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View: Job quotas for locals make disastrous economic and federal sense


‘Bengal wants its daughter only’ (Bangla nijer meykei chay) is the latest Trinamool Congress (TMC) election jingle being pumped into phones in the state. It’s certainly straight out of the central government’s ‘Vocal for Local’ toolkit. Pitted against the ‘India-Made Foreign Leader’ charms of Narendra Modi is Mamata Banerjee’s ‘Make in Bengal’ appeal. But for all its parochial parade, the Bengal government has not announced a policy that seems to be the rage among many states these days: reservation of jobs in the private sector for ‘locals’.

True, one reason Bengal hasn’t pulled the ‘more jobs for locals’ rabbit out of the hat is that it doesn’t have a serious unemployment problem. Haryana — which kicked things off in earnest by notifying the Haryana State Employment of Local Candidates Act, 2020 on March 2 that reserves 75% new jobs in private companies with a salary below Rs 50,000 a month for local candidates (‘domiciled in the state of Haryana’) for a period of ten years – is on top of the unemployment league. According to February 2021 Centre for Monitoring Economy (CMIE) data, Haryana has a 26.4% unemployment rate, well above the national average of 6.9%.

Bengal’s 6.2% is politically hunky dory. Also, to talk about any need to protect locals from ‘outsiders taking jobs’ – except ‘outsiders’ wishing to open shop to rule the state — would be an admission of policy failure with popular repercussions at a time when BJP is presenting itself as the harbinger of a Bengal Renaissance.

But policy failure compounding policy failure is what ‘quotas for locals’ will amount to. It is, however, an easy thing to sell. How hard is it to sell people that you’re out of a job, or don’t have a better job, because someone from another state has taken it — and not because you may not be very good at doing it yourself? Think Brexit. Think H-1B visa clampdowns. It’s the oldest trick in the book.

Jharkhand’s JMM government is reportedly following Haryana by notifying its own ‘local quota’ policy — reservation of 75% private sector jobs up to a salary of Rs 30,000 a month for locals. In poll-bound Tamil Nadu, DMK has stated in its manifesto — as the Jannayak Jana Party (JJP), partner of the BJP-led ruling alliance in Haryana, as well as the ruling JMM in Jharkhand stated in their manifestos before the 2019 polls in those two states — that it will bring in quotas for locals for both private and public sector jobs if elected.

There’s a keen irony that after Covid lockdowns last year, Manohar Lal Khattar had appealed to migrant workers not to leave Haryana. More to the point, the notion of hordes rushing in from another is a bogey. According to the 2011 census, interstate migrants in the urban workforce in 2001-11 formed a national average of about 8%, much migration actually being intra-state.

There needs to be more – not less – movement of workforce between states that lie, last heard, within undisputed territories of the Union of India. Reserving jobs for ‘locals’ blunts competitiveness and kills skill availability. The states peddling the ‘more jobs for locals’ snake oil charm are not just targeting construction workers and unskilled workers. Monthly salaries of Rs 20,000-40,000 means nurses, healthcare workers, teachers, white collar employees in the private sector. Allowing the criterion of geographical location (read: those on the voter list) to supersede merit and skill demolishes enterprise and anything remotely associated with quality.

What’s sauce for the golden goose of Silicon Valley is sauce for Gurugram gander – the sauce being the free flow of skilled labour, especially at a time when future skills are being defined. In 2018, Tata Consultancy Services won a class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination against ‘local’ non-South Asian workers in the US. The court ruling noted that ‘locals demonstrate far greater resistance to TCS’s universal requirement as an IT consulting business for employees to relocate if the best role for them required it’. So, if Haryana’s local populace does become the ‘go-to’ workforce for, say, auto design or genomics or selling biscuits, companies will rush in to hire them without the need for localisation laws being thrust from above.

Till that happens, another kind of localisation should be aggressively fostered. If the Covid pandemic reminded us the value of one thing, it’s the value of local enterprises — the vegetable trolley ‘downstairs’, the local liquor thek, the 5-km radius within which your food delivery apps deliver. Applying this nativism to have schools, medical centres, entertainment centres, libraries sprout near you according to demand will foster a genuinely able local workforce, in conjunction with constant skill transfer from ‘outside’.

At a time when intra-state movement of labour is being strengthened by measures such as ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’, and the spirit of a unified Indian market entailed in GST, quotas for locals goes dead against a freer market. One needn’t even have to pull out what the Constitution states to bolster equality of law irrespective of place of birth (Article 14), against discrimination in (public) employment (Article 15), and free movement to all Indian citizens across India (Article 19). The 2014 verdict of the ‘Charu Khurana vs Union of India’ case, in which a trade union debarred a worker as she had not lived in Maharashtra for ‘at least five years,’ is a handy precedent, though, to junk such ‘tukde tukde’ quotas.

For states to think like supreme soviets, imposing their command creakonomics on private companies, will only signal the flight of business, enterprise and capital, human capital included. Something that West Bengal is sorely familiar with.

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