One of India's biggest economic challenges is how new jobs are going to be created. Venkatraman Anantha Nageswaran and Gulzar Natarajan explore the issue in "India’s Quest for Jobs: A Policy Agenda" (Carnegie India, September 2019). They write:
The Indian economy is riding the wave of a youth bulge, with two-thirds of the country’s population below age thirty-five. The 2011 census estimated that India’s 10–15 and 10–35 age groups comprise 158 million and 583 million people, respectively. By 2020, India is expected to be the youngest country in the world, with a median age of twenty-nine, compared to thirty-seven for the most populous country, China. In the 2019 general elections, the estimated number of first-time voters was 133 million. Predictably, political parties scrambled to attract youth voters. It is therefore not surprising that, according to several surveys, the parties’ primary concern was job creation. The burgeoning youth population has led to an estimated 10–12 million people entering the workforce each year.6 In addition, the rapidly growing economy is transitioning away from the agricultural sector, with many workers moving into secondary and tertiary sectors. Employing this massive supply of labor is, perhaps, the biggest challenge facing India.
India's jobs in the future aren't going to be in agriculture: as that sector modernizes, it will need fewer workers, not more. A common assumption in the past was that India's new jobs would be in big factories, like giant assembly plants or manufacturing facilities. But manufacturing jobs all around the world are under stress from automation, and with trade tensions high around the world, building up an export-oriented network of large factories and assembly plants doesn't seem likely. As Nageswaran and Natarajan point out, most of India's employment is concentrated in very small micro-firms in informal, unregulated business. The challenge is to add employment is small and medium formal firms, sector often in industries with a service orientation.
The Sixth Economic Census of India, 2013, which combines all types of enterprises, shows that India had 58.5 million enterprises, which employed 131.9 million workers. Non-employer, or own account firms, constituted 71.7 percent of these enterprises and 44.3 percent of workers. Further, 55.86 million (or 95.5 percent) of all the enterprises employed just 1–5 workers, 1.83 million (3.1 percent) employed 6–9 workers, and just 0.8 million (1.4 percent) employed ten or more workers ... Further, comparing India’s formal and informal manufacturing establishments to Mexico and Indonesia reveals the true scale of India’s challenge within this sector. Enterprises with fewer than ten workers make up nearly 70 percent of the employment share in India, compared to over 50 percent in Indonesia and just 25 percent in Mexico.
To put this in a bit of context, India's Census is finding employment of 131.9 million workers, mostly in very small firms. But India as a country has a workforce of over 500 million, and it's growing quickly. The other workers are either working for subsistence, in agriculture or cities, or in the informal economy.
Why has India had such a hard time in creating new small- and medium-sized firms? Part of the answer is a heavy hand of government regulation.
India is often considered one of the most difficult places to start and run a business. ... One of the biggest hurdles that potential enterprises in India face is the complexity of the registration system—all enterprises must register separately with multiple entities of the state and central governments. Under the state government, the enterprise has to register with the labor department (Shop and Establishment Act), the local government (municipal or rural council acts), and the commercial taxes department for indirect tax assessments. There are also several state-specific legislations—the labor department alone has thirty-five legislations.
Under the central government, enterprises must register with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs for incorporation (Companies Act), the Central Board of Direct Taxes for direct tax assessments, and the labor department’s Employees’ Provident Fund Organization (EPFO) and Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC). Further, there are registrations specific to sector or occupational categories—for example, manufacturing enterprises with more than ten employees must register with the labor department under the Factories Act.
Based on the application or software employed for each registration, employers also must possess a multitude of numbers: for example, a labor identification number—used to register on the Shram Suvidha Portal, the Ministry of Labor and Employment’s single window for reporting compliances; a company registration number; and a corporate permanent account number. Employees must possess an Aadhaar biometric identity number, an EPFO member number, an ESIC identity number, and a universal account number.
According to current labor laws, service enterprises and factories must maintain twenty-five and forty-five registers, respectively, and file semi-annual and annual returns in duplicate and in hard copy. Furthermore, regular paperwork tends to be convoluted; salary and attendance documents should be simple but instead require tens of entries. In addition to the physical requirements of complying with these regulations—making payments, designing human resource strategies, or meeting physical infrastructure standards—enterprises also have onerous periodic reporting requirements. All these requirements add up to impose prohibitive costs that reduce the success of
This regulatory environment offers a powerful incentive for small firms to remain informal, off-the-record, under-the-radar. A related issue arises because payroll taxes in India are very high--for workers in the formal sector, that is.
Manish Sabharwal, the chairman of TeamLease Services, a staffing company, wrote that salaries of 15,000 rupees a month end up as only 8,000 rupees after all deductions, from both the employer and employee sides. The employer makes deductions for pensions, health insurance, social security, and even a bonus, which are statutorily payable in India and would otherwise increase costs to companies. Consequently, the take-home pay for a worker earning less than 15,000 rupees a month is only 68 percent of their gross wages. Lower-wage workers are far more affected than higher-wage workers, who are protected by the maximum permissible deductions, which lowers the amount of deductions from their gross salary. Further, though international comparisons are often difficult and misleading, a cursory examination suggests that India’s deductions are among the highest in the world and are a deterrent to businesses starting or becoming formal.
Yet another issue is that there are many programs providing support and finance to very small firms. An unintended result is that these firms have an incentive to remain small--so they don't have to give up their incentives.
Gursharan Bhue, Nagpurnanand Prabhala, and Prasanna Tantri point out that firms are willing to forgo growth in order to retain their access to finances. That is, when certain easier financing access is provided to firms below a certain threshold (say, SME firms), they prefer to forgo growth opportunities that would allow them to cross this threshold: “firms that near the threshold for qualification slow down their investments in plant and machinery, other capital expenditure” and experience slower growth in manufacturing activity and output. The authors also point out that when banks are put under pressure to lend to micro, small, and medium enterprises, they fear the fallout of not meeting those lending targets and consequently encourage their borrowers to stay small.
Nageswaran and Natarajan argue that most of India's informal firms are "subsistence" firms, unlikely to grow. They cite evidence from Andrei Shleifer and Rafael La Porta that few informal firms ever make a transition to formal status. Instead, the goal needs to be to have more firms that are "born formal," and which are run by entrepreneurs who have a vision of how how the firm can grow and hire. In India, this doesn't seem to be happening. They write:
Chang-Tai Hsieh and Peter Klenow’s latest work, “The Life Cycle of Plants in India and Mexico,” is instructive in its exploration of the life-cycle dynamic of firm growth across countries. They find that, in a sample of eight countries including the United States and Mexico, India is the only country where the average number of employees of firms (in the manufacturing sector) ages 10–14 years is less than that of firms ages 1–5 years. It is generally expected that, as firms remain in business for longer periods, they would naturally employ more workers. In India, however, the inverse has proven true—employment in older firms is less than in younger firms. Hsieh and Klenow also find that the typical Indian firm stagnates or declines over time, with only the handful that reach around twenty years of age showing very slight signs of growth.
What's to be done? As is common with emerging market economies, the list of potentially useful policies is a long one. Reforming government regulations, payroll taxes, and financial incentives with the idea of supporting small-but-formal businesses, and not hindering their growth, is one step. Nageswaran and Natarajan also point out that the time needed to fill out tax forms is especially onerous in India.
Ongoing increases in infrastructure for transportation, energy, communications matters a lot. Along with overall support for rising education levels, it may be useful to take the idea of an agricultural extension service--which teaches farmer how to use new seeds or crop methods--and create a "business extension service" that helps teach small firms the basic managerial techniques that can raise their productivity. India's government might take steps to help establish an information framework for a national logistics marketplace, which would help organize and smooth the movement of business inputs and consumer goods around the country: "Amounting to 13 percent of India’s GDP, the country’s logistics costs are some of the highest in the world."
But in a broad sense, the job creation problem in India comes down to a more fundamental shift in point of view. Politicians tend to love situations where they can claim credit: a giant new factory opens, or a new power plant. Or at a smaller scale, politicians will settle for programs that sprinkle subsidies among smaller firms, so those firms that receive such benefits can be claimed as a success story. But if the goal for India's future employment growth is to have tens of millions of firms started by well-educated entrepreneurs, this isn't going to happen with firm-by-firm direction and subsidies allocated by India's central or state governments. Instead, it requires India's government to be active and aggressive in creating a general business environment where such firms can arise of their own volition, and it's a hard task for any government to get the right mix of acting in some areas while being hands-off in others.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.