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Sun, sands and joblessness: A Goan story

The Goa model of economic development ignores the needs and interests of citizens, while relying on migrant labour, a considerable proportion of whom are vulnerable. (Photo: Getty)Premium
The Goa model of economic development ignores the needs and interests of citizens, while relying on migrant labour, a considerable proportion of whom are vulnerable. (Photo: Getty)

  • Goa’s inability to ensure proper jobs for its native population has become a serious election issue
  • Experts say industrial and educational policies are not in sync. The jobs available are not aspirational for many graduates who migrate to other cities. Goa’s businesses, in turn, rely on migrant workers.

PANJIM : On a crisp winter evening in the north Goa village of Tivim, things are heating up on stage as Manoj Parab launches into his trademark fiery denunciation of vote bank politics that favour “outsiders" over the indigenous “niz Goenkar".

“What is our place in this broken system," he asks, “when our jobs and land are taken away?" Telling his youthful audience to “look for the football symbol when voting", he urges them to “show the world our revolution."

The familiar catchphrase of his Revolutionary Goans Party (RG) drives the crowd wild, everyone chanting the Konkani word for fire: “Uzzo! Uzzo!"

Parab’s rally is just one more surreal aspect of Goa’s 2022 election season, which culminates with the polls on 14 February. Here, the national media has remained agog, but the most significant story is nonetheless almost entirely off-camera. This is nativism, and the steadily burgeoning politics of disaffection, which has exploded from hashtags on social media directly onto the hustings.

While every other party will likely swing that way in the future, it is Parab’s brand-new outfit riding the current wave. RG was formed in 2017 but the Election Commission of India recognized it only in January this year. This debutant is the only political force other than the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to contest all 40 seats.

RG’s anarchic appeal centres around its proposed The Person of Goan Origin (POGO) Bill, purporting to “protect the rights of the person of Goan origin of [the] State of Goa in respect of jobs, benefits of various government schemes, education". At every campaign appearance, Parab declares he will ensure the legislation gets tabled even if his party wins only one seat. Each time he says it, the audience rises to its feet to give him a standing ovation.

These rhetorical pyrotechnics are undoubtedly entertaining, especially because RG’s entire 2022 cohort–with the possible exception of Parab–is certain to lose their deposits once votes are counted. Nonetheless, the forces propelling his party are not at all funny. They highlight a less flattering side to Goa’s well-known economic report card of being one of the richest states—a failure in the inter-related issues of higher education and jobs.

While Goans have noticed this failure at least since the 1980s, the unemployment data now sets off every alarm bell. We will come to this in a bit.

To be sure, numbers from different studies and surveys lay out an exceedingly complicated picture. The NITI Aayog’s 2021 Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) appears to indicate that Goa is well ahead of the other four states where assembly polls are being held this season—Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab, Uttarakhand and Manipur. Only 3.76% of Goa’s citizens are registered as officially deprived, in the three weighted dimensions of education, health, and standard of living. By contrast, the percentage is 37.79% in UP. According to an analysis by the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA), Goa’s GDP per capita (international Dollars, PPP) is $21,922. That’s comfortably higher than China and dozens of other developing countries.

Look beyond the bombast, however, and shadows intrude very rapidly. That same MPI reveals an unconscionable 25% of Goans are nutritionally under-served, and almost 10% are housing deprived.

What does the jobs report card tell us? According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Goa’s unemployment rate, or the number of people not employed but willing to work and actively looking for a job as a per cent of the total labour force, was at a staggering 11.6% in January 2022, far higher than the national unemployment rate of 6.57% for the month. Goa’s rate is also worse than the other election-bound states. UP, for instance, had an unemployment rate of only 3% in January.

A comparison of CMIE data between 2017 and now is even more revealing. In September-December 2017, Goa’s unemployment rate hovered around 6.65%. Female unemployment was high at 18.8%. By September-December 2021, the overall unemployment rate doubled to 13.09% while the female unemployment rate has shot up an astonishing 40%!

While some labour market watchers in Goa held that the methodology used in the survey is flawed, others said the high unemployment rate among women is not surprising.

“Across India, female labour force participation declined even further during the pandemic. There are several reasons for this. For instance, women dropped out to tend to additional domestic work burdens, especially since schools were closed for a better part of two years and children were home," said Sabina Dewan, president and executive director of JustJobs Network, an employment think tank. “Second, during any economic crisis, women are among the first to be let go. A third reason is the sectoral impact of the pandemic. Did specific sectors that employ more women take a hit?"

In the case of Goa, a vast number of those employed in the toursim and hospitality sectors would have lost their jobs.

Aspirations & attitudes

If true, those underwhelming numbers again do not reveal the entire picture. It is ill-conceived government policies which encouraged pharmaceuticals (some 12% of national production comes from Goa) and manufacturing, even though the vast majority of jobs in those industries are considered undesirable by students entering the workforce from the state.

This means an unending stream of graduates are constantly heading out to seek opportunity in IT/outsourcing hubs like Bengaluru and Pune, or even further away in the Middle East and the West. Their departure leaves a vacuum for migrants, who now form the backbone of the labour force at every level, partly due to their willingness to put up with wages and conditions that Goans refuse to tolerate.

Another aspect of this conundrum, of course, is the widespread perception that government jobs are the most desirable option for locals because they offer security without much pressure to deliver. Like everywhere else in the country, this means that new openings attract almost unbelievable demand. About 4,000 desperate graduates mobbed the north Goa Collectorate in Paniim in 2018, after it advertised just 64 contract jobs that would last only 11 months.

An additional side-effect is that government jobs may become currency for retail politics. Just last weekend, a Congress parliamentarian, on the campaign trail, alleged that a Goa minister had filled up 95% vacancies in his department with people from his own constituency.

According to Nilesh Borde, a professor of Management Studies at the Goa Business School, the fundamental underpinnings of the state’s employment scenario have actually not changed very much since he graduated. “Employment related policies were ad-hoc then, and they are still ad-hoc now. It is these faulty government policies that have led our students and graduates to believe there is no professional future for them at home," the 48-year-old professor said in an email interview.

Borde held one part of the problem to be attitudinal. “Earlier, the standards were high. So, students found it difficult to pass, and because higher education opportunities were few, they entered the job markets at an earlier age," he said.

The difference now is that results are liberal. Many students pass although their quality is questionable, he added. “This is bringing in a false dignity to youth who are not willing to take up the kinds of shop-floor jobs that our industrial policies are generating, let alone skilled jobs like carpentry and plumbing."

What Borde describes resemble a classic negative feedback loop, where systems outputs are fed back in a manner that hampers and prevents changes in the status quo. On the one hand, the government mismanages industrial policy to encourage projects that are unsuitable for the mass of Goa’s own human resources. And at the same time, it has failed to adapt the existing educational infrastructure to serve the needs of companies that already operate out of Goa. This model of economic development ignores the needs and interests of citizens, while relying on migrant labour, a considerable proportion of whom are vulnerable—many of them arrive in Goa after experiencing even worse working and living conditions in other states.

The migrant experience

It has been apparent this set-up was unsustainable for several years, but the extent of damage was exposed for the first time in the aftermath of the first nationwide covid-19 lockdown. Back in May 2020, after Goa joined other states by opening registration for migrant workers to return home to their families, an astounding 71,000 signed up in the first 48 hours.

When this came to light, the president of the state’s 111-year-old Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Manoj Caculo vented on Facebook: “This so-called migrant travel is going to s**** Goan Industry...they availed all our benefits and want to leave when we need to start work? Can understand some…but mass exodus??? Bad for Goan economy!!!!!"

The next day, Caculo sent another screed to the chief minister. “Many of these migrant workers were provided with shelter and food and wages during the entire period of lockdown and they were not really stranded in the true sense of the word. However, now that they are getting a free ride to their home states, many of these workers have left their employers high and dry," he complained. “Our fear is that if they go now, it will take a long time for them or others to return and this will affect the working of many sectors as mentioned above."

First-generation entrepreneur Blaise Costabir, however, was thinking very differently. In an earlier interview, the president of the Verna Industries Association, which spans hundreds of corporations employing at least 12,000 workers (he has since left that post), mused: “Maybe there is a silver lining. Lots of locals depend on renting illegal rooms around the industrial estates. Others are employed abroad, including on cruise liners. They will be home soon with no chance of going back for a while. So, at least theoretically, there might be people looking for work."

It was an optimistic surmise, but things didn’t turn out that way. Employment in the state only continued to tick straight downwards.

An improbable real estate boom has now set in, as wealthy Indian urbanites keep flocking into Goa to escape strictures in their home states. This has rekindled old anxieties about demographic displacement, which is another major factor fuelling Revolutionary Goans as well as its immediate predecessor in nativist-leaning politics, the Goa Forward Party—they made a show out of “Goa, Goans and Goenkarponn" (the Konkani word means Goan-ness).

As I was talking to Borde and Costabir about this complex, many-layered issue, it became apparent that all three of us are fathers to teenagers who are intent–along with an overwhelming majority of their peers–on leaving Goa to study. But none of us can detect a particularly plausible scenario that will bring them back for primarily professional reasons.

“It is because industrial and educational policies are not in sync," Borde said. “Thus, the graduating students do not find viable options here. Goa has been largely reduced to a trading state where only entry level jobs are available, which can be done by any graduate or even standard 12 pass."

Costabir’s take was much more optimistic. “Isn’t it true that we see lots of people from outside coming into Goa, settling down here, and making good lives for themselves, even while our own sons and daughters are headed out because they think they have no opportunities?" he asked.

“This thinking has to change. The truth is that opportunities are not sitting on a footpath waiting to be picked up. They do exist here, even under our current conditions. But they have to be mined by hard work and resilience. Only then will they blossom into fruit."

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