NEW DELHI (AP) — As India’s economy grew, the hum of factories turned the sleepy, dusty village of Manesar into a booming industrial hub, cranking out everything from cars and sinks to smartphones and tablets. But jobs have run scarce over the years, prompting more and more workers to line up along the road for work, desperate to earn money.
Every day, Sugna, a young woman in her early 20s who goes by her first name, comes with her husband and two children to the city’s labor chowk — a bazaar at the junction of four roads where hundreds of workers gather daily at daybreak to plead for work. It’s been days since she or her husband got work and she has only five rupees (six cents) in hand.
Scenes like this are an everyday reality for millions of Indians, the most visible signs of economic distress in a country where raging unemployment is worsening insecurity and inequality between the rich and poor. It’s perhaps Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biggest challenge as the country marks 75 years of independence from British rule on Monday.
“We get work only once or twice a week,” said Sugna, who says she earned barely 2,000 rupees ($25) in the past five months. “What should I do with a life like this? If I live like this, how will my children live any better?”
Entire families leave their homes in India’s vast rural hinterlands to camp at such bazaars, found in nearly every city. Out of the many gathered in Manesar recently, only a lucky few got work for the day — digging roads, laying bricks and sweeping up trash for meager pay — about 80% of Indian workers toil in informal jobs including many who are self-employed.
India’s phenomenal transformation from an impoverished nation in 1947 into an emerging global power whose $3 trillion economy is Asia’s third largest has turned it into a major exporter of things like software and vaccines. Millions have escaped poverty into a growing, aspirational middle class as its high-skilled sectors have soared.
“It’s extraordinary — a poor country like India wasn’t expected to succeed in such sectors,” said Nimish Adhia, an economics professor at Manhattanville College.
This year, the economy is forecast to expand at a 7.4% annual pace, according to the International Monetary Fund, making it one of the world’s fastest growing.
But even as India’s economy swells, so has joblessness. The unemployment rate remains at 7% to 8% in recent months. Only 40% of working age Indians are employed, down from 46% five years ago, the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) says.
“If you look at a poor person in 1947 and a poor person now, they are far more privileged today. However if you look at it between the haves and the have nots, that chasm has grown,” said Gayathri Vasudevan, chairperson of LabourNet, a social enterprise.
“While India continues to grow well, that growth is not generating enough jobs – crucially, it is not creating enough good quality jobs,” said Mahesh Vyas, chief executive at CMIE. Only 20% of jobs in India are in the formal sector, with regular wages and security, while most others are precarious and low-quality with few to no benefits.
That’s partly because agriculture remains the mainstay, with about 40% of workers engaged in farming.
As workers lost jobs in cities during the pandemic, many flocked back to farms, pushing up the numbers. “This didn’t necessarily improve productivity – but you’re employed as a farmer. It’s disguised unemployment,” Vyas said.
With independence from Britain in 1947, the country’s leaders faced a formidable task: GDP was a mere 3% of the world’s total, literacy rates stood at 14% and the average life expectancy was 32 years, said Adhia.
By the most recent measures, literacy stands at 74% and life expectancy at 70 years. Dramatic progress came with historic reforms in the 1990s that swept away decades of socialist control over the economy and spurred remarkable growth.
The past few decades inspired comparisons to China as foreign investment poured in, exports thrived and new industries — like information technology – were born. But India, a latecomer to offshoring by Western multinationals, is struggling to create mass employment through manufacturing. And it faces new challenges in plotting a way forward.
Financing has tended to flow into profitable, capital intensive sectors like petrol, metal and chemicals. Industries employing large numbers of workers, like textiles and leather work, have faltered. This trend continued through the pandemic: despite Modi’s 2014 ‘Make in India’ pitch to turn the country into another factory floor for the world, manufacturing now employs around 30 million. In 2017, it employed 50 million, according to CMIE data.
As factory and private sector employment shrink, young jobseekers increasingly are targeting government jobs, coveted for their security, prestige and benefits.
Some, like 21-year-old Sahil Rajput, view such work as a way out of poverty. Rajput has been fervently preparing for a job in the army, working in a low-paid data-entry job to afford private coaching to become a soldier and support his unemployed parents.
But in June, the government overhauled military recruitment to cut costs and modernize, changing long-term postings into four-year contracts after which only 25% of recruits will be retained. That move triggered weeks of protests, with young people setting vehicles on fire.
Rajput knows he might not be able to get a permanent army job. “But I have no other options,” he said. “How can I dream of a future when my present is in tatters?”
The government is banking on technology, a rare bright spot, to create new jobs and opportunities. Two decades ago, India became an outsourcing powerhouse as companies and call centers boomed. An explosion of start-ups and digital innovation aims to recreate that success – “India is now home to 75,000 startups in the 75th year of independence and this is only the beginning,” Minister of Commerce, Piyush Goyal, tweeted recently. More than 740,000 jobs have been created via start-ups, a 110% jump over the last six years, his ministry said.
There’s still a long way to go, in educating and training a labor force qualified for such work. Another worry is the steady retreat of working women in India — from a high of nearly 27% in 2005 to just over 20% in 2021, according to World Bank data.
Meanwhile, the stopgap of farming appears increasingly precarious as climate change brings extreme temperatures, scorching crops.
Sajan Arora, a 28-year-old farmer in India’s breadbasket state of Punjab, can no longer depend on ancestral farmland his family has relied on to survive. He, his wife and seven-month old daughter, plan to join family in Britain and find work there after selling some land.
“Agriculture has no way forward,” said Arora, saying he will do whatever work he can get, driving a taxi, working in a store or on a construction site.
He’s sad to leave his parents and childhood home behind, but believes the uncertainty of change offers “better prospects” than his current reality.
“If everything was right and well, why would we go? If we want a better life, we will have to leave,” he said.
Weird because this is a yo-yo economy where gas prices shot up to more than $5 a gallon and then settled back down. The inflation rate for used cars dropped, then accelerated at a 40 percent rate before deflating at a record rate. Housing has gone from boom to bust, then to boom again. Economic indicators have been described as “a Jackson Pollock painting of data points and trends.”
Economists can’t figure it out. Economic models are only getting us as far as separating top-flight economists into Team Stagflation and Team Soft Landing. Alan Blinder, the Princeton economist, talks about the prospects of the Federal Reserve nailing a soft landing like he is handicapping a team’s Super Bowl prospects: “I think they still have a chance, but it’s a tougher chance than it was.”
Economists tried to deal with the twin stresses of inflation and recession in the 1970s without success, and now here we are, 50 years and 50-plus economics Nobel Prizes later, with little ground gained. The Fed and the Treasury Department buttressed the banking structure in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. Fifteen years later, we are seeing it breached.
There’s weirdness yet to come, and a lot more than run-of-the-mill weirdness. We are entering a new epoch of crisis, a slow-motion tidal wave of risks that will wash over our economy in the next decades — namely climate change, demographics, deglobalization and artificial intelligence. Their effects will range somewhere between economic regime shift and existential threat to civilization. The risks to the economy, to the stability of our society and to civilization are enormous if we don’t get the economic models right for what’s coming.
For climate, we already are seeing a glimpse of what is to come: drought, floods and far more extreme storms than in the recent past. We saw some of the implications over the past year, with supply chains broken because rivers were too dry for shipping and hydroelectric and nuclear power impaired.
For demographics, birthrates are on the decline in the developed countries. China’s population is in decline, for instance, and South Korea just set a mark for the lowest birthrate in the developed world. As with climate change, demographic shifts determine societal ones, like straining the social contract between the working and the aged.
We are reversing the globalization of the past 40 years, with the links in our geopolitical and economic network fraying. “Friendshoring,” or moving production to friendly countries, is a new term. The geopolitical forces behind deglobalization will amplify the stresses from climate change and demographics to lead to a frenzied competition for resources and consumers.
We can see the impacts of climate change, demographics and deglobalization coming. The fourth, artificial intelligence, is a wild card. But we already are seeing risks for work and privacy, and for frightening advances in warfare.
These risks are going to accelerate and affect us for decades. If our economic models can only get as far as Team Stagflation versus Team Soft Landing — if we can’t get a firm hold on pedestrian economic issues like inflation and recession — the prospects are not bright for getting our forecasts right for these existential forces.
The problem here is not that our economic models don’t work at all. The models seem serviceable when things are simple and stable, when we are in a steady state with tons of past data to draw on. The problem is that the models don’t work when our economy is weird. And that’s precisely when we most need them to work.
Economists have admitted as much. At the height of the 2008 financial crisis, Queen Elizabeth II asked the question that no doubt was on the minds of many of her subjects: “Why did nobody see it coming?” The response, some months later, by the Nobel laureate economist Robert Lucas, was blunt: Economics failed with the 2008 crisis because economic theory has established that it cannot predict such crises.
A key reason these models fail in times of crisis is that they can’t deal with a world filled with complexity or with surprising twists and turns. For example, the mathematical models of economics analyze a representative agent — be that an individual or a firm — and assume the overall economy will behave the way that this one agent behaves. The problem here, and a problem broadly with complex and dynamic systems, is that the whole doesn’t look like the sum of the parts. If you have a lot of people running around, the overall picture can look different than what any one of those people is doing. Maybe in aggregate their actions jam the doorway; maybe in aggregate they create a stampede.
Economists fancy themselves as the physicists of the social sciences, wielding mathematical models to bring solutions to the economic world. But we are not a mechanical system. We are humans who innovate, change with our experiences, and at times game the system. Reflecting on the 1987 market crash, the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman remarked on the difficulty facing economists by noting that subatomic particles don’t act based on what they think other subatomic particles are planning — but people do that.
What if economists can’t turn things around? This is a possibility because we are walking into a world unlike any we have seen. We can’t anticipate all the ways climate change might affect us or where our creativity will take us with A.I. Which brings us to what is called radical uncertainty, where we simply have no clue — where we are caught unaware by things we haven’t even thought of.
This possibility is not much on the minds of economists. Charting Fed policy or forecasting consumer demand might have surprises here and there but operate with a well-worn vocabulary. It’s with the longer-term risks that “unknowable” has force.
How do we deal with risks we cannot even define? A good start is to move away from the economist’s palette of efficiency and rationality and instead look at examples of survival in worlds of radical uncertainty. Take the cockroach: It has survived for hundreds of millions of years as rainforests turned into savannas and savannas turned into deserts. And it has done this with a coarse escape system, simply running from puffs of air on its cercal hairs. Not very elegant. It will never win the Insect of the Year award but has done well enough to survive a world of radical change.
In our time, savannas are turning into deserts. The alternative to the economist’s model is to take a coarse approach, to be more adaptable — leave some short-term fine-tuning and optimization by the wayside. Our long term might look brighter if we act like cockroaches. An insect fine-tuned for a jungle may dominate the cockroach in that environment. But once the world changes and the jungle disappears, it will as well.
Rick Bookstaber has served as chief risk officer at major banks and hedge funds. His 2007 book, “A Demon of Our Own Design,” warned of the coming financial crisis. His latest book is “The End of Theory.”
Robert Asselin is senior vice-president of policy at the Business Council of Canada and a former adviser to two prime ministers.
As we approach the release of the federal budget, Canada is facing three converging and powerful challenges that require a coherent economic and fiscal strategy from the government.
The first challenge is the return of a political economy on a global scale. From the United States to Europe and Asia, countries are confronted with the challenges of national security and climate change with global competition over technological innovation and investment. By now, everyone has heard of the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act. Few should doubt the threat it poses to Canada’s economic competitiveness.
The second is the sustainability of the government’s current fiscal plan. Fast-rising debt-servicing costs, higher inflation for longer and diminishing fiscal firepower as a result of having doubled our federal debt during the COVID-19 crisis will all challenge the federal government’s inclination to ignore the real consequences of unconstrained spending.
The third challenge – largely a consequence of the first two – is the imperative of long-term growth. Without sustained economic growth, both our current account and federal budget deficits will continue to deteriorate, leading to an inevitable decline in Canadians’ living standards.
There are two main drivers of long-term economic growth. One of them is population growth. The government has taken action on this. Increasing high-skilled immigration is to be applauded, but an aggressive immigration policy will only work if we boost the other driver, productivity, thereby raising wages and living standards. The policy trap here is to confuse raising nominal GDP with GDP per capita, the latter being far more important for our living standards.
Increased productivity – output per worker – is the most important driver of economic growth. Recent experience suggests this is very hard to do. We need to pursue measures that will raise productivity in all sectors. In addition, and this is politically more challenging, we need to focus on expanding the sectors that hold the most promise for raising Canada’s productivity.
A country’s industrial composition matters a great deal. Certain sectors generate significantly higher output per employee and can increase productivity at a faster rate. Advanced industries are key to this goal. These sectors combine significant R&D investmentand a highly qualified work force.
Sectors that invest heavily in technology and innovation tend to be more productive than others. A country with an advanced manufacturing base using artificial intelligence, robotics, genomic medicine and advanced computation will yield significant productivity gains. This is where the new frontiers of economic competitiveness are being drawn. The political economy of semiconductors fabrication is not the same as the one for manufacturing shoes or T-shirts. One is being developed hastily, the other not so much.
Canada has a significant structural current account deficit in advanced industries, signalling a weakening of our economic competitiveness. It indicates we are not able to generate sufficient income from high-value exports to pay for our imports of advanced goods.
Canada can compete in advanced industries. We should be proud of our Canadian global champions in aerospace, agrifood, energy and automotive, all advanced industries. The problem is we don’t have enough of them.
British cabinet minister Michael Gove stated in a recent speech: “Rather than being an entrepôt, a bazaar and a duty-free exchange, a strong economy must also make, manufacture, create, innovate and shape.” He was referring to the British economy, but this applies just as much to Canada.
This is where modern industrial policy comes into play. It is a high-stakes game because politicians will often use industrial policy to justify all kinds of government interventions that have proven to be ineffective. As former U.S. Treasury secretary Larry Summers observed: “I like industrial policy advisers how I like generals. The best generals are the ones who hate war the most but are willing to fight when needed. What I worry about is the people who do industrial policy love doing industrial policy.”
Targeted policy design and execution are paramount. We need to mobilize our human capital, create a modern science and technology architecture capable of converting intellectual capital into expanding our advanced industries and high-tech manufacturing, build proper transmission channels of public R&D to industry and create a regulatory and tax environment conducive to capital formation. In the current circumstance, the worst policy decision would be to take the easy road of spreading subsidies across sectors and all regions of the country.
Getting to the right policy outcomes is more important than political expediency. Addressing these challenges will require policy work that will go well beyond one budget.
OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are set to unveil a budget on Tuesday intended to showcase their plans to keep Canada competitive amid the clean energy transition while supporting Canadians who are struggling with affordability.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has promised to accomplish as much over the last few weeks, while also pledging to keep the budget fiscally restrained.
But that balancing act isn’t expected to be easy. A slowing Canadian economy could weigh on government coffers.
“It’s going to be very tricky for the federal government,” said Randall Bartlett, a senior director of Canadian economics at Desjardins.
The Liberals are expected to invest considerably in Canada’s clean energy transition, in an attempt to keep Canada competitive with the United States as it launches its own aggressive measures.
The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law last August by U.S. President Joe Biden, invests nearly US$400 billion in everything from critical minerals to battery manufacturing, electric vehicles and clean electricity, including hydrogen.
Ottawa has also promised big bucks for health care. It recently signed 10-year funding agreements with provinces on health-care transfers, and that spending is expected to be accounted for in the budget.
And with the cost of living still a top economic issue for many Canadians, the Liberals have signalled the budget will include new affordability measures.
“In the weeks to come, for those Canadians who feel the bite of rising prices the most acutely, for our most vulnerable friends and neighbours, our government will deliver additional, targeted inflation relief,” Freeland said in Oshawa, Ont. on Monday.
But Bartlett said the federal government has to balance its big-ticket spending priorities with an uncertain economic outlook.
Many economists are forecasting that Canada could enter a recession this year as high interest rates weigh on the economy. Since March 2022, the Bank of Canada has aggressively raised interest rates to crack down on high inflation.
As global price pressures ease and interest rates dampen spending in the economy, inflation has been slowing. Canada’s annual inflation rate has tumbled from 8.1 per cent in the summer to 5.2 per cent in February.
Even as inflation becomes less of a problem, though, a slowing economy means less government revenues to finance spending.
According to a report from Desjardins, new spending measures alone wouldn’t necessarily put federal finances on an unsustainable path. But if significant new spending is paired with a worse-than-expected economic downturn, that could spell trouble for the federal government, the report says.
“Planning for an optimistic future and spending accordingly now could lead to very challenging circumstances going forward,” Bartlett said.
The federal government also runs the risk of fuelling inflation with excessive spending, making the Bank of Canada’s job of cooling inflation more challenging. Freeland has repeatedly said she doesn’t plan on doing that, noting the federal government can’t compensate all Canadians for the rise in prices.
Bartlett said the federal government so far has done a good job balancing the need to help low-income Canadians while avoiding adding fuel to the fire.
“My concern is this that (if) they continue to layer this on top of additional spending for other other initiatives … it’s not only going to make potentially the Bank of Canada’s job more challenging, but it’s also going to just increase the size of the deficit at a time when the economic outlook is very uncertain,” he said.
There is some ambiguity around how the government will approach tax policy in this year’s budget.
Some policy experts have suggested that increasing tax revenues might be part of the solution when it comes to stabilizing federal finances. A shadow budget put together for the C.D. Howe Institute, an economic thinktank, recommended increasing the GST tax rate.
But Bartlett said raising taxes might be a tough sell for Canadians, especially because the federal government has had mixed results on some of its key areas of investment, such as its national housing strategy.
“If we continue to see increased spending, and that requires tax increases to to afford that spending, there’s going to be … increased scrutiny by the public on whether or not we’re getting the bang for the buck,” Bartlett said.
On the political front, the Liberals also have to contend with New Democrat priorities as outlined in the party’s supply-and-confidence agreement with the Liberals. It agreed to support the minority government in key votes until 2025 — including on federal budgets — in exchange for movement on shared priorities.
In the upcoming budget, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said he wants to see the government extend the six-month boost to the GST rebate, introduced last fall, which temporarily doubled the amount people received.
Singh has also said he’d like to see federal funding for school lunches.
Per the parties’ agreement, the Liberals have already agreed to create a federally funded and administered dental care program this year that would replace the dental benefit for children in low-income families that was rolled out in the fall.
The deal also commits the Liberals to passing legislation on a national pharmacare program by the end of 2023 — although there’s been no sign of movement on that yet.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2023.