July 2007

The contours of ICTs and employment

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According to NASSCOM the IT industry will employ some 1.6 million people in 2007. Although this number is not significant for the Government to go all sweet on the employment potential of the sector, the figure that is spectacular is the annual rate of growth in employment. And it begets the question of analysing the beneficiaries of this job bank.

Any analyses of employment that is not predicated on issues of opportunity, of class advantage, of regional distribution is flawed from the perspective of equitable employment scenarios. Consider that, at least 95% (if not more) of the employees in the sector come from urban areas. Even in states which account for large shares of this chunk (like Maharashtra, Delhi, and Karnataka) the development is concentrated around a few towns. So the growth is clearly asymmetrical. If the government continues to thrust its policy towards giving boosts to the industry without thinking about equity and wage diffusion, then the benefits of the IT sector will continue to go into the pockets of the already privileged. This issue tries to highlight this inequity.

As far as harnessing the potential of ICTs in other sectors is concerned, the situation in India is far from impressive. There is also no major benefit that can be envisioned if the conventional sectors of production are ICT enabled. There are sincere hopes for increased productivity but this might not be accompanied by a relative rise in employment figures. It is entirely legitimate to argue that the employment in the street food industry far exceeds that in the IT and enabled industries. The SME/MSME sector is comparatively a mammoth in terms of employment generation, and should command  a greater attention.

Eventually IT wrokers are employed in other industries too, and not all working in the IT industry are IT workers. The labour market of the industry is slowly becoming more inclusive, but the pace needs immediate focus. Developing the offshore industry in smaller cities and rural areas; developing educational and skill imparting infrastructure in neglected areas; ensuring a more heterogeneous employment pool in terms of economic background, gender, and caste; and such issues need more facilitation from the government, as in some cited examples in this issue.

The potential for ICTs to provide livelihoods is limited and unsubstantial compared to the philanthropic chorus built around it, unless the development perspective is integrated with it. ICT integration into other sectors is unlikely to produce spectacular employment successes either. What ICT can enable, if and only if ICT skills are diffused and equally available, is a more democratic ownership of skills that will become increasingly important. There is no leap-frogging that can eliminate the need to address issues of language training (English in this case), equitable skill generation, inclusive quality education and human development indexes of health-care and governance. ICT is not a miracle pill that will work without a corresponding overhaul in public service delivery.

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