As the economy stares at a recession in 2020-21, job creation will be a big challenge in urban India where the unemployment rate in early August, though better than previous months, is still higher than rural India.
The situation could become more acute as millions of migrants who had returned to their villages during the lockdown have come back to the towns in their quest for higher wages and better livelihood. This has spurred some thinking within the government on offering some sort of urban livelihood scheme to create jobs for returning workers.
“This crisis has highlighted the issue of migrant workers in urban areas. Something is in the works, and it is being done by the relevant ministries,” Economic Affairs secretary Tarun Bajaj said in a recent interview to Business Standard.
But this is not new territory for the government. In 2014, the Modi government launched the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihood Mission (DAY-NULM) with the objective of providing gainful self-employment opportunities for urban poor in order to substantially improve their livelihood.
The Mission is being administered by Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.
Apart from creating self-employment opportunities, the Mission also focuses on building rain or night shelters equipped with essential services for urban homeless such as rickshaw pullers, daily wage-earners and so on. It is also aimed at facilitating access to suitable spaces, institutional credit and social security for street vendors.
According to a reply in Parliament, between 2014-15 and October 31, 2019, over 460,000 self-help groups (SHGs) have been formed under the scheme, and 461,994 beneficiaries have been assisted for setting up individual or group micro-enterprises for self-employment.
Available documents also stated that the mission had tied up with leading e-commerce platforms and others to provide market access to the products produced by the SHGs and other urban poor in association with state governments.
Critics agreed that though the programme has made some good progress, it hasn’t met a lot of their expectations.
“The urban poor is highly dynamic, laborious and enterprising. NULM has managed to create lot of SHGs in the urban areas and they are making good products, but the question is how many of these products have found strong, viable and regular markets in urban areas itself,” said Arbind Singh, National Co-coordinator, National Association of Street Vendors of India.
But, one component of the scheme that has done well is in monitoring the progress of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act 2014 — and its various provisions.
Whether it is creating street vending zones in cities, forming city vending committees, issuing vending certificates, or undertaking and surveying vendors, the government has managed to push states to undertake these much needed measures for the welfare of vendors.
“Before NULM, street vendors were not even part of municipal records, but now most states have records of street vendors, over 500,000 have been issued proper identity cards, over 2,400 cities have completed surveying the vendors,” Singh said.
The real challenge for any new scheme, says Singh, is to protect migrant labour and the self-employed from exploitation and extortion, which most government initiatives have not been able to address so far.
“Look at it this way, if you create better working conditions for vegetable vendors, a lot of people will start vegetable vending which will create new employment opportunities as well dignity for the existing ones,” Singh said.
This is where an urban employment guarantee programme on the lines of the 15-year-old rural employment programme could work.
Already, Himachal Pradesh has notified such an Act to handle the Covid-created unemployment problem in urban areas.
Odisha too has started an urban employment guarantee scheme during COVID, but it is more on the lines of a welfare programme and is not a legislation.
Jharkhand, last week launched an urban employment gurantee programme called the Mukhyamantri SHRAMIK (Shahri Rozgar Manjuri For Kamgar) Yojna.
The programme is aimed at providing work for 100 days (man-days) a year within 15 days of receiving an application. It is similar to MGNREGA and has provision of unemployment allowance if work is not provided. The programme is projected to benefit 0.5 million poor families of the state.
The Himachal Pradesh scheme, the Mukhya Mantri Shahri Ajeevika Guarantee Yojana, seeks to provide 120 days of guaranteed wage employment to every household in urban areas, and the Odisha initiative called the Urban Wage Employment Initiative is an employment scheme with an initial allocation of Rs 100 crore for six months starting from April 2020.
In most of the programmes, the urban local bodies will identify projects, enrol job seekers and ensure timely payment of wages, monitoring of works etc.
“I feel that a programme that guarantees minimum days of job is always a better option but it should be demand-driven not supply-driven and should have a legal backing,” said Debmalya Nandy, an activist with MGNREGA Sangharsh Morcha.
Another option, which some are talking about is a Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan (GKRA) sort of campaign for urban poor by converging existing schemes.
In the first six weeks, since its launch in June, a sum of over Rs 16,000 crore has been spent through GKRA on providing employment of about 200 million mandays out of the Rs 50,000 crore estimated. What government finally decides remains to be seen.