Crashing Dreams, Stolen Youth: Education and Employment in a Decade of Modi Rule

by Bhim Kumar and Mohd. Bilal


In his monthly sermon-like programme ‘Mann Ki Baat’ on 27th February 2022, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, praised the Tanzanian social media duo Kili Paul and his sister Neema Paul for their lip-syncing talent. While praising them the PM also advised the Indian youth mimic Kili Paul and make similar videos of popular Indian songs to gain popularity. It is widely considered that the responsibility of a country’s leader is to lead people away from darkness to enlightenment in the direction of developing an autonomous self. However, this popularity-seeking gimmick of the PM serves to make India’s youth subservient to the ideas of the ruling elites by imitating or lip-syncing what they propagate.

Fast forward to the General Elections 2024 amid which there is hardly any discussion by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, on the issues which affect the youth most. This is surprising since the BJP has been lately very vocal on making India developed by 2047 so as to push for another term under Modi. A concerted campaign ‘Viksit Bharat Abhiyan’ is being run by the BJP government to push for Modi’s candidature for PM post. It is curious that while common students of various institutions are being involved in this campaign and made the proverbial sacrificial lambs for BJP’s election propaganda, no real talking points are divulged for discussion. Grossly short of achievements in the field of education and gainful employment, the ruling party indulges in empty rhetoric. It, thus, falls upon us to closely scrutinize the education and employment sectors in India, and what has been done by the ruling party in the last decade.

Exclusive Education: Rising Cost and Diminishing Opportunities

Modi inherited a very bad situation in the education sector. The past governments of whatever ilk had the overarching agenda of divesting from education and opening it up for grabs by profit-raking private entities. The Modi rule started by peddling grand visions. However, the already bleak reality has since deteriorated from bad to worse. With the Right to Education Act, 2009, though there was an increase in the enrolment of school-going children, the quality of teaching and learning was pathetic. This secular increase in the number of students in schools increased in the years of Modi rule but with a massive increase in the number of private schools.

According to the Unified District Information System For Education Plus (UDISE+) Report 2021-22 which is an app developed under the Ministry of Education, India had 1,489,115 schools catering to students from Grades 1 to 12, that is, about 26.5 crore students. The government schools amounted to 68.7 percent, while the remaining 31.3 percent of schools comprised private institutions. Significantly, the number of private schools increased by 5.5 percent in 2021-22, while the government schools decreased by 0.2 percent. It is noteworthy that the government schools are showing a decrease as per the last UDISE+ Report, while the private schools are showing a significant increase in numbers. This corresponds to the vision enshrined in the National Education Policy (NEP) that was brought in 2020.  

The conditions of government schools are in shambles as attested to by various reports. Therefore, any education policy should have taken care of this aspect of the education sector. However, the aim of the BJP government has been to showcase an interest in education, while doing everything to block the development of school education in India.

In this respect, the policy measures envisaged in the NEP are illustrative. The NEP proposes to increase the Gross Enrolment Ration (GER) in primary education to 100 percent by 2030. Curiously, this lofty aim enunciated in 2020 belies the actual workings of various governments on the ground who taking cue from the NEP have intensified the closure and merger of schools. This has even been stamped with the approval of NITI Aayog that came out with a report on Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital in Education (SATH-E) in collaboration with several pro-corporate consulting groups in 2023. The specific focus of the report on reduction in the number of schools, that according to the report are subscale and where enrolment is low, by merging them. It should be noted that there is a growing phenomenon in recent years of government ‘rationalizing’ school education through the closure of schools that are deemed to be less attended. State government-run schools have been closed in massive numbers in various states across the country.

As such, the NITI Aayog report reinforces such measures by providing for such rationalization by integrating schools in school complexes and clusters. What in effect such a measure would mean is the closing of schools and the degradation of the existing ones. The number of schools merged in Jharkhand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh respectively are 4380, 35000 and 2000 respectively as per the report. The report enumerates the lack of teachers and principals in schools as a major problem, but instead of addressing the shortage of human and infrastructure resource suggests circumventing the problem by merging schools. As per another report, in order to improve Teacher-Pupil ratio, as many as 12 state governments had closed/merged 80647 schools after such as policy was initiated way back in 2013 by the BJP government in Gujarat under Modi. This closure/merger of schools has been protested across India, but to no avail.

A pertinent question arises as to how the GER is to become 100 percent if the rate of closure of government schools is so intense. The NEP proposes that it would be done through informalisation, that is, by increasing enrolment in the National/State Open Schools. Notwithstanding the many critiques of this model of informalisation of education by educationists, teachers and parents, who have witnessed the pitfalls of such open learning through digital format during the pandemic-cum-lockdown, the present thrust is on ensuring that actual expenditure on schooling of the vast majority of children in India is either starkly reduced or passed on to private bodies. So much for the concern about the education of children. Needless to say, the most affected by such measures are those who are already marginalised like Dalits, Adivasis, women, minorities, disabled, and those from socio-economically deprived sections.

Now, to buttress the claim that the BJP government has done much for education, special state-run schools that serve only a handful among crores of students are celebrated. The BJP Sankalp Patra states that the BJP government will ensure that every student gets the opportunity for high-quality school education. For this, it will strengthen the network of PM School for Rising India – PM SHRI Schools which include Kendriya Vidyalayas, Navodaya Vidyalayas, Ekalavya Schools and other such schools to make them world-class. The aim is to establish 14,500 PM SHRI Schools where ‘a wide range of learning experiences are offered, and where good physical infrastructure and appropriate resources conducive to learning are available to all students’. That these ‘all’ students in reality means only a ‘few’ is slyly concealed. This model of forsaking the many for the few has been amply promoted in the Union Budgets, so as to showcase concern and to have a signaling effect. Yet successive budgets ignore the majority and leave them mired in precarious conditions.

The record of the present government even in the sphere of higher education has been miserable. The BJP Sankalp Patra 2024 embellishes the achievements of the Modi Government in just the first line on the section on education, which is the opening of 7 IITs, 16 IIITs, 7 IIMs, 15 AIIMS, 315 Medical Colleges and 390 universities during the last decade. What is elided is the fact that of these many institutions highlighted in the BJP Sankalp Patra, most are non-functional, or represent simply the upgradation of already existing institutions, or are private institutions. The font of government policies with regard to the higher education sector is nothing short of rampant privatisation and concomitant informalisation of education, just like in the school education sector.

The privatisation is being done majorly through two routes, that is, by providing undue boost to private institutions and by reducing funds for the public-funded higher education institutions (HEIs), perforce making them charge higher fees and float self-finance courses. Various reports uncover the fact that the private universities and colleges have mushroomed during the 10 years of Modi rule. The private regional universities grew 66 percent to 327 in 2019-20 from 197 in 2015-16, while public-funded regional universities grew by just 17.3 percent and the central universities grew by a mere 12 percent in the same period. Thus, the private HEIs dominate the higher education sector by accounting for almost 70 percent of all HEIs.

The other route of privatization in higher education is reduced funding for public-funded institutions, which can be gauged in the funds allocated to the University Grants Commission (UGC) in the Interim Budget 2024, wherein the UGC’s already decreasing funds have been cut by more than 60 percent. This has led to existing public-funded institutions charging higher fees for sought-after courses. The trend of sky-high fees being charged in the public institutions has been evident in the case of Delhi University where the newly introduced 5-year BA LLB course has an annual fee of Rs. 1,90,000 or around 10 lacs for the whole course; a marked contrast to the annual fee for a postgraduate LLB course which is less than Rs. 15,000!

Enumerating the failings of the Modi Government in higher education would mean compiling an extremely long list. It will suffice to expose just a few failures to make the general point. The share of higher education in the Union Budgets of past several years has drastically reduced in the recent years. The number of seats created in the HEIs remains insignificant even as the total number of applicants to formal-mode institutions has multiplied in the last years. The regional universities have crumbling infrastructure wherein the majority of the students across the country are enrolled. Therefore, their chances of having quality education remain a pipe dream. Rampant informalisation has become the norm across the country either through the opening of Open and Distance Learning (ODL) institutions or the massive expansion of the ODL departments/institutions of various formal-mode universities.

The higher education sector at present has a dismal picture. The latest GER is 28.4 percent as per All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2021-22 released in 2024. It has been claimed that there is an increase of 26.5 percent since 2014-15. But, behind such promising statistics lies an actual picture of growing exclusion. The reported increase has been in informal education through massive enrolment in Open and Distance Learning (ODL) institutions. It should be noted that it is in ODL that enrolment has shot up in recent years. A 2019 Times of India report outlined that at Indira Gandhi National Open University, the enrolment of Scheduled Caste students grew by 248 percent and of Scheduled Tribe students increased by 172 percent between 2010 and 2018. It is quite evident that the promotion of ODL amounts to shoving the already marginalised into pathetic institutions of the higher education sector.

This has also been seen in the recent budgets wherein the plan of informalization is actively promoted. Funds have been earmarked in various budgets for the promotion of informal education; namely, ODL and the digital mode, which will, in fact, exponentially increase the out-of-pocket expenditure incurred by learners while the government abdicates its responsibility by reducing per-capita expenditure on higher education. The lack of government expenditure compels students to bear the cost of buying books, technology devices, internet services, etc., thereby drastically increasing the cost of learning for them. It is also highlighted in the BJP Sankalp Patra that digital platforms such as initiatives under PM e-Vidya such as SWAYAM, SWAYAM PRABHA, etc. would be promoted, and a digital university for industry-focused free courses to provide upskilling opportunities for low-income families would be operationalised. In line with the policy announcements, the focus remains on quality education for a few in premier institutions and the relegation of the majority to quality-less teaching shops. Therefore, it is a scheme for promoting formal-mode education for the rich, while shoving the deprived into such courses.

(Un)employment: Tired Workers and Dejected Youth

Unemployment has exploded in India in last 10 years of Modi rule. Promising two crore jobs per year in its 2014 manifesto, the ruling party has fared miserably when it comes to employment generation. As per a 2018 report, India had an all-time high unemployment ratio in the last 45 years. This was a good four years into the ‘acchhe din’ of the first Modi government. This has been pointed out by various official survey reports as well. For instance, National Sample Survey Office in its survey presented in June 2019, noticed a 3.9 percent spike in unemployment rate between 2011 and 2018. From 2.2 percent in 2011-12 survey, the unemployment rate rose to 6.1 percent in 2017-18 which stands highest since 1972-73. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), number of employed population which was 40.4 crore before the corona crisis took the economy into its grip, fell to 28.5 crore during corona crisis and subsequent lockdown.

If the statistics are not really telling, various reports bring out the enormity of the problem. According to a 2018 the Times of India report, for mere 62 posts of messengers in Uttar Pradesh Police that has a minimum eligibility of Class V, more than 3700 PhD holders, 50,000 graduates, and 28,000 postgraduates had applied. In the same year over 2 crore applications were received for nearly 1 lakh jobs in Indian Railways. Such reports across different departments and states are a very common feature by now.

The grim employment situation did not improve even during the second term of the Modi government. Recently, a report titled ‘India Employment Report 2024’ came out which was jointly prepared by International Labour Organization and Institute of Human Development. It points out the stark reality of employment in India. As per the report, in 2022, the share of unemployed youths in the total unemployed population was 82.9%. The share of educated youths among all unemployed people also increased to 65.7% in 2022 from 54.2% in 2000. Despite so called progress in various aspects of India’s labour market, the unemployment rate has reached 42% among graduates under 25 years, as per the State of Working India, 2023 report released by Azim Premji University. 

As per the India Employment Report 2024, more than 90 percent of those employed are working in the highly exploitative informal sector. The informal sector refers to that segment of the Indian economy which is outside the ambit of labour laws. The scale of exploitation in the informal sector is very intense as the main labour laws regulating work conditions are not at all applied. The non-applicability of labour laws translates into the lack of protection from unfair job dismissal, clamping down on unionisation, and denial of compensation, minimum wages, paid leaves, etc. The new Labour Codes pushed through by the current ruling dispensation have, in fact, pushed out an even larger number of work relations and workplaces from the ambit of protective labour legislations; ensuring greater generalisation of the precarity that is characteristic of the informal sector.

The informal sector is characterised by longer hours than the statutory nine-hour workday, pitifully low wages that are grossly less than the statutory minimum wages, compulsorily overtime work, and denial of statutory social security benefits such ESI and Provident Fund, among others. Indeed, on an average, a worker in the informal sector has to work for 12 hours. This renders one out of three people unemployed as two (overworked) workers perform the labour of a third worker, who is consequently rendered unemployed. It also overburdens the already employed workforce which has dangerous ramifications that can be gleaned from the terrifying train accidents such as at Balasore last year.

One of the crucial factors behind the accident was overburdened loco-pilots. According to a report published in The Hindu on May 1, 2023, just two days before the accident, loco-pilots were being pushed to the limit to cover the work on the railways through lengthening work hours, continuous night shifts and reduced rest times. Loco-pilots were working for up to 12 hours. In a similar report it was mentioned that the Indian Railways is reeling under a crushing staff shortage with 3.12 lakh non-gazetted posts lying vacant across the country, as on December 1, 2022. We need to recognise this relationship between overwork and unemployment, and the fact that both are two sides of the same coin.

The relationship between skill and unemployment has recently become a topic of discussion among economists and intellectuals. According to a 2022 Niti Aayog’s Vice-chairman’s report, 48 percent engineering students were unemployed. Similarly, a McKinsey report emblematic of the dominant view among ruling elites mentions that only a quarter of the Indian engineers are employable. The ruling elites, therefore, have come to propound the view that skills acquired by students are not compatible with the fast transforming economy that needs new skills. But, is this really the case? A closer look at the recent data related to jobs advertised and skill required for jobs reveals a different picture.

For instance, a report published in India Today in June last year reveals a startling fact. According to the report, over 55 lakh applications came from B.Tech. and MBA graduates and postgraduates for Group D government jobs in Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, in Jammu and Kashmir in 2020, graduate and post-graduates applying for class IV government jobs were declared “ineligible” for being “overqualified” as the required qualification for the job was education only up to the senior secondary level. Similar cases abound. Thus, contrary to the view that presents youth as incompetent and unskilled for jobs, there is ample evidence of youth having more skills than a particular job requires. Evidently, the queuing up of high-skilled youth for lower skilled government jobs is the fallout of inadequate gainful employment. As a result, high-skilled youth are left with two options: either they remain unemployed for a long time or they move towards lower-skilled jobs. Needless to say, the movement of higher-skilled youth into lower-skilled jobs compels existing workers in such jobs to compromise and work under adverse conditions in order to prevent being weeded out. This results in the overexploitation of the existing workforce, which is forced to accept lower wages, longer spans of overtime, enhanced quantum of work, and so on.     

An important point which rarely becomes part of discussion is related to the security of better life conditions which is associated with high-paying jobs, particularly government jobs. Everyone wants a secure job which can provide them and their family better living conditions, health security and quality education. The meagre number of high-paying jobs, such as coveted government jobs, propel a large number of students and youth to invest their energy and resources in preparing for them. For example, the country’s youth end up spending the prime years of their lives preparing for various competitive examinations for secure government jobs. They often live in precarity in big cities that are hubs for competitive examination coaching. While the youth slave away for years to secure their future and wait for several years for government job openings, their dreams are often crushed with examinations for government jobs and advertisements for such jobs being arbitrarily cancelled. We have hence witnessed several instances of frustrated youth violently protesting against incompetence of governmental agencies and lack of transparency in the recruitment process. In recent years, for instance, such as in 2019, January 2022 and January 2024, scores of youth have protested against the skewed recruitment process of the Indian Railways.

The ‘solution’ provided by the BJP government to the ensuing unemployment crisis is to exhort people to become job-providers through schemes such as Start-Up India, Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojna, etc. It should be noted that these schemes are tied to lending by predatory investors and loan-providers, thereby, leading into a trap of indebtedness. Moreover, these schemes have been unable to pull a vast majority of youth out of unemployment. According to Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017-18, only 4 percent of the self-employed are job-creators while the rest run small enterprises, either on their own or with the help of unpaid family members. This data is an evidence of the failure of the present ruling dispensation and its highly showcased employment generation schemes. Expectedly, the failures have exerted pressure on the ruling government, leading to shocking exhortations by PM Modi, such as in 2018 when he unabashedly called on the unemployed to turn to frying pakodas. Modi’s pakodanomics as it is better known, asserts that the unemployed should not expect job creation from the government, and should instead ‘make their own destiny’. This approach conveniently elides the fact that when nothing else works out, many young people actually fall back on less secure occupations like street-vending. Of course, PM Modi has nothing to say on the precarity that envelops street vendors in the country.   

This apart, under the Modi government there has been accelerated contractualisation of jobs, including even the most secure jobs, such as in the armed forces. Modi government introduced the Agnipath scheme in 2022. It is a tour of duty style scheme for employing youth in the armed forces for four years, at the end of which more than 75 percent would be discharged from duty with a lump sum of Rs. 11.71 lakhs. The introduction of this scheme saw vocal protests from the section of impoverished youth across the country which craves a job in the armed forces to leave its dire conditions. However, Modi government went ahead with the scheme despite these protests. Therefore, Modi rule has only spelt doom for gainful employment.

Conclusion: Towards a New Dawn?

The Modi government in the last ten years has been completely apathetic towards the primary issues plaguing the country’s youth. In such a scenario, the youth need to look beyond the hollow claims of the ruling elites, and be prepared to fight on their issues, whichever government comes to power. Irrespective of the projected growth story pedalled by the Modi government, it is essentially the privileged, wealthy segments of society that have grown richer. It cannot be ignored that while the country’s per capita annual income continues to hover below the pre-pandemic level, India’s billionaires have grown richer, with a reported 35 percent increase in their wealth during the Covid-19 pandemic-cum-lockdown period itself.

Against the backdrop of such skewed, exclusionary growth, the high suicide rates among employable people are further proof of the poor economic health of the country. Notably, as per the National Crimes Record Bureau, daily wage earners constituted the largest category (25.6 percent) of suicides in 2021. Taken together, daily wage workers, the self-employed, and the unemployed constituted 52.85 percent of suicides officially reported in 2021. It is often easy to admonish the youth for giving up and taking their own lives. However, their individual actions of distress need to be placed in the context of Modi government’s increased clamping down of democratic rights and steady criminalisation of public protests. The repeated use of strong-arm repressive measures including advanced surveillance technology against protest demonstrations, multiple FIRs against leading activists and journalists, and so on, have made it exceedingly difficulty for the youth to articulate their discontent in organised and effective ways that have long-lasting impact. However, rising above the autocracy of the ruling regime, the potency of issues raised by the youth has often succeeded in pricking the conscience of the country. The storming of the Parliament by two youth, who desperately strove to draw attention to the unemployment crisis and distress plaguing young people, was one such moment that recently exposed the doctored mainstream narrative which projects the India’s youth as wide-eyed worshippers of the ruling government.        

It is to be seen whether the youth will be able to shun the propaganda of the ruling dispensation, and whether they will stop dancing to the tunes of the ruling elites and merely lip-syncing other’s songs. A lot depends on whether the country’s youth are able to think autonomously of the framework imposed by the ruling elites so as to reclaim their authentic self and assert an actual commitment to resolve the issues confronting their very being.

Bhim Kumar and Mohd. Bilal are research scholars and active in the student movement.

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