Daily Editorial Analysis for 8th December 2020

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  5. Daily Editorial Analysis for 8th December 2020

A ‘duet’ for India’s urban women


Mains: G.S. I, II & III Issues related to women, Economy


    • The COVID-19 crisis has drawn attention to the insecurities that haunt the lives of the urban poor.
    • Generally, they are less insecure than the rural poor, partly because fall-back work is easier to find in urban areas – if only pulling a rickshaw or selling snacks.
    • Still, the urban poor are exposed to serious contingencies, both individual (like illness and underemployment) and collective (lockdown, floods, cyclones, financial crises).
  • There is, thus, a need for social protection in urban areas. There are not many options. Universalizing the PDS in urban slums would be a step forward (under the National Food Security Act), but foodgrain rations do not take people very far. Employment-based support is one way of doing more.


    • There has been much discussion, in recent months, of a possible urban employment guarantee act.
    • The nuts and bolts of the act, however, are not so clear, and we have little experience of relief work in urban areas. Further, it take some optimism to expect a national urban employment guarantee act to materialize in the current political climate.
    • It is touching to observe the bewilderment that followed the recent release of India’s provisional gross domestic product estimates for the first quarter of 2020-21.
    • After all, we already knew from a series of household surveys that economic activity had dipped during that period. If there are mass unemployment, poverty, and hunger, chances are that the economy is not doing so very well.
    • Survey of 8,500 urban workers, conducted by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, is particularly enlightening. More than half of the respondents had not earned any income in April and May. The average income decline was close to 50%, rising to 82% among migrant workers.
    • This situation has given a new lease of life to the idea of an urban employment guarantee law, similar to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. An urban counterpart of NREGA would provide the sort of fall-back employment option that so many people need at this time, and some people need at all times.
    • But framing an urban employment guarantee law requires more experience with public works in urban areas than we have today. Remember, NREGA built on decades of experience with drought relief works in rural areas.
    • Some states have already tried to launch this sort of scheme. Kerala took the lead 10 years ago with the Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme, which generated 27 lakh person-days of employment in 2019-20, compared with 8 crore person-days for NREGA in Kerala.
    • This year several states, including Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Odisha, have also launched schemes that pass for some sort of urban employment guarantee. Because of the budget crunch, however, these are largely symbolic schemes with tiny budgets as things
    • Here is another option – let’s call it a Decentralised Urban Employment and Training or DUET scheme. The basic idea is as follows.

  • The government would issue ‘job stamps’ and distribute them to approved public institutions – schools, colleges, hostels, shelters, jails, museums, municipalities, government departments, health centres, transport corporations, neighbourhood associations, urban local bodies, and so on. These institutions would be free to convert each job stamp into one person-day of work within a specified period.
  • The wages would be paid by the government directly into the workers’ account on the presentation of job stamps, duly certified by the employer. To avoid collusion, employees would be assigned to employers by an independent placement agency. Some of the work could be organised on a part-time basis—say four hours per day—to make it easier for women to participate.
  • This approach would have various advantages:
  • First, activating a multiplicity of approved employers would help to generate a fair amount of employment.
  • Second, the approved employers would have a stake in ensuring that the work is productive. Third, the scheme would require little staff of its own since existing institutions are the employers.
  • Fourth, workers would have a secure entitlement to the minimum wage, and possibly other benefits.
  • What sort of work could DUET involve? There is plenty to do. To start with, India’s public institutions as well as public spaces (parks, ponds, roads, drains, walls, playgrounds, bus stands, railway stations, what have you) have a chronic problem of poor maintenance.
  • As public premises reopen after months of lockdown, extra work will be needed to restore them – cleaning, sanitising, white-washing, weeding, repairing, painting, plumbing, and so on. This is an excellent time for an urban employment drive. Looking beyond maintenance, there are vast possibilities of productive work in fields like public health, environmental improvement, and perhaps even home care.
  • The training component of the scheme—the T in the DUET—would mainly take the form of on-the-job training, as unskilled workers team up with skilled workers. The placement agency, aside from assigning workers to employers, could also play a useful role in skill formation and certification.
  • Aside from assisting the unemployed, this would be a useful form of economic stimulus in the post-lockdown period, and help to revive public services. Last but not least, DUET would be a useful step towards employment guarantee in urban areas.

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