Such a programme is the need of the hour not only as a measure to revive the urban economy now, but also to mitigate any further shocks to it in the future
The collective memory of how India lived through the world’s largest lockdown will be seared by images of how our state and society dealt with the country’s workers. Left largely to fend for themselves, millions living in the underbelly of the very cities they have built and serviced, surfaced on the shiny highways and flyovers to walk back home, hundreds of kilometres away.
Street vendors watched haplessly as their carts of fruits and vegetables were upturned by the police. These are the very same carts that provided door step delivery to many others who maintained “social distancing” and were busy discovering their inner chefs and bakers.
Sanitation workers, delivery agents, tempo and truck drivers carried the enormous burden of running cities and towns on their shoulders, while having no job, income and social security.
The crisis reminds us yet again, just how precarious and vulnerable the lives of the majority of our citizens are. While rural and agrarian distress have been continued blights on India’s economy, this time, it were urban workers who were hit harder due to lack of social protection. To take one example, while rural workers have access to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), however imperfectly run, urban workers lack any such alternative.
This is, therefore, an opportune time to work towards a National Urban Employment Guarantee Programme. By providing urban workers a legal right to employment, such a programme would have positive effects on low earnings in the urban economy due to pervasive underemployment, raise wage rates by offering workers a fallback option and possibly slowdown the exceedingly unsustainable concentration of migrant workers in only a few cities.
Not only that. It will improve the quality of urban infrastructure and services, restore urban commons and ecology, provide skills to youth and increase the capacity of urban local bodies. In short, it will bring a much-needed focus on the public and collective aspect of our towns and cities.
Such a programme is the need of the hour not only as a measure to revive the shock experienced by the urban economy on account of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), it is critical for mitigating any further shocks to it in the future, particularly the one posed by the economic and ecological consequences of climate change.
While building on MGNREGA, its urban equivalent can broaden the nature of works that can be undertaken through the employment guarantee, in particular to “green jobs” such as construction and repair of common water bodies; rejuvenating urban grasslands and wetlands; solid waste management; planting vegetation and trees in common lands; restoring public parks, playgrounds and footpaths; construction of common infrastructure such as shelters, quarantine facilities; creating kitchen gardens, surveying and many more.
MGNREGA also offers many lessons for successful implementation. Over the past 15 years, workable systems of implementation have been developed.
These include a clear set of worker entitlements to demand work, have access to minimum facilities at the worksite, be paid compensation for delay in wage payments, participate in the planning of works in their villages and receive an unemployment allowance for not getting work within 15 days of demanding it.
Further, the right to audit expenditure and the right to have access to all information related to the implementation of the programme — have been shown to have worked and must be incorporated into an urban formulation of an employment guarantee.
Several states have already taken the first steps in this direction. Kerala, Odisha and Himachal Pradesh run urban employment programmes. Others are thinking along similar lines.
But to be truly an effective guarantee, the Union government must bring its much larger resources to bear. Together, with a properly implemented MGNREGA, the total cost for both programmes is likely to be in the range of Rs 5 lakh crore or 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product. This is a large number.
The way to view it is not as a “dole” for unemployed workers, but rather a much-needed investment in our public goods and services. This investent will be recovered via imporvements in well-being and security, enhanced quality of life of residents, improved productivity of workers and greater ecological resilience. Not to mention an immediate effect of raising demand in a time of unprecedented economic crisis.
The severity of the economic crisis that COVID-19 unleashed has been magnified by the fact that it has left destruction in practically every sector of the economy. The clamour for bailouts from the government is going to be a crowded affair, in which the workers may yet again be short changed.
We must use this moment to not settle for just a relief package but to change the very discourse of labour and worker rights in our country at a fundamental level. That is the only way workers will be able to claim their share in what is rebuilt and ensure that they are never again treated with such inequality and indignity.
There needs to be a concerted effort by the government to take along unions, campaigns and civil society organisations to pass an Urban Employment Guarantee Act. History would be kind, if we take this opportunity to recognise workers as the true unrecognised patriots of this country and be given their just due for the contributions they have made to every bit of the country’s development.
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