India’s silent youth crisis: College-educated but poorer than a farm hand

Two-thirds of India’s unemployed youth are educated — a fraction which has doubled since 2000. As India votes, a question gnaws at its future: If education can’t get you a job, is it even worth it?

Sidhant Mende has an engineering degree. But he works supervising the construction of a house that requires none of his training and offers a pittance in pay, in Ralegaon, India [Al Jazeera/Kunal Purohit]
Sidhant Mende has an engineering degree. But he works supervising the construction of a house that requires none of his training and offers a pittance in pay, in Ralegaon, India [Al Jazeera/Kunal Purohit]

Ralegaon, India – Sometimes, Shivanand Sawale rues his choices and dreams.

Growing up in Dabhadi village in the Yavatmal district of western India’s Maharashtra state, the 42-year-old was so inspired by teachers around him that he wanted to become one himself.

He battled poverty, his father’s untimely death and his growing farm losses and turned that aspiration into a reality.

He is now among the most well-educated in his village: Sawale obtained a Master of Science and a Diploma in Education, a certificate degree meant for elementary-level school teachers.

Yet, he is often the butt of jokes among his friends. The reason? He makes less money than a landless labourer in the village. After working for 13 years in a private school, Sawale makes 7,500 rupees ($90) a month, or 250 rupees ($2.4) a day.

In the village, a day’s wage for farm labourers is anywhere between 300 and 400 rupees ($3.7-$4.7).

“My friends keep mocking me, saying [that] even uneducated workers at corner shops earn more than I do,” Sawale says.

The only consolation for Sawale is that he is not alone.

As India elects a new government, jobs have emerged as a key issue. A pre-poll survey by the New Delhi-based Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found that rising unemployment was foremost on the minds of voters.

There are also many millions of Indians like Sawale who are underemployed and in pitifully low-paying jobs they are overqualified for. Their education, often, counts for little.

Instead, like Sawale, they face gnawing questions from friends and family, questions that do not augur well for a country with the world’s largest youth population: If this is what education provides, are young people better off without it?

According to the New Delhi-based Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, India’s unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent in March 2024. A report, released in March this year, by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Institute of Human Development (IHD) revealed that an overwhelming majority of unemployed youth were educated, with at least a secondary education. In 2000, only 35.2 percent of unemployed youth were educated; by 2022, that figure had doubled to 66 percent, the report said.

As Sawale reflects on the gulf between his education and income, his friend Ganesh Rathod walks in.

Rathod, also from Dabhadi, dropped out of school. A farmer, he doubles up as an agricultural trader, and today, his finances are “stable”. He has recently renovated his house – a sparkling new attraction just off the highway that links to the village.

“In the village, those who did not educate themselves are better off because they have been able to keep their ambitions in check and be happy with what they got,” Rathod says.

“Now, look at them,” he says, pointing to Sawale. “They are educated but have to toil just like we do.”

Private educational institutes like this one, in Yavatmal, advertise a bright future for its students. The reality, though, is very different
Private educational institutes like these, in Yavatmal, advertise a bright future for students. The reality is very different [Kunal Purohit/Al Jazeera]

A degree in vain

Nearly 100km (60 miles) away, in Ralegaon town, this reality defines 27-year-old Sidhant Mende’s life.

Mende is an engineer by education but this is not his job.

He works at a construction site, supervising the building of a new house, a job that requires no engineering-specific expertise, he says. For this, he gets 12,000 rupees ($145) a month, which is 400 rupees ($4.7) a day, just about what landless farm labourers make in the villages outside town.

He took the work after hunting for a job in Ralegaon that matched his qualifications. He even looked for jobs hundreds of kilometres away in big cities like Pune and Nagpur. But nothing offered him more than about 13,000 ($156) a month.

This was what he had earned when he worked in an automobile showroom before he pursued his engineering degree.

“It felt like my degree didn’t matter at all,” he says. “It didn’t make sense to take up such low-paying jobs, because I would have spent all of the money I make on my expenses living in a big city like Pune or Nagpur,” he says.

He rejected those job offers, confident that something better would come his way. After all, he had toiled for four years to get that coveted degree. Now, two years after he graduated, he realises how wrong he was.

In the 2014 elections, he backed aspiring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), drawn by the enticing promise that they would create 250 million jobs in the country over a decade. But since 2019, he has backed the opposition Congress Party and says he will continue to do so.

Mende is now on the verge of giving up on his job search. He has done everything he thinks he could: applied to private companies and for a few government vacancies with the Regional Transport Office (RTO), which he never heard back from. He is exasperated and says he wants to now, maybe, start his own business.

What kind of a business? He does not have answers.

Sidhant Mende overseeing the construction of a small house in Ralegaon. His engineering degree, he says, has not helped him at all in securing a job [Al Jazeera/Kunal Purohit]
Sidhant Mende overseeing the construction of a small house in Ralegaon. His engineering degree, he says, has not helped him at all in securing a job [Al Jazeera/Kunal Purohit]

The privilege to dream

Not too far from Mende, also in Ralegaon, 21-year-old Aarti Kunkunwar is also underemployed. And unlike Mende, she cannot afford to look for jobs in other cities.

Kunkunwar is desperate for proper work. Her father, a goldsmith who was the family’s sole earning member, died last year, forcing her brother to abandon his education and start working. He was mid-way through his Bachelor of Science degree and had to join an automobile showroom as an administrative hand, earning 10,000 rupees ($120) a month.

Kunkunwar, who has an undergraduate degree in science, though has had no luck in finding stable employment. “I had only one constraint, which was that I would not be able to relocate to a different city since I could not leave my mother,” she says. She has not been able to find a single job in her town, despite multiple applications.

Local lawyer and social activist Vaibhav Pandit, who often works as a counsellor to young farmers, is not surprised.

The town, he says, has barely any jobs for people like Kunkunwar. “If this was a bigger city with more employment opportunities, then we could have possibly got small jobs going. But the problem is, here, there are no such small businesses which could employ people like her,” he says.

Kunkunwar is now reduced to teaching students in her neighbourhood. She earns 200 rupees ($2.4) each month for every student she teaches.

Like Sawale, the teacher, her consolation is that she has company in her misery. “Most of my female friends who graduated are either looking to get another degree or get married and stay home,” Kunkunwar said. “It is clear to us all that there are no jobs here.”

40-year-old Chandrakant Khobragade has a postgraduate degree in Science, with a specialisation in Botany and a degree in education but can't find a job [Kunal Purohit/Al Jazeera]
Chandrakant Khobragade, 40, has a postgraduate degree in science, with a specialisation in botany, and a degree in education, but cannot find a job [Kunal Purohit/Al Jazeera]

Bribes for jobs

Like Kunkunwar, Dabhadi resident Chandrakant Khobragade thought the road to a successful, prosperous life lay in gaining an education, whatever the challenges along the way.

Khobragade has a postgraduate degree in science, with a specialisation in botany. He also has a degree in education that qualifies him to teach in private schools. But when he started looking for jobs in Yavatmal, he came across an obstacle he had never imagined having to confront: In every private school he went to, the management and leadership asked him to cough up “donations” to get a job in the school.

These “donations” were in the range of 3-4 million rupees ($3,500-4,800), he was told.

“I didn’t have that kind of money to give,” he says. For years, he kept going from one school to another. “They were all the same.”

Demands for bribes by private schools and colleges are not uncommon, locals say. The lack of jobs means that private institutions sense an opportunity to auction any jobs they create.

Government recruitment for teaching positions has been few and infrequent – for six years, the regional government in Maharashtra had not recruited teachers. In February, newspapers reported that more than 136,000 applicants had applied for 21,678 vacant teacher posts in Maharashtra, of which only 11,000 were reportedly filled. Khobragade has yet to hear from them about his application. But time is running out.

Khobragade is now 40 and has resigned himself to the fact that his education will not get him anywhere. He now cultivates cotton and soybean crops on his family farm.

He insists that he knows better than to have expectations of finding a job, and yet, he still holds out some hope each time he sees a notification that the government is recruiting teachers for government schools.

And he consoles himself: “I keep saying to myself, at the very least, I am the most educated farmer of the village,” he laughs.

Source: Al Jazeera