Vulnerability in jobs in India

India has been infamous for the magnitude of informal jobs in the country. Though a significant issue, informality is just a part of the bigger issue, i.e, the increase in the number of highly vulnerable jobs. Vulnerable jobs usually include own-account workers and family members working informally. Basically anyone who does not have a stable contract or flow of income, and are open to exploitation. All informal workers are vulnerable to an extent since they aren’t on any payroll or have a formal contract.

This long standing problem has become significant as the number of vulnerable employees has been increasing in the past few years. As per International Labour Organisation (ILO), 77 per cent of workers in India will have vulnerable employment by 2019. In a country where 92 per cent of the employed population is in informal sector, it is a concern if the ratio of vulnerable jobs increase.

 

Source: World Employment Social Outlook2018, International Labour Organisation

The ILO report also pointed out that

“a significant portion of the jobs created (in India) in the services sector over the past couple of decades have been in traditional low value added services, where informality and vulnerable forms of employment are often dominant.

It is no solace that the problem is global in nature,

Globally, the significant progress achieved in the past in reducing vulnerable employment has essentially stalled since 2012. In 2017, around 42 per cent of workers (or 1.4 billion) worldwide are estimated to be in vulnerable forms of employment, while this share is expected to remain particularly high in developing and emerging countries, at above 76 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively. Worryingly, the current projection suggests that the trend is set to reverse, with the number of people in vulnerable employment projected to increase by 17 million per year in 2018 and 2019.

This is not a surprise as 80 per cent of the casual workers and 31 per cent of the regular/salaried workers in 2016 earned less than the national minimum wage of Rs 66 / day. If looked at on the basis of gender, 95 per cent of women working as casual labour got less than the minimal wage as against 74 per cent men. Lower wages make workers more susceptible to being caught in the low income trap. With income not enough to save and invest, people earning low wages are unable to earn or multiply their money and get stuck at living at basic sustenance levels. The only way to move from the equilibrium is by earning a higher amount and saving it.

With low income levels in the country and substantial number of informal workers, India needs to look at vulnerability within jobs as a criterion in itself while assessing jobs problem. In order improve the conditions, the jobs created in the country need to assure a certain level of stability and redressal mechanisms. More than skilling, the government needs to create avenues for job creation. A good starting point would be to modify the labour laws and reduce the cost of doing business in the country.

Indian Men and Unpaid Housework

Diksha Madhok shared this thought-provoking graph on Twitter recently:

My first reaction to that was, ‘Really? Indian men do 19 minutes of unpaid housework every day? That’s too much! What do they do for 19 minutes?

That said, while the point being made is no doubt valid, the metric being used to illustrate it is off. The reason for that is that middle-class Indian couples probably do less combined unpaid housework than their Western counterparts because servants are so common. In our household, for example, we have employed a maid who comes every morning to wash dishes, clean the house and so on. In Western households, it is common to have to do it all yourself.

So the correct metric, to judge how lazy, misogynistic and/or entitled Indian men are would be the percentage of total unpaid household labour they contribute to. I have no doubt that the conclusion would be as dismal.

As for these Slovenian men, grrmph. I bet they can’t play cricket as well as us.

A Case for Unpredictability

Researchers in Germany have created a machine learning tool that has predicted the winner of the ongoing FIFA World Cup. This tool says that Spain has a higher chance at the outset but if the Germans make it to the quarter-finals, the odds tilt in their favour.

The creation of this tool does not come as a surprise. Machine learning tools thrive at making predictions and this is just another example of a technology that has become adept at doing a task far better than humans.

However, impressive as a technology might be, there is always room to ask if it should be applied in a particular field. These were my thoughts as I read the article. It goes without saying that better predictions would be beneficial in a lot of fields, including ones like medicine and weather. But would they add value to a sport like football?

I must admit I pose this question from a philosophical bent of mind. Isn’t part of the thrill of a sport its inherent unpredictability, of the unexpected happening? Bookmakers and gamblers might beg to disagree but there is a reason why seeing an unfancied team win against all odds is deeply satisfying. Is it possible then that the invention of a machine learning tool that accurately predicts the result of every match might lessen the enjoyment of the game itself? Worse, can it contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy where players contrive to fit the results of the prediction (of course, this means having a particularly low opinion of the free will of the human beings involved)? I do not have any concrete answers at present but this is a line of questioning worth pursuing, both for this particular application and for machine learning in general.

Hope for the Future

The NFL (the National Football League) in the US has approved a policy that requires players to stand while the national anthem is played before matches. This effectively prevents the act of kneeling that some players, beginning with Colin Kaepernick, used to draw attention to racial tensions within the country. I found a fantastic headline in the Politico on this:

The Arc of History Bends a Knee Toward Kaepernick

This is, of course, a tribute to the iconic lines uttered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the march to Montgomery. Dr. King said that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends towards justice. These lines, borrowed from a nineteenth century preacher named Theodore Parker, are a cause for optimism. They emphasise that if you are on the path of righteousness, the world will eventually come around to your way of thinking, even if the odds seem stacked against you in the present.

Ta-Nehisi Coates highlighted this in a piece last year when he drew a parallel between the anthem protests and the civil rights movement. He said that the point of such protests and movements is not so much to convince your contemporaries, who are likely to have set opinions, but to reach out to future generations and make them understand what is right.

This is an idea worth holding close in the field of public policy. When a lot of what you advocate for goes against the grain of conventional thinking, it is reassuring to believe that things will take a turn for the better in the future.

No Sympathy for Exam Stress

As Indian high schoolers received board examination marks last week, their Chinese counterparts are appearing for their annual gaokao exams this week. The gaokao system, like the Indian board exams, receives a lot of flak for its many flaws. The gaokao examination in China usually determines where these students can pursue their college-level education. However, the main problem is that colleges require high gaokao scores for students who do not originate from that province. This is linked to the hukou system or the household registration scheme (almost an internal passport) which determines where you can work depending on your parent’s origin. As this Atlantic Times article puts it,

China’s prestigious Peking University and Tsinghua University, both based in Beijing, will collectively take about 84 students out of every 10,000 Beijingers who took the gaokao this June; 14 students from every 10,000 who took the gaokao in nearby Tianjin, 10 out of every 10,000 test-takers from Shanghai, and only about three per 10,000 candidates from Anhui,  and a mere two from every 10,000 taking the test in Guangdong.

This has led to a wave of ‘gaokao migrants’- people who move to other provinces or purchase land there so that their children will be able to take the exam in a province that has better universities. So authorities in provinces are now cracking down on those who are hoping to circumvent this system. According to this article in Sixth Tone, the province of Fujian, which has been seeing an increase in such gaokao migration, has cracked down on it:

To stem gaokao migration, Fujian education and police departments issued a joint notice on Monday clarifying the policies for students from elsewhere: Students must have had Fujian household registration for at least one year, and studied at a high school in the province for at least one year, before they qualify to take the exam in Fujian. In addition, their parents must have residency, stable employment, and records of social security payments in the province for at least one year.

Going forward, regulations will become even stricter: For students sitting the gaokao in 2019, the requirements will increase to two years, and three years for those taking the exams in 2020.

What this will mean is that migrants and people from low-income household will lose out either way. This is particularly disheartening, for a system that prides itself on its being a meritocracy.

The Ocean of Humanity

Ex-President Pranab Mukherjee’s speech at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS) headquarter has stirred up the proverbial hornets’ nest.

The RSS is not an academic institution. It is a cadre-based organisation with strong ideological moorings. Certitudes are important both for it’s existence and survival. Despite this, they invited probably the most cerebral and scholarly ideological opponent to address their valediction. It shows a certain confidence and suppleness that must be appreciated.

As for the citizen Mukherjee’s speech, it was impressive to say the least. The central feature of his speech was neither the invocation of Jawaharlal Nehru nor of the constitutional patriotism. For me, it was the reference to Tagore’s celebrated poem ‘Bharat Tirtha’. Tagore’s formulations on the nationalism and patriotism are important and have a contemporary resonance for a variety of reasons.

Tagore was in the search of an authentic Indianness. He expressed his vision lyrically in a number of poems and more concretely in the form of Shantiniketan, the institution he established and nurtured. His vision was rooted, yet cosmopolitan; traditional yet modern. Synthesis and reconciliation, and not recrimination, was it’s essence. Tagore was also the most important spokesperson of the Indian version of liberalism. His ‘Ekla chalo re’ is possibly the best articulation of an individual spirit unafraid of the collective tyranny and his ‘Chitto jetha bhayashunyo’ the most appropriate translation of the Kant’s Sapere Aude.

Needless to say, Tagore’s vision of India is very different from the ethnicity and identity centric versions of nationalism. If the subsequent discussions of Mukherjee’s provocative speech can bring out those nuances and rescue the richness of Tagore’s message from the collective amnesia, it will have served it’s purpose.

Women: The Unpaid Workers

“With an increase of 22.3 million in the male workforce between 2004-05 and 2009-10 being virtually cancelled out by a fall of more than 21 million in the female workforce, the need to understand the gender dimensions of employment trends in India has acquired a new urgency.”

Let the statistic sink in. The paper on ‘Gender Dimensions: Employment Trends in India, 1993-94 to 2009-10’ by Indrani Mazumdar, Neetha N, drives home the magnitude of the problem in front of us. The authors highlight that “the most striking revelation of the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) 66th round survey is a significant fall in the Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FWPR )between 2004-05 and 2009-10.” The paper expands on how the liberalisation, unlike the popular opinion, did not lead to an increase in the female labour force participation.

One of the key insights of the paper is the drastic increase in the number of unpaid women helpers. As per the NSSO, the employment activity categories have been segregated as self-employed, regular salaried and casual labour. Out of all the three segments, the highest proportion of female workforce is in the self-employed group. However within the self-employed group, the largest proportion of women are employed as unpaid women helpers. From 2004-2009, the total number of employed women rose from 61 to 72.5 per cent, while the regular salaried women only accounted for 9 per cent of the total number. These numbers clearly show that the increase in the FLFPR was mostly due to the increase in the unpaid job rather than the formal jobs.

The paper also shows how the characteristics of the unpaid jobs also varied between rural and urban regions. In rural regions, unpaid workers vary from peasant to supervisors. The jobs are also significantly dependent on the economic background of the household. For instances, the women are usually supervisors only if the land is owned by either their husbands or in-laws or fathers or parents. In urban spaces, the nature of the job is largely different as 43 per cent of the women are engaged in community and personal services which includes domestic workers, teachers, launderers, beauticians, and so on. The second biggest sector that hires unpaid women in urban region is the manufacturing sector (primarily home-based, piece-rated work). 

This disparity in the type of jobs and the variety of them is an indicator of how most of the women work at minimal wages and how vulnerable their jobs are. While in rural regions the family income defines their jobs, in the urban spaces they are mostly engaged in low wage and high risk jobs. With the large segment of women working in the informal spaces like domestic help and agriculture, one of the keys solutions to look at can be to formalise these sectors. A good example would be the increase in the number of online platforms like BookMyBai.

The Omnipotence of Advertising

Warning: Mild spoilers for the second season of Westworld to follow.

Westworld is a TV series that is synonymous with heavy conversations around artificial intelligence and what it means to be human in a world where the distinction between man and machine is blurry. It captures the zeitgeist well, tapping into the elemental fear of robots taking over and juxtaposing it with the ethical dilemma of treating the same robots as equals if they were to attain consciousness. But in the second episode of the ongoing season, a conversation between two characters, one old and one young, shows something else at the core of the fictional theme park: advertising.

The older character is deliberating on whether to invest in Westworld. According to him, the technology is great and it is all very well to create an immersive world that is fantastical, but these are not sufficient reasons to spend his money. The younger man interjects and says that what the theme park offers to the people who run it is far more valuable than what it offers to its guests. And this, he says, is the ability to peek into the lives of people, see what they desire, and use it for advertising and marketing. His argument is accepted.

This is a clever nod to the real world that already exists today, a world in which advertising is all pervasive and is made possible by the proliferation of data and the ways in which it can be processed. It is sobering to reflect on the impact this might have on the development of new technologies.

I’m looking forward now to see if the upcoming instalment of Jurassic World, set in another theme park, also manages to throw in a reference to advertising!

Political Will To Solve Jobs Problem

The recent 12th grade results declared by the Central Board of Secondary Education were a pleasant surprise for the Delhi government where the government schools took a 9 per cent lead in performance over private institutions. Although it is comforting to see that appropriate steps are being taken to improve the education system at school levels, we are yet to look at the larger problem facing us in the next few years- the problem of jobs.

One of the key features for the change was the political will and upfront commitment to bring about the change. Rohan Joshi, who has a vast experience of working in Education and Skill Development sectors, attributed the success to systematic engagement with the external stakeholders. He also mentioned that the political will translating into driving bureaucracy to focus on education quality among other factors have led to the remarkable achievement of Delhi Government Schools. He did, however, flag that while celebrating the achievement, we must also continue tracking progress in the coming years. Typically, 3 years is too short a time to reform an entire education system of a state. Overall, Delhi government has certainly taken the steps in the right direction, the point now is to build further upon this great start.

It is this political will that is required to solve other pressing issues like the jobs problem. With 12 million new people joining the workforce every year in the country for next few years and 29 million labour lying redundant in rural areas, it is the evident that India needs to create around 20 million jobs annually for next few years to satisfy the demand. This problem currently faces two broad issues- lack of political will to create systematic solutions and limited attention given to the quality of the solutions.

The lack of political will can be seen in the redundant attempts being made to redefine the level of unemployment rather than having discussions on increasing the number of jobs. One of the key learnings from the success of the Delhi government is that external stakeholders can have huge impact, if they are given proper targets and feedback. Hence, if there are NGOs incentivised to skill the labour or reduce the labour employee mismanagement, it would go a long way. This, of course, does not take the burden away from the government to create policies that ease up the labour laws and helps promote large manufacturers.

The other problem lies in how little attention is being paid to a problem of such magnitude. The atmosphere created over the years by the Delhi government focused on quality rather than quantity. Hence, the solutions went beyond just throwing money at the issue. With respect to jobs problem, the conversation hasn’t come to a point where the quality of jobs are being discussed. For instance, Prime Minister Modi in his infamous remark claimed that jobs like that of street-food vendor should also be included in the employment numbers. The conversation went back and forth on this paradigm but there is yet to be a substantial remark on the quality of jobs that need to be created for a country with the poverty and demographic levels as ours.

We have to take the conversation beyond just jobs or occupations and talk about sustainable work environment and employment options in the country. For instance, the policymakers should look at creating incentives to increase jobs that provide sustainable wages and decent work environment.

It is evident that enough work needs to be put in to sustain outcomes that the Delhi government saw in this year’s exam results. This one successful attempt has enough learning on how a motivated policy move can show positive results.

Social norms and the Bangalore Metro

I am a regular user of the Bangalore Metro. In the monstrosity that this city’s traffic is, Bangalore metro is an island full of all things beautiful. One can be sure of no pollution, no traffic snarls, no delays, functioning public utilities (elevators, escalators, etc.), clean platforms, and clean train compartments. There are no bins inside the compartments. In the three years of travelling on the Metro, I haven’t seen even one person eating inside the train let alone throw things there. Ditto for platforms.

I’m surprised by how the organised metro world is so different from the chaotic one you experience as soon as you step out of the metro station. In particular, the cleanliness inside the metro trains and stations causes cognitive dissonance. Even more so, if you think of the damaging behaviour that people usually have toward public transport.

What explains this rule-following by the otherwise rule-violating people that the Indians are? Mind you, people adhere to rules even though there are no guards inside the train compartments. While pondering over this question yesterday with colleagues, here are the few explanations that we came up with. Metro stations are ring-fenced and stepping inside this ring signals to the people that they must now play by the rules inside. There are surveillance cameras on the platform and inside the trains, so there is fear of humiliation if caught on camera. Fines/penalties inside the metro stations are spelt out and displayed, so people know their liability should they flout the rule. Metro stations, platforms, and trains are new, and people’s psychology is to not dirty what looks shiny and clean.

Last year the government started a new train, equipped with personal TV screens, clean toilets, and everything. The train was vandalised in the first journey. And one can argue that that was because for the people who boarded the train, it was only the train which was shiny new. The railway platform and the rest of the experience was same old same old. In contrast, once you enter the metro station, your “world” changes completely. For similar reasons, malls are less littered than BDA complexes.

So here are the questions that follow. If the same commuters are put in the trains and platforms run by the Indian Railways, will we achieve similar standards of cleanliness and rule-compliance? What does the Bangalore Metro tell us about social norms and how to create and change them?

The philosopher Christina Bichhieri says, “for a social norm to exist, social expectations must matter.” Should we then stop saying that “we are like this only” and look at how to change the expectations that we have of ourselves as a society? Will we have to recreate the world to change how people behave?

‘It Doesn’t Matter If You Are Muslim.’

Here’s a story a friend told me today, quoted with permission (though the friend doesn’t want to be named):

I was teaching Civics to 6th std kids and they are learning about our government etc. I was trying to encourage them to participate by both voting and running for power.

One of the kids quietly raised his hand up and said, “It doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, ma’am. No one will vote for me if I run for Prime Minister.”

I gave him a pep talk but I really know that all I uttered was bs.

I am pessimistic these days when it comes to this nation. But I also know that change happens fast, and the world can change in a generation. The US did elect a black president. (And compensated right after.) So who knows — 40 years later, that kid could run for office and win.

You think that’s possible?

Icarus, and Doping in Sports

Last night, my son and I were comparing notes on the Giro d’Italia, one of the Big 3 European cycling races, and speculating whether Chris Froome would be able to win the stage.

Waiting for race updates from the Guardian blog, I was bemused to see a photo of a spectator taunting Froome with a massive mock-up of an inhaler – Froome is fighting a legal battle for his rights to his last two racing titles over the salbutamol levels in his blood.

The next race update showed that Froome had raced down the last descent at an average of 53 km. an hour, with a peak speed of 80 km, and was now clear in the lead for his fourth grand tour in a row, a record unbeaten since Eddie Merckx, who retired in 1978.

Thinking about drugs in sports, I turned to ‘Icarus’ on Netflix, a riveting ‘accidental’ documentary. By a bizarre set of circumstances, a playwright and stand-up comic, Bryan Fogel, found himself in contact with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, Director of the Russian anti-doping center, and filmed the drama that ensued. It’s tough to believe that Grigory is not a masterpiece of film-writing and casting, as he is an engrossing, complex character, who happily helps Bryan Fogel devise a personal doping program that will beat the anti-doping system.

Meanwhile, WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, is crawling over the Russian lab, suspecting that the Russian sports system is not as clean as it claims. Grigory bails out, flies to the US, and with Bryan’s help, turns whistle-blower. The New York Times carries a massive story, the WADA gets in on the act, and given the amount of data Dr. Rodchenkov is able to offer up, concludes, “I can confirm, for years, that spectators have been deceived. The desire to win medals superseded their collective moral and ethical compass, and Olympic values.”

The 2016 Rio Olympics were weeks away, and WADA recommended to its parent organisation, the International Olympic Committee, that Russia be banned from the Rio games. The IOC passed the responsibility for the decision on to individual sports federations; eventually, 111 Russian athletes were banned, and 278 took part.

Given the time frame, and the paucity of data from Russia, I would assume falseness in both sets of Russian athletes. Having seen the film, I suspect the number of athletes on doping programs who came to Rio was significantly more than those not on drugs who stayed away.

This is probably true of most professional sports – the doping docs stay one step ahead of the anti-doping docs, and in some cases, the two are the same. For a top-level athlete, its probably safe to assume that your competitor is doping. Looking for that tiny extra edge to get on top, it must be really tough to stay away from the magic mushrooms.

Is it even worth trying? Is the Olympic promise of a drug-free games achievable? Or would a laissez faire approach be more honest – find the training regimen, needles and pills included, that sails your boat…