Recently, the Kelkar Committee published a roadmap for fiscal consolidation.  The report stresses the need and urgency to address India’s fiscal deficit.  A high fiscal deficit – the excess of government expenditure over receipts – can be problematic for many reasons.  The fiscal deficit is financed by government borrowing; increased borrowing can crowd out funds available for private investment. High government spending can also lead to a rise in price levels.  A full PRS summary of the report can be found here. Recent fiscal trends Last year (2011-12), the central government posted a fiscal deficit of 5.8% (of GDP), significantly higher than the targeted 4.6%.  This is in stark contrast to five years ago in 2007-08, when after embarking on a path of fiscal consolidation the government’s fiscal deficit had shrunk to a 30 year low of 2.5%. In 2008-09, a combination of the Sixth Pay Commission, farmers’ debt waiver and a crisis-driven stimulus led to the deficit rising to 6% and it has not returned to those levels since.  As of August this year, government accounts reveal a fiscal deficit of Rs 3,37,538 crore which is 65.7% of the targeted deficit with seven months to go in the fiscal year.   With growth slowing this year, the committee expects tax receipts to fall short of expectations significantly and expenditure to overshoot budget estimates, leaving the economy on the edge of a “fiscal precipice”.

Figure 1 (source: RBI)


  Committee recommendations - expenditure To tackle the deficit on the expenditure side, the committee wants to ease the subsidy burden.  Subsidy expenditure, as a percentage of GDP, has crept up in the last two years (see Figure 2) and the committee expects it to reach 2.6% of GDP in 2012-13.  In response, the committee calls for an immediate increase in the price of diesel, kerosene and LPG.  The committee also recommends phasing out the subsidy on diesel and LPG by 2014-15.   Initial reports suggest that the government may not support this phasing out of subsidies.

Figure 2 (source: RBI, Union Budget documents, PRS)


  For the fertiliser subsidy, the committee recommends implementing the Department of Fertilisers proposal of a 10% price increase on urea.  Last week , the government raised the price of urea by Rs 50 per tonne (a 0.9% increase). Finally, the committee explains the rising food subsidy expenditure as a mismatch between the issue price and the minimum support price and wants this to be addressed. Committee recommendations - receipts Rising subsidies have not been matched by a significant increase in receipts through taxation: gross tax revenue as a percentage of GDP has remained around 10% of GDP (see Figure 3). The committee seeks to improve collections in both direct and indirect taxes via better tax administration.  Over the last decade, income from direct taxes – the tax on income – has emerged as the biggest contributor to the Indian exchequer.  The committee feels that the pending Direct Tax Code Bill would result in significant losses and should be reviewed. To boost income from indirect taxes – the tax on goods and services – the committee wants the proposed Goods and Service Tax regime to be implemented as soon as possible.

Figure 3 (source: RBI)


  Increasing disinvestment, the process of selling government stake in public enterprises, is another proposal to boost receipts. India has failed to meet the disinvestment estimate set out in the Budget in the last two years (Figure 4).  The committee believes introducing new channels [1.  The committee suggests introducing a ‘call option model’. This is a mechanism allowing  the government to offer for sale multiple securities over a period of time till disinvestment targets are achieved.  Investors would have the option to purchase securities at the cost of a premium.  They also propose introducing ‘exchange traded funds’ which would comprise all listed securities of Central Public Sector Enterprises and would provide investors with the benefits of diversification, low cost access and flexibility.] for disinvestment would ensure that disinvestment receipts would meet this year’s target of Rs 30,000 crore.

Figure 4 (source: Union Budget documents, PRS)


  Taken together, these policy changes, the committee believe would significantly improve India’s fiscal health and boost growth.  Their final projections for 2012-13, in both a reform and no reform scenario, and the medium term (2013-14 and 2014-15) are presented in the table below: [table id=2 /]  

In April 2020, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that nearly 2.5 crore jobs could be lost worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.  Further, it observed that more than 40 crore informal workers in India may get pushed into deeper poverty due to the pandemic.  In this blog post, we discuss the effect of COVID-19 on unemployment in urban areas as per the quarterly Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) report released last week, and highlight some of the measures taken by the central government with regard to unemployment.

Methodology for estimating unemployment in PLFS reports

The National Statistics Office (NSO) released its latest quarterly PLFS report for the October-December 2020 quarter.  The PLFS reports give estimates of labour force indicators including Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR), Unemployment Rate, and distribution of workers across industries.  The reports are released on a quarterly as well as annual basis.  The quarterly reports cover only urban areas whereas the annual report covers both urban and rural areas.  The latest annual report is available for the July 2019-June 2020 period.

The quarterly PLFS reports provide estimates based on the Current Weekly Activity Status (CWS).  The CWS of a person is the activity status obtained during a reference period of seven days preceding the date of the survey.  As per CWS status, a person is considered as unemployed in a week if he did not work even for at least one hour on any day during the reference week but sought or was available for work.  In contrast, the headline numbers on employment-unemployment in the annual PLFS reports are reported based on the usual activity status.  Usual activity status relates to the activity status of a person during the reference period of the last 365 days preceding the date of the survey.

Unemployment rate remains notably higher than the pre-COVID period 

To contain the spread of COVID-19, a nationwide lockdown was imposed from late March till May 2020.   During the lockdown, severe restrictions were placed on the movement of individuals and economic activities were significantly halted barring the activities related to essential goods and services.  Unemployment rate in urban areas rose to 20.9% during the April-June quarter of 2020, more than double the unemployment rate in the same quarter the previous year (8.9%).  Unemployment rate refers to the percentage of unemployed persons in the labour force.  Labour force includes persons who are either employed or unemployed but seeking work.  The lockdown restrictions were gradually relaxed during the subsequent months.   Unemployment rate also saw a decrease as compared to the levels seen in the April-June quarter of 2020.  During the October-December quarter of 2020 (latest data available), unemployment rate had reduced to 10.3%.  However, it was notably higher than the unemployment rate in the same quarter last year (7.9%).

Figure 1: Unemployment rate in urban areas across all age groups as per current weekly activity status (Figures in %)


Note: PLFS includes data for transgenders among males.
Sources: Quarterly Periodic Labour Force Survey Reports, Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation; PRS.

Recovery post-national lockdown uneven in case of females

Pre-COVID-19 trends suggest that the female unemployment rate has generally been higher than the male unemployment rate in the country (7.3% vs 9.8% during the October-December quarter of 2019, respectively).  Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this gap seems to have widened.   During the October-December quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate for females was 13.1%, as compared to 9.5% for males.

The Standing Committee on Labour (April 2021) also noted that the pandemic led to large-scale unemployment for female workers, in both organised and unorganised sectors.  It recommended: (i) increasing government procurement from women-led enterprises, (ii) training women in new technologies, (iii) providing women with access to capital, and (iv) investing in childcare and linked infrastructure.

Labour force participation

Persons dropping in and out of the labour force may also influence the unemployment rate.  At a given point of time, there may be persons who are below the legal working age or may drop out of the labour force due to various socio-economic reasons, for instance, to pursue education.  At the same time, there may also be discouraged workers who, while willing and able to be employed, have ceased to seek work.  Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) is the indicator that denotes the percentage of the population which is part of the labour force.  The LFPR saw only marginal changes throughout 2019 and 2020.  During the April-June quarter (where COVID-19 restrictions were the most stringent), the LFPR was 35.9%, which was lower than same in the corresponding quarter in 2019 (36.2%).  Note that female LFPR in India is significantly lower than male LFPR (16.6% and 56.7%, respectively, in the October-December quarter of 2019).

Figure 2: LFPR in urban areas across all groups as per current weekly activity status (Figures in %)


Note: PLFS includes data for transgenders among males.
Sources: Quarterly Periodic Labour Force Survey Reports, Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation; PRS.

Measures taken by the government for workers

The Standing Committee on Labour in its report released in August 2021 noted that 90% of workers in India are from the informal sector.  These workers include: (i) migrant workers, (ii) contract labourers, (iii) construction workers, and (iv) street vendors.  The Committee observed that these workers were worst impacted by the pandemic due to seasonality of employment and lack of employer-employee relationship in unorganised sectors.  The Committee recommended central and state governments to: (i) encourage entrepreneurial opportunities, (ii) attract investment in traditional manufacturing sectors and developing industrial clusters, (iii) strengthen social security measures, (iv) maintain a database of workers in the informal sector, and (v) promote vocational training.  It took note of the various steps taken by the central government to support workers and address the challenges and threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic (applicable to urban areas): 

  • Under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), the central government contributed both 12% employer’s share and 12% employee’s share under Employees Provident Fund (EPF).  Between March and August 2020, a total of Rs 2,567 crore was credited in EPF accounts of 38.85 lakhs eligible employees through 2.63 lakh establishments.
  • The Aatmanirbhar Bharat Rozgar Yojna (ABRY) Scheme was launched with effect from October 2020 to incentivise employers for the creation of new employment along with social security benefits and restoration of loss of employment during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Further, statutory provident fund contribution of both employers and employees was reduced to 10% each from the existing 12% for all establishments covered by EPF Organisation for three months.  As of June 30, 2021, an amount of Rs 950 crore has been disbursed under ABRY to around 22 lakh beneficiaries.
  • The unemployment benefit under the Atal Beemit Vyakti Kalyan Yojana (launched in July 2018) was enhanced from 25% to 50% of the average earning for insured workers who have lost employment due to COVID-19.
  • Under the Prime Minister’s Street Vendor’s Aatma Nirbhar Nidhi (PM SVANidhi) scheme, the central government provided an initial working capital of up to Rs 10,000 to street vendors.  As of June 28, 2021, 25 lakh loan applications have been sanctioned and Rs 2,130 crore disbursed to 21.57 lakh beneficiaries.

The central and state governments have also taken various other measures, such as increasing spending on infrastructure creation and enabling access to cheaper lending for businesses, to sustain economic activity and boost employment generation.