Chronic unemployment and underemployment are the main issues around poverty. When we analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the poor, we can identify that one of the major strengths is the labor they provide. But a key issue is how to create opportunities for these poor people for sustainable income generation in order to reduce inequality. In productive employment, the most important category of people that needs to be addressed is youth and women. It is often understood that rapid economic growth potentially brings more employment. But one must be mindful of the growth in proportion to the ability of the poor people to respond to the demand for labor. In other words, is the labor among the poor capable of responding to productive employment? Or is the labor skilled to respond to the rapid economic growth scenario? I am working with the indigenous people or tribals known as Katkaris in the western district of Raigad, which is in the civil state of Maharashtra, India. The major strength of the tribals here is abundant labor, but they are haunted by a lack of access to quality education, lack of skills and opportunities, landlessness, etc.
Productive Employment and Decent Jobs
Therefore, creating more jobs at all levels by enhancing skills and addressing the above impediments of the labor towards checking increasing inequality is a matter of concern. India, with a vast and rich cultural heritage, is the cradle of cultural richness with several languages, dialects, dances, and folklore. India is primarily an agro-based country, and industries play a vital role along with agriculture activities. Innovative developments at the level of the agricultural sector, industrial sector, etc., are key to reducing poverty, inequality, and marginalization. More than two-thirds of the total working population’s livelihood comes from the agricultural sector, which makes up 15% of the Gross Domestic Production (GDP). Hence, the priority needs to be enhancing agricultural activities, farmer-friendly policies, educating conventional farmers to shift towards intensive farming, addressing marginal farmers’ issues, better irrigation facilities, conducive marketing system for farmers, addressing the issue of landlessness, etc., so that the productive employability is addressed, from there small and medium scale enterprises and promotion of micro projects need to take off.
Productive employment often addresses quantitative aspects of labor, and the aspects related to the quality of labor, viz. dignity, security, freedom, and equity, are ignored. For example, in spite of the (1976) Indian Equal Remuneration Act, which says ‘to provide for equal remuneration to men and women for similar work, here in India, a woman laborer still earns less wages per day than her male counterpart, in spite of the equal amount of work done. So, gender equality is the need of the hour.
Inequalities due to COVID-19 Pandemic
The Covid 19 hit India very badly, both in the first and second waves: many casualties, unprecedented lockdown, and migrant workers walking thousands of kilometers back to their villages. The middle class, lower middle class, and the poor are the most affected. They lost their jobs. India’s income inequality reached its painful peak. Today’s scenario in the country is that the number of billionaires rose to 166 from 102, with their combined wealth nearly doubling to US$ 660 billion (INR 54.12 lakh crore). The richest 21 Indian billionaires have more wealth than 700 million Indians. So, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening; inequality is rising.
The government spent 137 percent more on health during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the delays in making vaccines available free of cost, and the overnight lockdown that led to millions losing jobs and migrants walking back home to their villages, in addition to chronically inadequate public healthcare and patchy ration delivery, emptied the wallets of many Indian families. The migrant families pulled their older children out of school as they moved back to villages and put them to work to overcome financial distress. India thus faces a future shortage of skilled and healthy workforce. Due to this, increasing patterns of inequality in the education and skill development sector are seen.
The most affected in the market are the Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). The MSMEs have a major role in the Indian economy as it has around 45% share in national industrial output, around 70% in industrial employment, and approximately 40% in exports. So this is one of the most important sectors affected by Covid-19, with the informal or unorganized sector of the rural and urban communities being the worst hit. The income inequality gap widened. The pre-Covid 19 marginalized communities were further pushed to the margins. There are efforts from the government to revive this sector with various schemes, but the growth could be faster. It needs a holistic approach to revive this sector and bring about inclusive growth to reduce the inequality caused by Covid-19.
High levels of inequality have diminished the resilience of many societies to respond to – and recover from – the awful shock of the COVID-19 crisis. Informality is one of the main reasons for often very high levels of inequality in developing countries. The situation has since worsened with the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, with those working in the informal economy being more likely than those in the formal economy either to fall into poverty or to become more deeply impoverished. The COVID-19 crisis has affected the performance of different sectors and enterprises unequally, sparing or boosting some of them while others have faced the consequences of extreme lockdown measures. Inadequate social protection during the COVID-19 pandemic has been catastrophic for informal workers and informal enterprises. Fighting Gender Inequality in India during and before the COVID-19 pandemic is another important area of concern. With the local experiences of the enormous labor force that needs proper education, skill development, handholding, guidance, and the way forward, let us work together. Together we can make a difference.