On Disguised Unemployment: Some Issues

This post discusses some of the broad theoretical issues underlying the category of ‘disguised unemployment’. The discussion is made clear by closely examining the hypothesis that Indian agriculture is plagued by the presence of high disguised unemployment.

Let us take a glimpse at the Economics textbook for class XI published by the NCERT. (NCERT 2006, p 131, Indian Economic Development)

‘Economists call unemployment prevailing in Indian farms as disguised unemployment. What is disguised unemployment’ Suppose a farmer has four acres of land and he actually needs only two workers and himself to carry out various operations on his farm in a year, but if he employs five workers and his family members such as his wife and children, this situation is known as disguised unemployment. One study conducted in the late 1950s showed about one-third of agricultural workers in India as disguisedly unemployed.’ (italics mine)

Is disguised unemployment unemployment’

A thought experiment. Suppose A and B are two similar countries ‘ both are equally populated. Now, a study has estimated disguised unemployment in country A to be 30% and in country B to be 10%. This implies that employment in country A is more than that of country B. Should this be of concern’ Must we try and reduce disguised unemployment in country A’

If so, what is the basis of ‘disguised unemployment” Do we see the principle of allocative efficiency present in disguise’ Disguised unemployment means that ‘labour’ is ‘inefficiently’ utilised. Attestation of this claim is done by showing the high share of workers employed in agriculture alongside the low contribution of agriculture to GDP.

The first draft of National Employment Policy (2008) reads thus: ‘Over half the workforce continues to depend on the agriculture even though it accounts for less than a fifth of the total GDP. This implies a vast gap in incomes and productivity between agriculture and non-agriculture sectors. This is mainly due to inadequate growth of productive employment opportunities outside agriculture.’ Is employment the need of the hour or is it contribution to GDP’ Which variable (employment or GDP) should be the criterion’ Why not improve the quality of employment in agriculture’ To attain quality, provision of infrastructural support is absolutely essential- credit facilities, good roads and increased railroad connectivity, storage houses, institutions so as to enable the farmers get a ‘decent’ price for their produce, etc.

In 1960-61, the share of agriculture, forestry and fishing in total GDP was 53% (at 1993-94 prices). This came down by around 30 percentage points to 22% in 2002-03. On the other hand, the share of agriculture, forestry and fishing in total employment was 75.9% in 1961; by 1999-2000, it had come down to 59.9%. [The Oxford Companion to Economics in India, ed Kaushik Basu, OUP: New Delhi, 2007, p. 11]

The above discussion attains significance when we view agricultural workers as those who are trying to make a livelihood out of various jobs ‘ farm and non-farm employment and self-employed and casual labour. ‘Employment’ mainly refers to wage employment. In India, out of total employment, the share of self-employment is the highest. As Amit Bhaduri writes, the economic activities predominant in the agricultural sector (or rural or informal) can be called as ‘survival strategies’. [Bhaduri 2006, Employment and Livelihood, in Employment and Development: Essays from an Orthodox Perspective] He cautions the policy makers on the use of dual-sector models in framing development policies for India owing to the heterogeneity prevalent in rural India and also because of the specificities present in the unorganised agricultural sector. Hence, the notion of ‘surplus labour’ loses much of its weight. In turn, we need to carefully look at ‘disguised unemployment’ for it disguises a lot of specificities of rural India.

Market and the Government

The conflicting ideologies in Economics have more or less revolved around mainly two institutions- Markets and Governments. The Capitalists believe ‘Markets’ to be the panacea for all economic problems, while the Socialists replace the ‘market’ with the ‘government’.

On Markets

Market is the institutional framework within which the act of exchange takes place or the institutional milieu which is the context of the relationship of exchange between the parties. [Kurien 1993] Thus market is an institution which allows for exchange. This exchange is only possible if one of the parties have adequate purchasing power.

Markets exclude people as consumers or buyers of goods and services if they do not have any incomes, or sifficient incomes, which can be transalated into purchasing power. People experience such exclusion if they do not have assets, physical of financial, which can be used (or sold) to yield an income in the form of rent interest or profits. [Nayyar 2002]

So, relying on markets alone will exclude a large chunk of the populace of a nation. Those with relatively higher purchasing power will benefit over those will less purchasing power. And for the former, the world will become a flatter place, as Thomas L Friedman says.

On Government

A government is a body that has the authority to make and the power to enforce rules and laws within a civil, corporate, religious, academic, or other organization or group. In its broadest sense, “to govern” means to administer or supervise, whether over a state, a set group of people, or a collection of assets. [Wikipedia]

In our formal analysis of exchange and producation, the role of social norms ( Smith proposed that market exchange is sustained by the underlying social ‘norms’ resulting frm sympathy, for example, trust in exchange, respect for contracts etc.) are left out and we tend to exaggerate on one hand, the efficiency of an abstract market mechanism based on an invented ‘auctioneer’. On the other, we tend to neglect the roles which the state could play in either reinforcing or destroying these norms which are essential for the functioning of the market economy. [Bhaduri 2002]

On Globalization

Globalization is predominantly a ‘market’ centric process.

Globalization, both then and now, has been associated with an exclusion of countries and of people from its world of economic opportunities. [Nayyar 2002]

Economic globalization challenges the political authority, which the nation state had attained by undermining gradually many of the norms of the traditional civil society.[ Bhaduri 2002]

Globalization has resulted in high growth only in a selected few sectors. [Thomas 2007]


Relying solely on the Government to undertake the functions of the market will lead to social unrest and will result in economic inefficiency. And government regulations are a check on the markets so that a market failure does not occur.

Can markets and governments exist peacefully’ Can market and governnment produced goods and services reach an equilibrium’ Will this result in a state, where those excluded from the market will be included by the government machinery’ Is this sustainable in the long run’


1)Deepak Nayyar (edited), Towards Global Governance, Governing Globalization, 2002.
2)Amit Bhaduri, Nationalism and Economic Policy in the Era of Globalization, Governing Globalization, 2002.
3)C. T. Kurien, On Markets in economic Theory and Policy, 1993.

India and it’s ‘Segregated Growth’

This article tries to show that high rates of GDP in India need not trickle down to the rest of the masses and also strives to explain why ‘segregated growth’ further fuels inequality. By ‘segregated growth’, I refer to growth which takes place in sectors which employ relatively a small percentage of the total labour force.

The IT revolution is happening but the GDP contribution of agriculture is decreasing.’ One inference from this change could be that, labour from agriculture is migrating to the services sector; but that is not the case in India. India is witnessing farmer suicides, increased debts, droughts and low productivity in the agricultural sector.

Sustained economic growth requires progress in several dimensions ‘ education, health, infrastructure, legal institutions, etc. [Noll 2006] For the whole of the population to enjoy sustainable growth, it is essential that growth takes place in all sectors of the economy. Otherwise, it will lead to growth, but only in a few sectors, like the IT boom which India faced. This growth is not sustainable in the long run. Another consequence of such ‘segregated growth’ is that, the GDP figures will show an increase. And as the GDP is the most commonly used (By the media) measure among the masses to portray economic growth, the picture presented will appear rosy.

Moreover, the per capita income will also show a rise due to the increase productivity coming from ‘such sectors’. This increased GDP will not trickle down as many economists and others state. This increased income accruing to the denizens of ‘such sectors’ will only be spent in conspicuous consumption. Thorstein Veblen coined the words ‘conspicuous consumption’ in his book ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’. The basis on which good repute in any highly organised industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or retaining a good name are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods. [Veblen 1899]

On Poverty

And though the country (India) has made significant strides ‘ poverty levels are roughly 35%, down from close to 60% in the 1970s, (by the World bank’s $ 1 a day definition of poverty, though precise numbers are the subject of never-ending debate) – the benefits of this rapid growth are yet to trickle down to the masses. [Bhusnurmath 2006]

Development agencies define poverty as an income of less than $2 per person per day (about $3,000 annually for a family of four). By this standard, nearly 3 billion people are poor. [Noll 2006]

I wonder why India still defines poverty as an income of less than a dollar per day for a person. I had argued for a restructuring of the current poverty line in another article of mine. Probably the present estimate makes it easier to state that poverty levels have come down from 60% to around 35%!

On Development

Amit Bhaduri, in his recent paper in the Economic and Political Weekly, wonders if it is Developmental Terrorism or Development which is taking place.

Destruction of livelihoods and displacement of the poor in the name of industrialisation, big dams for power generation and irrigation, corporatisation of agriculture despite farmers’ suicides, and modernisation and beautification of our cities by demolishing slums are showing everyday how development can turn perverse. [Bhaduri 2007]


Thus, the Indian populace is dichotomized in terms of economic growth; there are certain areas where growth levels are very high along with a majority of sectors which are witnessing a decline. Thus, this kind of ‘segregated growth’ fails to ‘trickle down’ to other sectors of the economy.


1) Roger Noll, The Foreign Aid Paradox, SIEPR Policy Brief, October 2006.

2) Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899. (Full book available here)

3) Mythili Bhusnurmath, Time for a reality check, www.forumblog.org, November 25, 2006.

4) Amit Bhaduri, Development or Developmental Terrorism’, EPW, February 17, 2007.

Amit Bhaduri envisages Development with Dignity

In Amit Bhaduri’s recent book ‘Development with dignity’, he has argued perspicuously the case for a full employment in India. It is a great book to read for economists and non-economists alike. (Amit Bhaduri is internationally famous as an unconventional economist.)
I have listed some of his arguments below.

1) India’s continuation to rely on English has created a linguistic divide and inequality of opportunities between those who know and those who do not know English.

2) He says that agriculture is so overcrowded and devoid of earning in poor states like Bihar and MP, that even selling peanuts on the streets bring more income. There is a very high prevalence of disguised unemployment.

3) ‘India’s immense diversity creates a bewildering variety of identities, and politicians try to manipulate them to their advantage in the game for gathering votes at any cost.’

4) ‘India has given its citizens political rights, but not economic rights to a decent livelihood, with or without economic liberalisation.’

5) ‘Narrow minded policies focussing on ‘cost’ reduction fail to see that cost is a concept defined in a particular social context of contending economic interests.”The worker might think of profit as the ‘cost’ he has to bear for being employed, just as the employer thinks of wage as the ‘cost’ of employing the worker!’

He has shown us unequivocally how to go about the attainment of full employment. He has stressed the need for wider participation in the development process.Moreover, he is of the view than FDI has more positive outcomes for growth than the portfolio investments buy FII’s.
Bhaduri’s main stratagem was ’employment first, with growth as outcome’ and not ‘growth first, and full employment later.’

(The other main attraction of the book is that it comes at a frugal price of 50 INR and it is published by the National Book Trust, India.)

Here is Frontline’s review on the book.