The Indian govt has been weighing the possibility of an urban jobs programme (without the ‘work guarantee’ feature that NREGA offers) at least since August 2019
Since April 2020, G.Mathivathanan, a senior bureaucrat in Odisha’s urban development department, has found himself in the middle of a large-scale social experiment. In response to the pandemic, Odisha decided to try something novel: bring the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) to cities and towns.
NREGA’s distinctive muster roll-based work assignment remained, but the nature of public works changed, from digging wells and irrigation canals to building stormwater drains and maintaining urban parks. It was supposed to be temporary, lasting until the end of September. On Monday, Odisha decided to extend it by six more months. “Our thinking is this should become permanent. It is not necessarily just a covid thing," said Mathivathanan. “In Odisha, this will evolve into a permanent urban employment scheme."
“We strongly advocate for a national program too. But we cannot just keep waiting for the central government," he added.
In fact, the Indian government has been weighing the possibility of an urban jobs programme (without the ‘work guarantee’ feature that NREGA offers) at least since August 2019. “We made a presentation to the urban ministry before the prime minister’s 2019 Independence Day address. They were considering various ideas," said Amit Basole, an economist with the centre for sustainable employment at Azim Premji University.
But over a year later, despite sketchy details of the plan slowly emerging, it is not really under active consideration, said a senior official in the ministry of urban affairs. If and when it does get implemented, it will not be similar to NREGA, the official insisted.
Incidentally, NREGA, which is the world’s largest rural jobs programme, has already been used by over 86 million Indians in the first half of FY2020 (the highest-ever since the scheme’s launch in 2006). With the pandemic hitting urban informal workers even more than their rural counterparts, several states have decided to push ahead instead of waiting for cues from the centre. Apart from Odisha, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh have also announced similar urban works programmes.
The schemes are modest in size as of now (Odisha is expected to spend about Rs.200 crore this year), but these trials could create a certain amount of experience and build pressure on the centre, says Jean Dreze, a development economist at Ranchi University. “This is how the NREGA began too, as a drought relief scheme in one state (Maharashtra)," he said.
Dreze has his own proposal—a Decentralised Urban Employment and Training scheme, or DUET, involving government-issued job stamps that can be used to hire workers. But irrespective of the precise modalities, Dreze insists the pandemic-hit urban labour market needs support and, in any case, there is work to be done in improving urban amenities and public spaces. “The only question is how to organise it," he said.
While several of these ideas and state initiatives have now surfaced due to the economic effects of the pandemic, they may outlast it, said APU’s Basole. “In the city, there is no such thing as unemployment. There is always something to do. But there is a fair amount of under-employment. Most casual workers do not earn a living wage. The daily wage for some jobs is as low as Rs.200 in several Indian cities. A permanent (urban) public works scheme will give casual workers another option, raise wages, while also creating urban assets like green spaces and footpaths."
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