Narendra Modi said street food sellers are 'employed', but critics castigated the prime minister for a perceived failure to create jobs © Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

Piping hot pakoras are a beloved south Asian snack — morsels of potato, onion, cauliflower, spinach or paneer, dipped in a chickpea flour batter, then deep-fried and served with an array of pungent sauces from tamarind to chilli. Tiny pakora stalls are ubiquitous in the region’s markets.

But now the humble pakora — and its makers — have emerged at the heart of a passionate debate about India’s economic health. At issue is the question of whether making and selling street food is a meaningful job — or disguised unemployment. 

Prime minister Narendra Modi ignited the debate in a rare television interview, when asked about the perception that he has failed to fulfil his campaign promise to create more job opportunities for young Indians. His response was that India’s official statistics simply do not capture the true number of people working. 

“If someone sells pakoras outside your TV studio and goes home in the evening with Rs200 ($3), wouldn’t you consider that person employed?” Mr Modi asked the anchor. But such income, he said, would “never come into any books or accounts”. 

While the interviewer had no comeback, Mr Modi’s political rivals lost no time mocking the premier’s definition of employment. “By that logic, even begging is a job,” P Chidambaram, a former finance minister, tweeted, adding: “Let’s count poor or disabled persons who are forced to beg for a living as ‘employed’ people.” The Communist Party of India (Marxist) scoffed that such “pakora jobs” reflect the administration’s “abject failure” to create more meaningful employment opportunities. 

Mr Modi’s party, the BJP, affected outrage, saying that to compare pakora vendors with beggars was “shameful” and an insult to the dignity of millions. But when a group of young men clad in college graduation robes set up a pakora stand in the IT hub of Bangalore, it was clear the issue had hit a nerve. 

Creating more regular salaried jobs is India’s most pressing economic challenge, if it is to reach its aspiration of becoming a middle-class society. 

From 2005 to 2012, the country’s economy created an average of just 3m new jobs a year, according to the World Bank, far short of what is needed to absorb the roughly 13m young people entering the labour market every year. The World Bank estimates that less than 20 per cent of India’s workforce have steady, salaried jobs, compared with more than 80 per cent in China. 

Yet India’s official unemployment number — about 5 per cent — does not accurately reflect this acute jobs crisis. That is because few Indians can afford to sit around waiting for a job that is unlikely ever to come. Instead, they look for ways to scratch out a living any way they can. 

Those in rural areas still help till the land, even when their labour is superfluous. Others find creative means of self-employment — such as selling tea or pakoras at roadside stalls or parks, operating tiny provision shops in their homes or similar niche income-generating opportunities. 

These days, young men with few prospects are taking out car loans to buy vehicles, which they drive for Uber, and its local rival Ola. Elections also offer short-term jobs for those with time on their hands. 

All told, nearly half of India’s workforce today is self-employed, while another 32 per cent are casual labours, who are able to find work only sporadically. 

Self-employment may offer dignity — as the BJP insists of pakora sellers — but it does not tend to provide financial stability. According to the labour ministry’s latest “Employment-Unemployment” report, 67 per cent of self-employed Indians have average monthly earnings of less than Rs7,500, well below the average per capita income. Just 0.1 per cent earned more than Rs100,000 per month.

Indeed, the country could be seen as a dystopian expression of the gig economy, in which aside from a tiny sliver of salaried employees — 25 per cent of whom are civil servants — almost no one has secure, well-paid jobs. 

Mr Modi often boasts that his father was a humble tea-seller. But it is precisely this type of insecure self-employment that young Indians were looking to the prime minister to help them escape.

Letter in response to this column:

Self-employment can be the start of something big / From R Vijayaraghavan, San Jose, CA, US

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