This is an excerpt from the sixth edition of the India Exclusion Report, a collaborative effort involving institutions and individuals working with a shared notion of social and economic equity, justice and rights. The report seeks to inform public opinion around exclusion and the role of the state and to influence policy-making towards creating a more inclusive, equitable and just society. The annual publication is anchored by the Centre for Equity Studies and edited by its director, Harsh Mander.

Delivering public services – which we should now realise is absolutely essential – necessarily requires employing people. While the neoliberal focus has been on attempts to “shrink the State” on the grounds of corruption and inefficiency, sensible people have long recognised that high levels of public employment tend to be associated with better quality of life for people in a society.

Essential services – from infrastructure to amenities to security to social services – mostly have to be delivered by governments, because private markets simply do not provide them, or under-provide them, and also because private provision, which is based on profitability, delivers much more unequal results.

In India, public employment is not only inadequate, but has been falling in relation to population. As in many countries in recent years, there has been both a shrinking of public employment and a deterioration of the conditions of work (including job security) of many who deliver public services. This contributes materially to inequality, as it reduces access to essential social services and makes basic conditions of life more difficult for those who cannot afford to buy such services commercially.

At the same time, public employment is itself an arena of intense inequality, with very many different types of employees, ranging from the most well-paid, secure, privileged and powerful, to the most underpaid, insecure, marginalised and disempowered of workers. These differences overlap with other forms of hierarchy and discrimination, and simultaneously create conditions of unjustified inclusion and unfair exclusion with respect to public services.

Since so many essential services must be provided by governments, and it is impossible to provide them without employing people to do so, the extent of public employment us a useful indicator of the coverage and quality of public services. By this indicator, India performs very poorly: public employment in India is only one-tenth of that in Norway, only 15% of that in Brazil and much less than a third of that in China.

Clearly, India is hugely under-providing public services in a wide range of activities. It is, therefore, no surprise that so many people in India remain excluded from the essential public services that ensure quality of life or receive such services only very partially and inadequately.

This reflects a stagnation and even decline in the number of sanctioned government posts since the mid-1990s, with the downsizing of Central government posts since 1994 and fiscal constraints of several state governments over this period. (Of course, there is significant diversity across state governments in this regard, with some states providing more and better funded public services than others.) Meanwhile, governments at both Central and state levels have been very backward in filling the vacancies in existing posts. As a result, in 2014, nearly 7.5 lakh positions were lying vacant in the Central government alone, amounting to almost one in five of all sanctioned positions. Even as late as February 2020, more than 6.8 lakh posts were vacant in the Central government.

Central government employment is estimated to constitute only around 14% of total public employment in India, the remainder being with the state governments, which are largely responsible for public security and social services. While we do not have estimates for all state governments, assuming a similar ratio of vacant posts amounts to 38.8 lakh vacant posts in 2014.

Since then, indications are that such vacancies have only increased. Simply filling the vacancies would go some way towards addressing the current employment crisis in India; it would also mean much more extensive and better quality delivery of public services, because most such services cannot be delivered without people. The results of these gaps are only too evident. Stories abound across the country – of schools catering to several hundred children having only three or four teachers, of villages that are simply not served by agricultural extension officers, of health facilities that do not have adequate numbers of doctors and nurses, and so on.

A teacher in Gujarat's Gandhinagar district. Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP

The structure of public employment is also unbalanced. Among the Central public sector enterprises, employment in Central Public Sector Enterprises fell by as much as 2.2 lakhs between 2011-2012 and 2017-2018. The biggest declines in such employment were not at the managerial and supervisory levels, but among “non-executive” workers of all kinds, so fewer actual workers were being handled by relatively more managers and supervisors.

Even worse, among such “non-executive” workers, the proportion that are under contract or casual/daily work has increased significantly. By 2017-2018, such insecure workers accounted for more than one-third of the actual workforce. Less secure contracts and deteriorating conditions of work are bad for workers and also have implications for the workings of such enterprises and for long-term productivity gains, because the advantages of “learning by doing” are less likely to be realised.

An increasing number of important activities are not even counted among those regularly employed by the government, most significantly those working under various schemes. The most glaring examples come from the Integrated Child Development Scheme and the National Health Mission, whose lakhs of workers – predominantly women – are not classified as workers and not paid even the legal minimum wages.

Currently, there are estimated to be as many as 12.9 lakh Anganwadi workers and 11.6 Anganwadi helpers under the Integrated Child Development Scheme alone, so they total a number that comes to more than 60% of the official central government positions. Therefore, “informal” public workers without the status or benefits of regular government employees actually form the majority in public employment, with serious implications on both the quantity and quality of public services, as well as for the rights of such workers.

Jobs without benefits

Scheme workers, for example, are not recognised as public employees by the government, and are paid “honoraria” rather than wages, which, in fact, mostly fall well below the minimum wages. They also do not receive any of the usual benefits associated with government employment such as security of tenure, minimum wages, social security and so on. Often, they do not even have proper written contracts. The average wage received by women regular public workers in rural areas is only around half of that received by men – a shockingly large wage gap. a continuation and intensification of a terrible failing of official policy in the past two decades: the attempt to provide essential social services on the cheap, by exploiting the underpaid labour of women.

The pandemic should have underscored the extreme importance of a public healthcare system and the folly of privatisation of essential services. Nevertheless, the plight of public health providers during the pandemic has been hugely aggravated, because in addition to being understaffed, overworked, underpaid and undervalued by society, they now face additional risks in terms of health and physical safety hazards.

The pandemic has exposed them to five additional challenges: shortage of Personal Protective Equipment such that they are often forced to reuse such equipment, use faulty equipment or simply manage without any, all of which pose extreme health hazards; longer working hours because of inadequate personnel, even though it is now clear that this is a major health hazard; increased risk of infection; instances of violence against healthcare workers; and social and family impacts, including stigma, ostracisation and ill treatment by other members of society.

While some of these concerns reflect broader unpleasant tendencies within society that need to be altered, several of these issues could be eased drastically by significantly enhanced public spending, which should be an absolutely necessary element of any future plan for public employment.

Health workers in Ahmedabad collect personal data from a man on December 14 as they prepare a list during a door-to-door survey for the coronavirus vaccination drive in India. Credit: Amit Dave/Reuters

The post-pandemic period must see significant increases in public expenditure on education and health, especially primary and secondary health, including for the urban and rural poor. This will require a tripling or more of the necessary personnel to enable quality public services in these sectors to be provided in a manner that is free and accessible to all. The “care economy” provides immense scope for increasing employment.

Anganwadi workers and ASHAs who provide essential services to the population, including during this pandemic, are paid a pittance and treated with extreme unfairness. Their status must be improved; they must be treated as regular government employees and given proper remuneration and associated benefits. In addition, the programme must be expanded to cover all rural settlements, including those currently excluded, as well as greatly expanded coverage in settlements of the urban poor.

The countercyclical and employment generating potential of the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee scheme suggests that this programme must be expanded greatly and revamped, with all pending wage arrears paid immediately. The 100-days of work limit per household should be lifted to enable all adults to access wage employment for 200 days per year. The permissible work in the programme must include not just agricultural and construction work, but also work in care activities as well as in rural enterprises. In urban areas, it is now time to introduce an Urban Employment Guarantee Programme to serve diverse groups of the urban unemployed, including the educated unemployed.

Ultimately, public employment should not be seen simply as a fiscal cost, but as crucial for a just, healthy, equitable and peaceful society, and playing a hugely important role in economic revival.

Read the other excerpts from the India Exclusion Report for 2019-’20 here.