Having graduated with an engineering degree in 2016, 25-year-old Ram Kumar Rajput has been looking for suitable employment since.
But his search has yielded only unattractive and low-paying jobs in and around his home town of Raisen. "The offers I get come with salaries that are just not enough to compensate for hard work or pay for rent and other living expenses in a big city like Bhopal," he says.
Raisen is a town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, located about 45km from its capital, Bhopal. Raisen is the administrative headquarters of the eponymous district with a population of about 1.5 million. Farming, government jobs and small-scale businesses are the main sources of employment.
"But there are not enough suitable jobs in Raisen for youth like us," says Mr Rajput, who adds that he is willing to work in Bhopal but would require a monthly salary of more than 10,000 rupees (S$200) to be able to afford to commute daily to the capital or rent a room there. "Nobody is willing to pay workers like us that much."
Well-qualified engineers can earn at least double that amount in a city like Bhopal but India has a surplus of engineers.
But Mr Rajput has found a temporary solution, thanks to a new government scheme called Yuva Swabhimaan Yojana (YSY) or Scheme for Youth Self-reliance. This was launched in February, about two months after the state elected a new Congress government. It provides youth aged between 21 and 30 with jobs for 100 days in a year. Those enrolled get a stipend of about 5,000 rupees a month.
Estimated number of urban unemployed youth in the 21-30 age bracket in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
The scheme is meant to address the growing problem of unemployment, which has been a major issue this parliamentary election. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come under opposition attack for failing to live up to its promise of delivering 20 million jobs each year. It is a quandary compounded by suppressed government data showing joblessness in India hit a 45-year high of 6.1 per cent in 2017-18.
The stipend, while modest, is a welcome benefit for unemployed youth like Mr Rajput. "It is a good scheme but it will only be of long-term use if it leads to actual employment," he notes. But with no major industrial or services base, Raisen offers dim prospects, a case echoed in many other areas of a state that ranks as one of the country's least developed. Unemployment is especially high among educated youth. The government of Madhya Pradesh estimates the number of urban unemployed youth in the 21-30 age bracket to be 650,000, or 17 per cent of the total population of the age group.
YSY is meant to combine training and employment for jobs such as sales persons, computer operators, plumbers, mobile technicians, photographers and tailors. Nearly 390,000 youth have applied to join the scheme and close to 8,000 have been offered employment so far.
But lack of available training and job options often limits what is offered on the ground. In Raisen, for instance, jobs are limited to showroom salespersons, tailors and computer operators. And yet, with no available private partners in these sectors, youth are forced to work at the local municipal office, taking on unrelated clerical jobs.
YSY is seen as an urban counterpart of the previous Congress-led federal government's countrywide rural job guarantee scheme, which provides employment for 100 days every year. Still in operation under the federal BJP-led government, it was welcomed widely as a security net for the marginalised in India's remote reaches.
The Congress, in its election manifesto for the parliamentary polls, has pledged to give the highest priority to protecting existing jobs and creating new ones. It wants to fill as many as 2.4 million government vacancies at federal and state levels, as soon as possible.
The real test for a scheme like YSY lies in ensuring jobs for those who finish the programme. A certificate, many argue, is not always helpful when employment options are scarce or the training substandard. Mr Anand Sarathe, 21, another YSY beneficiary in Raisen, has a certificate from a federal skill development programme as a driver-cum-mechanic. He says: "It led to an offer for around 5,000 rupees in Bhopal, which was not enough to live on in the city. So, I did not choose it."
Mr Mujeeb Khan, 25, enrolled in the scheme after working as a security guard at an automated teller machine booth for 4,500 rupees a month. "I joined the scheme with the hope of a better job," he says.
While lack of jobs for youth should be a key election issue, Bhopal-based political commentator N. K. Singh says unemployment comes up as a concern only when the young are further prodded with questions on problems they face.
"It is either those who support (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi or those who are against him. Modi is the issue," he tells The Sunday Times, referring to how the Premier's divisive image has eclipsed key issues of development.
"Economy is obviously the top priority, as well as the performance of the government or rather its non-performance over the last five years. But the BJP has hijacked the entire agenda and has made its brand of nationalism an issue instead. This has further degenerated in the Hindi heartland to being only a Hindu versus Muslim issue that has overtaken key concerns like unemployment."