The Wilson Quarterly

Behind the image of a new India populated by a rising middle class of tech-savvy computer specialists and well-educated entrepreneurs lies a grim reality common throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America: legions of educated unemployed young people.

Thousands of youths for whom higher education once would have been out of reach are finding, when they graduate, that professional jobs have not increased remotely in proportion to the number of candidates for them. The economic changes that opened up manufacturing and services have typically failed to generate permanent white-collar jobs, creating a “vast problem,” writes Craig Jeffrey, a geographer at the University of Washington. Uttar Pradesh, whose 190 million people make it India’s most populous state, is awash in young men (and women, whose entry into the work force is also blocked by other factors) unable get the jobs, often with the government, that they and their parents expected. So they study and wait.

The plight of the Jats, a traditionally lower-middle-class farming caste, is a case study in stifled upward mobility. The Jats have amassed land and wealth since the 1960s by taking advantage of the green revolution’s high-yield seeds, the greater availability of subsidized fertilizers and pesticides, and improved irrigation. Many are able to finance extensive college training for their children. But with high-status Hindus winning most of the salaried jobs and increasingly well-organized Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”) winning government positions under India’s extensive affirmative action system, the Jats are being squeezed out.

Some studies of India and other countries have raised hopes that unemployed young men would use their skills and free time to advocate on behalf of the poor, acting almost as professional mediators. Jeffrey offers a counter-vision: lower-middle-class unemployed men, sometimes in cahoots with government officials, using their education and leisure to aggressively defend their privileges against even poorer unemployed people.

Enter the fixer. As India’s economic reforms have cut back on agricultural and educational subsidies, a vast gulf has opened up in Uttar Pradesh between those who receive degrees from a minuscule upper stratum of internationally acclaimed educational institutions and graduates of poorly funded colleges catering to the majority of students, including the Jats.

After getting a degree from an institution characterized by infrequent and disorganized classes, few facilities, and almost no extracurricular activities, Jats who can’t find government jobs often became self-styled fixers. At Chaudhry Charan Singh University, a hub institution in the city of Meerut for roughly 242,600 students, Jeffrey found that a handful of student leaders became social reformers and crusaded against the “corruption” of university officials who got rich by offering private tutorials and selling expensive textbooks to students. But more common were those who used their elected positions in the student union to take a cut of university officials’ illegal side incomes. Some sold positions in newly organized private universities, extracted bribes for ignoring corruption, or steered contracts to favored businessmen.

These activities were called jugar, and while many Jat leaders spoke of the importance of going “straight,” there was shared elation in inventing new forms of political opportunism, according to Jeffrey. There was pride in being bold and showing individual initiative. Of 20 top student union leaders whose later careers Jeffrey traced, 10 became political fixers; four, lawyers; three, teachers; two, farmers; the remaining young man was in jail.

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The Source: "Fixing Futures: Educated Unemployment Through a North Indian Lens" by Craig Jeffrey, in Comparative Studies in Society and History, January 2009. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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