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Israel Calling: Jobless Indians, Seeking To Escape Poverty, Line Up For Work In War-Troubled Country

Israel had earlier announced that it would be hiring tens of thousands of workers to replace Palestinian and foreign workers, who left the conflict zone after conflict broke out.

Ramashish Mandal, 34, has been standing in a queue at Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj along with hundreds of others braving a cold wave, which along with dense fog has been plaguing much of north India for the last few days. He is amongst the lucky few who have been shortlisted out of thousands who turned up, responding to advertisements seeking masons, carpenters, and jointers for war-troubled Israel.

Those selected, after undergoing a trade test, will be given one-year contracts for jobs. These jobs come with a salary ranging between Rs 1.15 lakh to Rs 1.40 lakh per month with medical, insurance, and other benefits.

“I earn at the most Rs 1,000 a day and that too for about 150 days a year, this is a chance of a lifetime to rise above poverty and make some serious money for my family,” said Mandal, a mason by profession from Udham Singh Nagar district in neighbouring Uttarakhand, over a patchy telephone connection.

Even as India hurtles towards posting an economic growth rate of 7.3 per cent this financial year – one of the highest among major economies of the world, poverty, lack of significant opportunities at home, and low social mobility are what seem to have drawn people such as Mandal to opt for an opportunity in a “war zone”, where Israeli forces are still locked in conflict against Hamas, Palestinian armed militant group.

The selection tests are being conducted in various towns of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana by firms working on behalf of an Israeli agency.Israel had earlier announced that it would be hiring tens of thousands of workers to replace Palestinian and foreign workers, who left the conflict zone after conflict broke out.

“It’s a risk … but then life itself is always at risk in our trade,” argued Mandal, who has been working for most of his life in cities in U.P at high-rise construction sites, where often minimal protection is given to workers.

India is expected to post a 7 per cent GDP growth in the coming 2024-25 too, according to forecasts made by the office of the Chief Economic Advisor, after averaging about 7.9 per cent between financial years 2022-2024. Despite the fast-paced growth, India has also been facing up to inflation. It has led to eroding purchasing power and a tepid job market, with few new openings in the manufacturing sector and lay-offs by hi-tech firms battling higher costs.

Uttar Pradesh reported a 7 per cent unemployment rate among people between the ages of 15-29 in July-Sept 2023, according to the periodic survey of labour by the government.

The unemployment rate for all Indians during the same period was 6.6 per cent and for youth between 15-29 years, 17.3 per cent.

India’s annual retail inflation, measured by the consumer price index, rose at its fastest pace in four months last December to 5.69 per cent, way above the Reserve Bank’s target of 4 per cent, government data released earlier this month shows.

Food inflation, which makes up half of the CPI basket, rose by 9.53 per cent, eating into household budgets where on an average of 35 per cent of earnings are spent on food.

While CMIE data seems to suggest that listed corporate earnings and profit after taxes rose – by 7.1 per cent and 10.1 per cent (as of January 30) in the quarter that ended December 2023 – the country’s informal sector, where most Indians work is not doing that well and is probably witnessing a shrinking market share.

A State Bank of India report which came out a little over two years ago said that the informal sector had shrunk from 52 per cent of the economy to 15-20 per cent over a three-year period preceding the report.

“We have reason to believe that the formal, organised sector has been growing at the expense of India’s labour-intensive informal sector and continue to do so… my calculations is that the informal sector could have shrunk by 9 per cent in 2022-23.” Said Prof Arun Kumar formerly of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Kumar believes this decline of the informal sector has caused tectonic shifts in the labour market pushing people towards under-employment and poorer quality jobs in the domestic market.

On the brighter side, investment in the Indian economy has grown on the back of huge spending by central and state governments, by 10.3 per cent this fiscal taking the share of fixed capital in GDP to a decadal high of 39.4 per cent.

Much of this spending spree has been on infrastructure – roadways, railways, ports, and airports – which has created jobs in construction, the kind of jobs which Mandal and his friends are trained for, even though wages and benefits have remained low as labour supply still outstrips demand.

However, for investment growth to be sustained, consumption demand which has seen a slow growth of 4.4 per cent needs to be catalysed. Passenger car sales dropped by 7.8 per cent in the calendar year 2023, with pointedly, India’s largest car-maker Maruti’s sales of compacts and minis falling by over 1 lakh.

The fact that there are wide disparities between states has also not helped create new opportunities for those in the job market like Mandal. A Forbes India report updated last November showed that while the per capita income of Uttar Pradesh was a mere Rs 83,000, states like Telangana and Karnataka enjoyed a per capita income that was more than three times that of the north Indian state, at Rs 3.08 lakh and Rs 3.01 lakh respectively.

“If I do not get the Israel job, I plan to go to Bangalore, I am told there is a construction boom there and master masons get up to Rs 2,000 a day there,” said Mandal.

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