said Abhijit Kumar, who runs a wholesale shop for spices, because they have only Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes – both derecognised as legal tender by the government.

The strange thing is: despite the contraction in both supply and demand, commodity prices are stable.

30 days later, around the 10th of December, i went back to the mandi seeking an update on how it is doing. Here is what we found.

Dilip Kumar Singh said the situation at the mandi was the result of some traders travelling to Gaya, Muzaffarpur and beyond to take advantage of low prices in parts of the hinterland. However, the traders this reporter met denied this. Instead, they flagged other concerns.

Sanjib Kesari, a wholesaler, said business had improved and more customers were now coming to the mandi. Prices, too, were moving – cooking oil, for instance, had risen Rs 3-Rs 4 in the last 20 or so days. But, the situation was nowhere near normal.

Wholesalers’ volumes remain modest. According to them, two factors are at work…

The lid on illegal sand mining in TN might finally be lifted (but perhaps for the wrong reasons)