I was on a Bengaluru city bus on my way home from the airport recently when I overheard the conductor and the driver animatedly talking to each other about how “just-pass” Indians were the happiest in the country. They realised I was listening and started addressing me in Kanglish, a frequently used Kannada and English street patois. They saw my bemused expression and thought it reflected skepticism.

“Saar, namma maat keli [Sir, listen to what we have to say],” said the mustachioed driver, as he wove his big Volvo through traffic with dexterity, and gestured to his friend. “Eeega nodi [Now look here],” the conductor – a lean man with twinkling eyes and a two-day stubble – took over. “Many people, full education, but not happy. We people see, just-pass people, full happy.”

Adu hege?” How is that, I asked.

The conductor and driver looked at each other in triumph. They had an audience.

“Saar, just-pass people happy with Rs 100,” said the conductor. “Eating, drinking, sleeping anywhere. Naavu maarda kelege santoshavagirruteve [We can live happily under a tree]. Can sleep there, no hotel needed. College people needing hotel, still unhappy.”

Surviving modern India

As I alighted, I ruminated on what appeared to be a well-articulated, if rare, philosophy about surviving modern India, a nation low on education and learning but high on dreams, aspiration and expectation. A yawning chasm between education and expectations particularly manifests itself when thousands of unemployable graduates, including engineers, lawyers, even PhDs, line up for – in what is now a national spectacle – jobs as street sweepers and clerks. The chasm is evident when the media routinely report how jobless or semi-employed young scamsters or criminals get on the quick, easy and illegal path to wealth. The chasm reveals itself as young men – whether stone-throwing separatists in Kashmir, Hindu extremists involved in lynching minorities or various caste and religious groups that vandalise public and private property for a variety of reasons – who take to the streets to vent larger frustrations.

These frustrations are brought about by a heightened awareness of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the illusion that the good life – delivered through advertisements on mobile phones and television screens – is just around the corner. The key to understanding these frustrations is an exploration of the inability to find decent employment (although that is not the only reason for despair). “Work”, as the latest annual report of India’s labour ministry notes, “is part of everyone’s daily life and is crucial to one’s dignity, well-being and development as a human being”.

Finding a job and finding a job that satisfies your dignity and fulfills your expectations are different things, and India fails on both counts. “India creates too few jobs to meet the aspiration of its growing workforce, leaving many people underemployed, poorly paid or outside the labour force,” said the 2017 Economic Survey of India, released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of rich countries. “Despite strong economic growth, the employment rate has declined…and job creation in the organised sector has declined.”

Jobs crisis

Bad as this sounds, the reality may be worse. Less than 20% of Indians have a salaried job (half are self-employed, largely because they could not find a job) and even those who find employment are likely to be unhappy with what they do for a living.

No more than a third of India’s workers have a written job contract, according to the latest available data from the National Sample Survey Office. And of the elite among blue-collar workers – the 28% with a job in organised manufacturing – an increasing number are in jobs with little security. Over 13 years to 2013, the share of contract labour in organised manufacturing almost doubled, according to data from the Annual Survey of Industries. That is not ideal because contract workers earn nearly a third less than one with a permanent job. It is not very different with doctors, teachers and nurses, many of whom find themselves on contract even in government service.

If you consider official statistics, which are clearly unreliable and register partial and distress employment as work, India is doing well. Over two years to 2016, India’s overall unemployment rate rose by only 0.3% to 3.7%, the minister of labour told Parliament in January. (A respected Mumbai think-tank estimated that rate at 7.1% by February, or about 31 million jobless in a workforce of 425 million). But disaggregate even the older, official data, and it emerges that nearly a third (18%) of those with degrees (28% in rural areas) do not have a job. For instance, about six in 10 Indian engineers are unemployed.

The bare national truth about employment was captured by a 2016 report of the labour ministry: 77% of India’s households did not have a person with a regular wage. In short, the majority of Indians are doomed to a job that they do not want or accept in desperation, such as the engineer who lines up to be a sweeper.

In any case, expectations are not, as I said, only a function of jobs.

Almost all Indians – with a good job or not – also have mobile phones, devices that exponentially accelerate expectations. In previous generations, aspirations were limited because few were aware of what they were missing.

Glimpses of what might be comes at us all the time now – through WhatsApp forwards, YouTube videos, tweets, Facebook posts and cable television: Advertisements with perfect families in perfect homes; the lifestyles of the 1%; reality shows that make millionaires out of nobodies; a million ways to dream and aspire to a new life; and the stories of the sons and daughters of masons and auto drivers who became champion athletes or bankers. The message is, study well, work hard and the world is waiting. Much of that message is lost in the process of dodgy education, with only a tiny elite gaining access to the kind of education required to achieve the Indian dream. For instance, the latest National Achievement Survey of 1.54 million Class 10 students in 44,514 schools nationwide found, as the Hindustan Times reported, that students from state education boards – whose students form the vast bulk of schools and come from poorer families – do considerably worse than those of independent, national boards that cater to richer, better schools. Learning levels, as the Annual Status of Education Reports chronicle, are falling in private and public schools meant for the general population.

There is little doubt that life has improved for Indians, particularly over the last 30 years, but the reality is that only a fraction of Indians will achieve their ever-rising aspirations of wanting it all here and now. There is evidence that as Indians become richer, their aspirations are expanding disproportionately, and no government, regardless of the jobs it generates and education it provides, can do anything more than manage those expectations.

Growing inequality

Apart from the jobs crisis, Indians are suffering the impact of growing inequality, weaker social support networks, a less generous society, and fewer reasons to experience positive emotions such as laughter, at a time when they are feeling more negative emotions such as worry and anger, IndiaSpend reported in May 2018, after the UN World Happiness Report found Indians richer but less happy over the last three years and the least happiest people in South Asia.

To be happy then, is a function of moderating expectations. Obviously, that is easier said than done, which is why the driver-conductor duo of Bengaluru were clearly onto something with their low-expectations philosophy.

Just before getting off the bus, I asked them about their educational achievements. The driver braked for a scooter trying to cut in front of him and, with a wide grin, said: “Just pass saar! All classes, just pass; but in life, full enjoy.”