During the last one month, much of north India witnessed colourfully
attired Kanwariyas trudging along sidewalks of large metropolis, often
spilling over into busy city traffic jams. This is as spectacular a
clash between tradition and modernity as one can get. The traffic jams
reflected the inability of modernity to deliver as the march of tradition
grew in numbers and in its swagger.
While this clash is an interesting subject to study and understand,
it is not my subject of discourse here. My interest is in finding in
this phenomenon, a reflection of the jobs situation in India.
A Google search tells me that the number of Kanwariyas could be of the
order of 30 million this year.
Amulya Gopalakrishnan writes in her Sunday Times of India blog on
August 12 that the number was estimated at 12 million in 2011. Sandeep
Rawat reports in Hindustan Times on July 19 "Last year, more than 2.5
crore Kanwariyas had arrived in Haridwar to fetch the holy Ganga jal
(water). This year, the fair administration expects arrival of more than
3 crore Kanwariyas." A Scroll.in interview of Vikash Singh, Assistant
Professor of Sociology at Montclair State University, who wrote a book,
"Uprising of the Fools", Stanford University Press, March 2017 on the
Kanwariyas gives the number at 20 million in 2016.
Given the above, an estimate of 30 million Kanwariya pilgrims this year
may not be too far of the mark. What does this 30 million estimate tell
us about the employment situation in the country?
First, 30 million is about 3 per cent of India’s working-age
population. It is 7.3 per cent of the total employed persons in the
country and about 7 per cent of the labour force. That is a substantial
number in itself. It equals the total working-age population of Telangana
(or, a just a little less than the working-age population of Kerala). It
equals the total labour force of Rajasthan and Haryana put together.
It would be safe to assume that participants of the Kanwariya pilgrimage
come essentially from Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Uttarakhand. The
pilgrimage entails a trek up the Ganga to Haridwar, Gaumukh or Gangotri
to fetch water from the Ganga to be offered at local Shiv temples or at
temples in Meerut or Kashi Vishwanath. There is a separate pilgrimage to
Sultanganj in Bihar with similar objectives but, we are not discussing
30 million pilgrims works out to over 40 per cent of the labour force
and 43 per cent of the estimated employed persons in the four states of
Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Harayana and Uttarakhand. It would be extremely
difficult for any state to free so many persons for a pilgrimage that
could easily take away a month.
The annual Kanwar yatra began on July 10 and ended on August 9 this year.
If we spread the net a little farther and assume that the Kanwariyas could
be coming in from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and also from
Himachal Pradesh. The 30 million estimate then works out to 23 per cent
of the labour force and 24 per cent of the employed of these states. This
is a significant proportion that drops work and sets off on pilgrimage.
But, why should we assume that they drop work? It is because the Kanwariyas
are mostly young men who could have been working. Women, middle-aged
and old-age people are a rare sight in this arduous trek. The average
age appears to be in the mid-twenties with a range from late teens to
So then, it is more relevant for us to compare the 30 million estimate
to the young male population of the relevant states. For the purpose
of this exercise, we define young population as those between 15 and 34
years of age.
The young male population in the four main states of Kanwariya movement
is of the order of 52 million. If we include all the nine states listed
above, the relevant population size grows to 89 million.
Can 30 million out of the 89 million young male population of the nine
states set off on a pilgrimage that extends for about a month? If yes,
then what can we infer regarding the state of the young working population
in these states? Are they mostly unemployed or underemployed? What
can we infer from their growing numbers - they seem to be growing at
the rate of 20 to 25 per cent per annum? Is there growing unemployment
An alternate argument could be the large and growing number of Kanwariyas
reflect growing religiosity in Indian society. While this could be true,
one would be stretching credulity if we assume that religiosity can
forego employment over an extended period. It is more likely that there
is a substantially large float of unemployed youth north of the Vindhyas.
First Published in Business Standard Link