The world is witnessing an unprecedented moment right now. A proliferating sense of revolution has captured the imagination of people across different countries – whether it is the water-like protest in Hong Kong, the burning sense of injustice in Australia, or the lack of grounded policies in Peru. The massive scale of these movements has left most observers baffled. While some are questioning the very need for the protests, others are getting their bones broken and even giving up their lives for their voices to be heard. The situation is not very different in India. Citizens of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds can be seen in huge numbers, occupying the streets across the country. This has unsurprisingly left those who do not believe in the cause(s) to wonder how these people are finding the time to spend on such frivolous activities. “Don’t they have any jobs?”, many ask. Others, who specifically have a problem with the student protestors, wonder why “freeloaders” studying something as inconsequential as languages (like Russian or Chinese) should have an opinion on domestic policies.
These are actually great questions.
In the midst of all the chaos created by the current socio-political predicament, we have been presented with a tremendous opportunity to raise crucial questions about the state of the Indian economy, as well as our understanding of livelihoods as a society — issues that had otherwise taken a backseat.
The unemployment situation in India today is one of the worst the country has ever seen. According to the data published by the National Statistical Office, India’s unemployment rate was 6.1% in 2017-18, the highest it has been in over four decades. While the government cautions that changes in the methodology of calculation have left the data incomparable to previous years, the same report shows that the number of unemployed individuals doubled between 2011-12 and 2017-18 to a whopping 2.8 crore people.
It would be reasonable to assume that not much has changed in the last couple of years. Even today, roughly about 2.8 crore people are likely to have no sustainable means of livelihood. If we assume even about a third of these to be active job seekers, we are left with a substantial number of people whose sense of productivity, accomplishment and well-being (and even purpose?) are not being met. So where are they going?
According to a Naukri.com survey hiring activity actually increased in December 2019, led by industries like Information Technology and Business Process Outsourcing. According to a report in the Economic Times, even though 2020 is expected to be a year of low overall increments, those with skills in artificial intelligence, information technology, machine learning, data science, agile project management and related fields are expected to receive a premium in order for the companies to retain them. The highest paying jobs are still going to individuals with degrees in computer engineering or business administration, insights from LinkedIn tell us. Those who do not possess these skills are being sold learning opportunities by both the government as well as private players. Skilling and upskilling are being positioned as the next best thing, after the conventionally celebrated degrees.
In this context, data released by the Human Resource Development Ministry, which shows that the highest undergraduate enrolment in 2018-19 was in the Arts streams, but the highest number of enrolments for PhD were in the Sciences, makes one wonder where all the students from the former stream go? Are they simply disinterested students who come to get any degree they can? Are further studies in different Arts streams (which include subjects like economics, sociology, history, etc., that have founded the basis for human society) not attractive enough? Or do they switch streams (especially with all the data sciences courses available today), because anybody who studies a subject from the arts, humanities or social sciences is considered to have a seemingly insignificant contribution to the country’s industrial growth?
While we tell ourselves that the range of occupations available to the youth today have expanded manifold, the support given to these ‘alternate’ pursuits is still abysmal, not only in terms of resources, but also acceptance in society.
On one level, this seems practical. If the fields with the highest growth projection are Information Technology and Artificial Intelligence, they will naturally attract more investment as well as engagement from the workforce. On the other hand, skilling unemployed individuals as per these projections will only improve their ability and chances of getting employment. While these are all fair arguments, there is one crucial detail we seem to have forgotten – we are all humans embedded within a society. The modernisation and industrialisation project (astutely predicted by Charlie Chaplin) has taken us so far on the path of productivity and efficiency, that we have ignored the reality of social dependencies all around us. Nothing we do is in isolation to the social context that we live in, and any number of purely technical specialisations cannot help us see that. Many pathbreaking innovators and scientists across time have deeply understood this fact and engaged in a number of arts and social sciences to develop their ideas.
Albert Einstein was famously known for being a music enthusiast and also an amateur pianist and violinist. “If I were not a physicist,” he once said, “I would probably be a musician. I often think in music.”1 For him, intuition and imagination were where insights came from. “Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve all his difficulties,” Einstein’s son Hans had said2. Scientists in recent times have also been able to understand and visualise some of the hardest concepts in mathematics and physics by taking the help of art. In 2004, when scientists spotted eddies of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star using the Hubble Space Telescope, they were struck by the semblance it had to Van Gogh’s Starry Night. This inspired them to study more of Van Gogh’s paintings, and they noticed one of the most difficult concepts in mathematics and physics – turbulence – depicted effortlessly in many of them.
We can go further back in time to see how the work of polymaths such as Aristotle and Leonardo Da Vinci expanded the boundaries of human thought and knowledge, or to more recent times, when Nobel Laureates such as Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo are combining concepts from sociology and psychology to better understand those struck by poverty, and hence design more effective economic and developmental programmes and interventions for them. Or even in the field of cinema, where Filmmaker James Cameron and his colleague Vince Pace took ten years to develop the Fusion Camera System with technicians at Sony, to revolutionise special effects and the 3D format. The question is not about replacing one hierarchy with the other, but about breaking down the structures that force us to think in linear ways about everything from society and politics, to livelihood and what we do and create as a result of that.
The industrialisation project has created a world where the primary purpose in life is to make money, which makes livelihoods the central question for all of us to deal with. That is why, when the students of a nation raise their voices against injustice, shake things up, and are joined by members of society from all age groups and demographic backgrounds, the immediate question raised is, “Don’t they have any work to do?”
What good is that work if it is not embedded in the kind of society that we want to live in; one which professes holistic growth, equality, fairness and dialogue? If we get stuck concerning ourselves with systems that ensure our livelihoods, those systems get stuck in time, resulting in either stagnation or deterioration of the human project.
Now that we have arrived at a moment when these fundamental questions are coming up, and are presenting us with an opportunity to rethink our ingrained conceptions, it is important to reflect on what brought us here, the important aspects of human interaction and thought we have left behind in the process, and what all, at this point in time, can be reclaimed.
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015