WE MEET ON the Delhi campus of a leading technology university in the country. To get admission here is to become a hero in your mohalla and an exemplar in your family. Twenty- eight-year-old SS (he doesn’t wish to be identified) has been living on this campus for the past three years, not because he studies or works here, but because his father does. His father, clad in an immaculate kurta-pyjama on weekends and shirt-pant on week days, has been working in the Chemistry lab here for over 30 years. A lover of plants who gets riled when he sees abandoned flowers and wilted pots, he also moonlights as a gardener in adjacent neighbourhoods, when time allows. In another place, in another time, he might have been called a Renaissance man, but in India he is called a maali for the most part. For three decades until 2013, the father took the local train from Palwal to Delhi (70 km each way) for his lab technician job. With his ailing parents living with him, he thought it unwise to uproot the family from Haryana to Delhi. His sons studied at a private school in Jatoli. And SS went on to complete a BCom (with computers) from Hassanpur. Wishing the best for his son, the father gathered close to Rs 4.5 lakh to pay for a two-year MBA at Manav Rachna International University, Faridabad.
Located on the Delhi-Surajkund road, this university rises up like a Disney World on a lunar landscape. Like a fantasy land, it beckons, convincing you that to enter is to see your life transformed. When SS joined, he quickly realised that most students were from affluent NCR families, but he appreciated the school’s environment, liked his classes and found support in its staff. While the subject matter (Marketing and Finance) was not a problem, English proved to be a stumbling block.
With Palwal situated in the heart of Haryana’s Jat land, most of his contemporaries are today either employed in agriculture or the defence services. SS too tried to join the Army, but could not pass the physical test. Four years after graduation, he is now in a job related to “import-export” and earns a little over Rs 10,000 per month. It is better than sitting at home, he says. His wife, the mother of an 11-month-old son, is a confident young woman who laughs easily and is quick with her answers. She has a BSc and MSc in Mathematics from a university in Rohtak. Her husband proudly adds that she is a state topper. Despite her qualifications, she has been unable to find a job that would do her education justice. She has interviewed with a few schools in Delhi, but like her husband, she too is shackled by imperfect English. And for now, she spends her time tending to her home and child.
For SS, living on a premier campus, the contrast between notions of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are amplified. He says back in the village, he might be seen as something. But in Delhi-NCR, he is nothing. Around him roam students who seem to have the world at their feet; job offers will knock at their doors, money will shower down on them, society will hold them in high esteem. He doesn’t see the same happening to him.
Being on the campus, he is constantly troubled by life’s ‘what ifs’. What if his father had moved him and his brother to the campus earlier? What if he had not done his entire education in Palwal? What if he had attended school in Delhi-NCR? What if he had been immersed in a city from the start? What if he was more fluent in English? Would these hypothetical situations have resulted in better prospects and bigger opportunities?
After the glass has been emptied of juice, and my questions have ebbed, SS leaves me red-faced when he asks, “Aap kya article unsuccessful logon pe kar rahin hain? Aap zimmedaari kis pe daalengi? Kisi ki galti nahin hai. Aap mujhse kyun baat kar rahin hain? Yeh toh sabhi ki kahaani hai. (Are you writing about unsuccessful people? Who are you holding to blame? It is no one’s fault really. Why are you talking to me? This is just everybody’s story)”.
FIGURES AND STATISTICS would tell us that this is indeed everybody’s story. According to India Labour Report by Teamlease, 1 million youth will enter the workforce every year for the next 20 years and more than half of them lack employability skills. In April this year, the ASSOCHAM Education Committee (AEC) noted that ‘only seven per cent of the pass-outs from business schools are actually employable in India excepting graduates from IIMs.’ Accounts of 2.3 million aspirants (including postgraduates and doctorates) applying for 368 vacancies for the post of a peon in the Uttar Pradesh secretariat have become legion.
The India Labour and Employment Report 2014 (brought out by the Institute for Human Development) highlighted, ‘as is typical for a poor and developing economy, most workers in India cannot afford to be unemployed, hence the level of open unemployment is quite low at 2.7 per cent… In reality, the problem is not primarily one of unemployment but lack of productive employment.’ Thousands of doctors applying for a job that requires minimum qualifications is the most telling sign of this underemployment. The report also raises a red flag for the future of the youth. It warns: ‘The problem of youth unemployment, particularly that of educated youth, is gradually becoming a major concern. About 30 per cent of the total unemployed in the year 2011-12 were graduates and above, up from 21 per cent in 2004-05. Differently put, the rate of unemployment among graduates (including technically trained), and diploma holders was around 18 per cent.’
I have two professional degrees but no prospects. Graduates hope their lives will improve but find it hard to maintain previous living standards
These numbers make for grim reading, and it is little surprise that the gap faced by students (between aspirations and reality) and by industries (demand for talent but lack of availability) has made it to the national agenda. The Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) is an effort to ‘mobilise a large number of Indian youth to take up outcome-based skill training and become employable and earn their livelihood.’ The National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), a public-private partnership under the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, is also working in this area. It essentially aims to ‘narrow the existing gap between the demand and supply of skills’. Mahesh Venkateswaran, who leads industry partnerships at NSDC, says, “A ‘job’ is what you aspire to and have the abilities for. Most aspirants want to work with computers. The definition of a job should be more than white and blue-collar jobs. Before a job, we have to make sure people are job ready. With industry playing an active and direct role at various stages, this could be a win-win for all.”
To understand this landscape of under-employment of graduates with professional degrees, we meet an array of them across Delhi-NCR. Each has an individual story, but the coordinates are eerily similar. Having grown up in villages in far corners of the country, they migrate to Delhi for higher studies and eventually look for jobs here. They say that it is not the lack of skills, but fluency in English that holds them back. Unlike their parents who made a life for themselves in the village, this generation embodies a new hope that sees its future in the city. They arrive here carrying the dreams of their families and their own aspirations. They quickly imbibe the Delhi-NCR state of mind. They work hard but often find that transformation remains out of reach and disappointment is always close at hand. The futures they’d imagined turn out to be mirages that glimmer in the distance and vanish when approached.
At 42, Manindra Kumar Jha knows disappointment all too well. We meet in Wazirabad, in the far reaches of north Delhi, near the GTB Metro Station. Soon as we sit down, Jha says with a laugh, in English, “I am a good example of bad planning.” If SS embodies a crisis of confidence, this older man is all bitter reconciliation.
Raised in Bihar, he did his schooling and a BSc in Chemistry from Darbhanga. He came to Delhi first on 9 June 1996 (“How can you forget important dates?” he asks) in order to prepare for the UPSC exam. He tried repeatedly, but failed to make it. In 2004, he got married, and realised that he needed a professional degree to earn better. He chose Picasso Animation College in Delhi as he believed that animation was a growing market at the time. He spent close to Rs 3 lakh on the course. Unlike SS who appreciates his university, Jha bristles with resentment for his college, saying that teachers would make them watch YouTube videos in lieu of lectures.
On graduating, his first job offered him Rs 5,500 as a monthly salary. Tuitions for students would pay much better he quickly realised. He effortlessly cites examples of various other friends of his who completed the animation course, but failed to find employment. One returned to Bihar to teach, another joined the truck business and a third started a shop in Almora.
I taught myself English. I didn’t take classes. I first watched Koffee with Karan because the accents were easier to follow. And then moved to Friends
Jha went on to do a BEd, but once again found that opportunities passed him by. He says in Hindi, “I have two professional degrees, but no prospects. I spent time and money, but nothing came of it. People who do professional degrees do it in the hope that their standard of living will improve after graduation. But they find it hard to maintain their previous standard.”
Today he supports his wife and two daughters on his salary as a tuition teacher for 20-30 students, aged nine to 23 in Wazirabad gaon. With schools closed for the vacation, he has some free time at his disposal, otherwise, he says, he doesn’t even take Sundays off. His wife has gone to Darbhanga to submit her sociology PhD thesis at Lalit Narayan Mithila University. He wonders what employment opportunities await her. As we are about to wrap up, he says, “If I’d spent Rs 2 lakh all those years ago, and bought an auto, I would have been earning nearly the same amount today.”
WHILE AMBITION MIGHT have dulled in SS and deadened in Jha, ardour thrives and throbs in Noida Sector 60-64. It is here that thousands of graduates flock looking for that foot in the door, that chance to make it big and a way to redefine their fate. Row after row of glass and chrome buildings spiral into the sky. HCL, Tech Mahindra, Kent, Schwabe, Idea, Genpact and numerous others stand in orderly rows like Uriel at the gates of Eden. Recent graduates go door to door, resumes in hand, looking for that sign that reads ‘Walk-in interview’. Some will get lucky, most will not. We meet Devanshu Sharma and Bhupen who have come from Aligarh, they have just completed one round of interviews but know that they have not made it to the next. These recent BCom graduates, looking for work at a BPO, are certain of only one truth: there are no jobs back home, they have to make it in Delhi-NCR.
Another such recent graduate is 22-year-old LK (who also doesn’t wish to be identified) from Amrapur, Bihar. It is little surprise that graduates from Bihar flock to the Capital. According to the India Labour and Employment Report 2014, Bihar ranks last in access to quality employment (while Himachal Pradesh ranks first), pushing the youth from the state to migrate elsewhere.
LK is a student at a business school in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad. Foreign-looking students smile out of the institute’s brochure. LK, who completed a Bachelors in Computer Application from Patna before moving to Indirapuram for a specialisation in Marketing and Finance, has spent Rs 6 lakh on the course in the last two years. Half of this was arranged by his father, a farmer and moneylender in Bihar, but the other half he has to repay. Speaking at a mall a few kilometres away from his university, LK, who has a stammer says, “Mein jaanta hun mujhe naukri mil jaaegi. Lekin kaunsi naukri aur kab, main nahin jaanta. (I know I will get a job. But when and what job, I don’t know.)” While LK doesn’t lack in smarts, his stammer has proved to be an impediment, especially in Marketing. He has already attended close to 20 interviews and is hopeful something will work out. But he is adamant: if he gets a government job, he will choose that “100 per cent”.
Back in Faridabad, Haryana, an attempt is being made to train those like LK who are looking to skill themselves for a better job, so that there is one less person elbowing for a sarkari position. It is the examination (and graduation) day at Virohan Institute of Allied Health & Management Sciences. Here, a class of 30-odd students, at the end of a three-month course, is taking an exam for the job of an emergency medical trauma technician. The assessor is Mettl, an online assessment platform to help hiring managers ‘measure and track skills of prehires and employees to determine if they can really do a particular job’. Mettl has allied with Healthcare Sector Skill Council (HSSC) to conduct the test. Ketan Kapoor, co-founder and CEO of Mettl, says, “There is a certain correlation between test scores and abilities. The question is ‘what is best for me’ (for the student and the company). We want to try and get the uncut diamonds from tier two, three and four schools into companies.”
Diamonds there are. And one of them would be Naveen Kumar who works at Indifi Technologies in Gurgaon. The 23-year- old from Chhapra in Bihar is professional from the get go. He is courteous on the phone, calls back promptly and is punctual to the minute. He did his schooling from Mishri Lal Dharmanath Prasad Higher Secondary School and a BBA from Patna. He completed his post graduate diploma in management (PGDM) from an institute in Greater Noida in 2015.
With his father working as a cop in Bihar, he says confidence was never a problem, but English was. During his PGDM, he taught himself the language by watching English shows. He first chose Koffee with Karan, as the Indian accents were easier to comprehend. He then moved on to Friends and The Vampire Diaries. Speaking over the traffic din on Aurobindo Marg in south Delhi, he says with a big smile that The Vampire Diaries is his favourite. Today he earns roughly Rs 4 lakh per annum, he is proud of where he is in life and what he is doing. As we watch the Hauz Khas Metro Station turn out hordes every few minutes, he says that the big difference between Delhi and Chhapra is that here people are running all the time. He adds, “Dilli se meri koi shiqaayat nahin hai. Jagah-jagah se log yahaan aate hain, jis se humaare liye aasaan padta hai. Dilli sabhi ka hai. (I have no issues with Delhi. People come here from all over the country. And that makes it easy. Delhi belongs to everyone.)”