In India's Job Crisis, Dignity In Employment Must Come First

India's politicians have to understand that people are earning something to survive, but a survival strategy does not count as employment.

 BJP activist hold Prime Minister Modi picture during BJP Lalabazar
Shop keeper at Koyambedu market


NEW DELHI — According to the latest data by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), India is undergoing its worst job crisis in the last 45 years. Both male and female workforce participation has gone down, and so has the rate of job creation per year. In fact, the existing number of jobs have been declining due to layoffs in both multinational corporations and the public sector.

Facing criticism over rising unemployment in the country, several ministers and leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – including the prime minister – have responded in outlandish ways. In an interview to Zee News, Narendra Modi said he wanted people to count "making and selling of pakoda" as a form of employment. The chief minister of the northeastern state of Tripura, Biplab Deb, said he wanted the youth of the country to put up "paan" stalls, while the chief minister of Gujarat in Western India, Vijay Rupani, said he wanted ‘fixing a puncture" to be a part of the school curriculum.

Apart from these absurd comments, the Modi government has responded with the rhetoric of "youth should be a job giver and not a job seeker", thereby counting the beneficiaries of the state-run MUDRA loan scheme as ‘job created". Piyush Goal – a minister in the Modi government who has held several portfolios – once remarked, "job losses are a good sign for the economy," because according to him, it was a sign of "self-employment".

In a parliament session, the prime minister criticized the opposition over the question of rising unemployment and argued that "in the last four years, 3.6 million new trucks and commercial vehicles have been sold, 15 million passenger vehicles and 2.5 million auto-rickshaws have been sold as well. These need drivers, maintenance… it is unlikely that people would have parked these vehicles somewhere as showpieces." He further talked about the jobs created in the tourism industry among other things.

Street vendors near India Gate, Delhi — Photo: generalising

It is precisely at this point that we need to understand the concept of ‘Employment with dignity", because we are not in a situation where people are without employment and are not earning anything. Rather, people are working and earning something to survive, because that is the very basic human instinct – to survive. However, calling a mere survival strategy employment would not only be an injustice to those involved in such works, but also make a mockery of their life situations.

News reports about post-graduates applying en masse for jobs requiring lower education qualification are not surprising anymore. Today, a significant number of qualified people are employed in the burgeoning e-retail sector, in places like Amazon, Flipkart, Big Basket, PayTM and food delivery companies like Zomato, Swiggy, and Foodpanda. The delivery boys employed in those places work under harsh conditions — with low wages and absolutely no or minimal social security.

Another form of exploitation is the whole institution of internships where young graduates are offered low pay in the name of gaining experience. They are encouraged/feel compelled to take such offers to gather as many certificates as possible in order to secure employment in the future.

The whole logic of ‘self-employment" is a direct result of the neo-liberal economic policies where the state progressively withdraws from social security of citizens, and individuals are left to fend for themselves

These forms of employment are not something that the Modi government or any before it have designed. They are intrinsic to the economic model which has been followed in the country since 1991 with the advent of LPG (liberalization, privatization, and globalization).

The advent of liberalization in India witnessed the gradual and consistent phasing out of worker's right through myriad practices like contextualization of the workforce, ‘hire and fire" policy, starvation wages, lack of job security, no annual increments, no social security benefits, degrading working conditions for a large section of the workforce and so on.

Not just formal employment in the organized sector – which consists of only 6.5% of total employment in India – but informal employment in the organized sector has also increased in the last 30 years of economic liberalization. In fact, the whole logic of ‘self-employment" is a direct result of the neo-liberal economic policies where the state progressively withdraws from social security of citizens, and individuals are left to fend for themselves. It can be expressed in the maxim "you have the FREEDOM to arrange for your education, your employment, and your health, the state will not intervene".

In this scenario, it is high time that we recognized the concept of employment with dignity. First of all, what do we mean by the concept of dignity here? It must be understood that no job/work is superior or inferior, but what makes a job dignified is the working conditions and social safety net associated with it as well as the agency of the person engaged in that work/job.

Whether a person takes up a job out of his/her will or whether he/she does it out of compulsion of survival is a necessary condition for a dignified job. Someone may really enjoy making and selling tea or pakoda, it is not wrong to call it employment, but putting up a tea stall, or golgappa stall or pakoda stall because of lack of job opportunities and for the mere purpose of survival is an attack on the dignity of the person.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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