Number Theory: How did lockdown affect jobs in election states?

Updated on Jan 25, 2022 05:58 AM IST

India’s average unemployment rate saw a big jump during the quarter ended April-June 2020. At 14.7%, it increased 1.7 times compared to April-June 2019.

The latest quarterly and annual figures from PLFS are available until March 2021 and June 2020.(HT File Photo | Representational Image)
The latest quarterly and annual figures from PLFS are available until March 2021 and June 2020.(HT File Photo | Representational Image)
ByAbhishek Jha

Jobs (or actually, the promise of jobs) are a big part of election campaigns in India. The forthcoming election cycle is no exception. 

Lack of timely data makes it difficult to analyse the latest employment trends in a state before elections. 

Jobs (or actually, the promise of jobs) are a big part of election campaigns in India. The forthcoming election cycle is no exception. 

Lack of timely data makes it difficult to analyse the latest employment trends in a state before elections. 

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Data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), the official source of employment statistics in India, is released in two formats. Quarterly bulletins give estimates of urban employment without many details, while annual data provides a comprehensive picture of the employment scenario across quarters. 

The latest quarterly and annual figures from PLFS are available until March 2021 and June 2020. This data can be used to answer an important question. Which of these states suffered the most on the employment front in the April-June quarter of 2020, when India had its most stringent lockdown?

While the April-June 2020 quarter seems a long time ago, the fact that India went through a bruising second wave, albeit without any nationwide lockdown, and is now in the midst of a third wave may imply, at the least, some overhang from that period. Whether it will have a political impact remains to be seen.

Unemployment rate

India’s average unemployment rate saw a big jump during the quarter ended April-June 2020. At 14.7%, it increased 1.7 times compared to April-June 2019. 

Three out of the five states (Goa, Punjab, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand) going to polls saw unemployment rates higher than the national average during this period. Having increased from 8.2% to 24.4%, Uttarakhand’s unemployment rate saw the sharpest increase.

To be sure, the official unemployment rates given in PLFS underestimate the degree of joblessness in the Indian economy. This was explained in an August 2021 HT analysis by Ishan Anand and Anjana Thampi. 

It is because the official category of employed persons includes the sub-category of people looking for jobs. Accounting for this fact, Goa appears to have been the worst-hit state during the lockdown, where almost half of the labour force could be considered unemployed.

Quality of employment worsened

Because regular workers are the best paid in India, a decline in their share among all workers signifies a worsening in the quality of unemployment. 

A simple comparison of the share of three major employment categories – regular, self-employed and casual – shows that the share of regular workers actually went up in three of the five poll-bound states between the quarter ended June 2019 and June 2020. 

This is more a statistical anomaly than proof of workers moving to better jobs during the lockdown. It can be seen clearly once we break up regular wage and self-employed workers in the relevant categories. 

The data show an increase in regular workers and self-employed workers who were employed and not working, or doing unpaid labour.

Shift towards agricultural employment

In all states, except Punjab, the distribution of workers shifted towards agriculture. 

If we leave aside Goa, where the share of such workers remained comparatively low even despite this shift, the biggest such shifts happened in Manipur and Uttarakhand. 

In the former, the major shift was from the services sector, whereas in the latter the major shift was from industries. That such a shift was relatively less in Uttar Pradesh is not a cause for cheer either, as the agriculture sector in the state already employed 50% of workers in April-June 2019.

People moved back to villages in lockdown, but did not find jobs

The quarterly bulletins of urban employment are available up to March 2021, but this analysis has avoided looking at those bulletins alone. It is not just because of detailed categories of employment are absent in quarterly bulletins, but also because of the bigger contribution of rural areas in the employment crisis.

In April-June 2019, in all states except Manipur and Uttarakhand, labour force participation was higher in urban than in rural areas. 

Unemployment rate was also, perhaps because of the trend in the labour force participation rate (LPFR), which was higher in urban areas generally in all states (except Manipur).

This changed during the lockdown months in 2020. Either the rural LFPR became higher than urban LFPR, or closed the gap, which is consistent with anecdotal accounts of migrants returning to their villages. 

These returning migrants did not necessarily find jobs. Except in Manipur, whose trends were opposite to other states even in 2019, the proportional increase in rural unemployment rate was higher than in urban areas.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Abhishek Jha is a data journalist. He analyses public data for finding news, with a focus on the environment, Indian politics and economy, and Covid-19.

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