It's raining jobs

It is not unusual for politicians to make exaggerated promises at election time. But Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), who is also leading the Opposition alliance in the Bihar Assembly elections, has taken it to a level that can only be termed irresponsible. Mr Yadav has promised one million government jobs in the state, which is more than three times the current government employee strength of about 310,000. This was first mocked and later bettered by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which promised 1.9 million jobs, though all will not be in government. It is true that some states or Union Territories with much smaller populations practise even bigger boondoggles than Bihar. For instance, Jammu and Kashmir, with a population that is one-eighth of Bihar, has about 480,000 government employees.

It is worth noting that in terms of populist promises, even loan write-offs, because they are one-time, are better than creating a large number of unproductive government jobs, which will be an annual drain on the exchequer in a state that has extremely limited resources of its own. Unsurprisingly, the RJD has promised a farm loan waiver as well. There is no way Bihar can afford such dole-outs. The state is excessively dependent on transfers from the Centre and generates very little internal resources. Central transfers accounted for over 60 per cent of the state’s expenditure in recent years. The comparable number for Maharashtra is about 20 per cent.

However, there are reasons why the promise of offering jobs has a special appeal in the state. Unemployment in the state is high compared to the national average and the labour force participation rate is the lowest in the country. The latter suggests that people don’t expect to find jobs in the state. Further, the return of migrant workers in large numbers from other states because of the pandemic has increased the importance of the issue. There is no doubt that Bihar needs to create employment for its increasing labour force, which is forced to migrate to other parts of the country even for jobs involving basic manual labour. But government jobs, which the state cannot afford, will not solve the unemployment problem. What the state needs is improvement in governance and infrastructure, which will help attract private investment and create employment opportunities.

Populist policies, which could permanently divert resources away from productive expenditure, will make development in the state even more difficult. Per capita income in Bihar is just about 33 per cent of the national average and was the lowest among all states in 2018-19. However, the promise of jobs may well be a cynical exercise in playing with people’s hopes because Mr Yadav knows from the unanimous forecasts of different opinion polls that he is unlikely to win at the hustings and then form the government. He knows he will not have to deliver on his rash promise. What it could do is improve his share of the vote and seats, and that may be his limited objective. But with the NDA having felt obliged to up the ante, even that is not certain. What is certain, however, is that this is yet another benchmark set for irresponsible promises at election time.


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