Every morning at eight o’clock, almost with clockwork precision, 26-year-old Raju Mondal travels five kilometers from his home in Thakurnagar in North 24 Parganas to lift the shutters of his roadside eatery. The non-descript makeshift shade of corrugated tin sheets opposite railway gate no. 1 on the Chandpara Station Road, a humdrum railway halt on the Sealdah-Bongaon suburban line, springs to life with the youth readying his store with tea and ordinary breakfast for commuters looking to catch the next train to Calcutta. Nothing remarkable about any of that. Until you lay your eyes on the flex banner announcing the name of his establishment.
Shikkhito Bekarer Café (Café of the Educated Unemployed), the banner announces alongside the menu on offer – tea, coffee, momo, chicken manchurian, chowmein, biriyani, egg roll and a roti-meat combo dish.
But care to find out how "educated" the unemployed youth is and Mondal sheepishly reveals that he is the recipient of not one, but two gold medals for his outstanding results in both undergraduate and post-graduate levels. He might also tell you that he holds the University Grants Commission (UGC) fellowship after cracking the National Eligibility Test (NET), the gateway to research and lectureship in universities across the country, four times since he stood first class first in his MA exams in 2020.
Mondal says he has also cleared the State-level Eligibility Test (SET) conducted by the Bengal College Service Commission.
Raju Monday displays his education qualification certificates. Telegraph picture
Son of a mason
Mondal, son of a mason, completed his Honours in Education from Gaighata College standing first in his stream with an impressive score of 74 per cent in 2018, and then went on to repeat the achievement in the same subject at the Masters level from Kalyani University two years later. His consistency with grades is also evident from his Higher Secondary exam marks in 2015 when he emerged as a topper from the entire Gaighata block with a score of 87.6 per cent and also passed Madhyamik with distinction.
What’s more, Mondal has already authored three textbooks, on education psychology, education technology and on the history of education, which are referred to by students at Kalyani, Burdwan and Vidyasagar universities for their UG and PG courses. Two more, he says, are in the pipeline soon to be published.
Mondal said he started to write during the Covid years when he had nothing else to do besides sitting at home. “It’s not my focus area,” Mondal said, “I do it for the extra money. My passion is research and teaching.”
Why is Mondal jobless?
So why is an overachiever such as Mondal frying momos by the wayside? “Acute financial crisis at home,” the youth said, “coupled with the fact that I failed to clear the interview for my Ph.D. twice at my department in KU so far”.
“We live in a rented house and my father is a migrant worker in Pune. I have a school-going sister at home and a mother who is a homemaker. The need for money is dire,” he reveals.
Mondal hopes to earn a profit of about Rs 15,000-20,000 by the end of the first month of business which he started in the beginning of September. “It’s hardly enough to sustain my family,” he admits, “But that’s all I can live with for now because I don’t have a choice.”
Dream of teaching someday
“What has left me distraught is the fact that I don’t know what I did wrong in those interviews. I would have rectified them if I did. But I haven’t given up on my dream of teaching and research. That’s why I spend at least two hours a day studying after I return home every night after backbreaking work. My scholarship is valid for two years and I can’t lose that hope of cracking the Ph.D. interview within that period,” Mondal said, reluctantly admitting that clinging to that faith is becoming increasingly difficult amid the daily chores of tossing noodles on frying pans and keeping track of every rupee earned… or lost.
The latest annual report of the Centre’s Periodic Labour Force Survey (July 2021 – June 2022) states that the all-India unemployment figure of people having education levels of secondary and above for 2021-22 stood at 8.6 per cent. The figure for the preceding two years stood at 9.1 per cent and 10.1 per cent.
The unemployment rates among youth (people aged between 15-29 years) in urban areas in 2021-22 stood at 17.2 per cent compared to 18.5 per cent and 19.9 per cent in 2020-21 and 2019-20 respectively, the PLFS report stated. No state-wise break-up of these figures were available from the study.
Informal sector holds the key
“I am not aware of any recent and comprehensive study that’s available to provide insights into how critical the problem of overqualified people settling for menial jobs is,” said Prosenjit Bose, an economist with Left leanings. “But in a country where the informal sector accounts for nearly 90 per cent employment, and the organized sector employing a mere remaining 10 per cent, with only two per cent government employment, the job market for those with high educational qualifications is bound to be unjust and skewed,” he added.
“There’s no denying that the average wage rate in the informal sector in Bengal is much less than in many other parts of the country which accounts for the large-scale migration from this state,” Achin Chakraborty, former director of the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, pointed out.
“But there is also an issue of a gross mismatch between employability and the quality of human capital which is being produced by our education system,” Chakraborty said, adding: “This essentially is a supply-side problem of human quality which isn’t good enough for the demand that’s there is in the job market which may not exactly be looking for someone, say, like a postgraduate in education but is preferring someone with soft skills like proficiency in English speaking.”
“There is, hence, an urgent need to overhaul the education system to fulfill the demands of the job market. Only then can the problem of honours graduates taking up jobs of food delivery or operating app cabs etc. be effectively addressed,” he opined.
The job-of-choice fetish
Subhanil Chowdhury, who teaches economics at St. Xavier’s University in Calcutta and specializes in unemployment studies, also attributes the fetish of the middle class for “jobs of choice” for which they are prepared to wait for endless periods instead of upgrading skills and grabbing market opportunities which come their way as among the reasons for what he believes has led to “a severe crisis among the educated unemployed in Bengal”.
“Owing to lack of investments in core sectors in the state, except, maybe, in real estate, not enough jobs are being created. But having said that, the education system too has produced a gross skillset mismatch between what’s in demand and what’s being supplied,” said Chowdhury seemingly in agreement with Chakraborty’s analysis of the crisis.
It's difficult to pinpoint which exactly among the above theories explains Raju Mondal’s, predicament. But till such time he continues to toss chicken manchurian dumplings with soy sauce on his weather-beaten utensils even as sounds of local trains shatter the air of his quiet neighbourhood, he continues to fall through a gaping crack in the system few seem to have a solution for.