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Himachal’s BJP govt drafting law for ‘urban MGNREGA’ before polls, will offer aid to jobless too

The BJP is working to address the post-Covid unemployment crisis in the state that could mar its prospects in the assembly elections scheduled for later this year.

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New Delhi: Ahead of assembly elections later this year, the BJP government in Himachal Pradesh is working to bring a legislation that will guarantee 120 days of wage employment to households in urban areas, ThePrint has learnt.

The law is meant to alleviate urban distress caused by job losses in the wake of the Covid pandemic — an issue that is threatening to mar the party’s prospects in the state elections, according to BJP insiders.

The MGNREGA-type legislation for urban areas will replace the existing Mukhya Mantri Shahri Ajeevika Guarantee Yojna (MMSAGY), announced by the state in 2020. The law is the government’s bid to back the unemployment promise with a legal guarantee.

Passed in 2005 by the Centre, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) provides at least 100 days of wage employment in a financial year to every rural household where an adult member volunteers to do unskilled manual work.

“Under the guidance and leadership of PM Narendra Modi, the BJP government has decided to enact a similar law and our state will be the first to do so,” Himachal Urban Development Minister Suresh Bhardwaj told ThePrint.

A source in the Jairam Thakur-led Himachal government said “the law is in the final stage of drafting” and “has a provision for unemployment allowance in case of failure to provide work on demand as legislated”.

“Legal scrutiny is going on to bring an ordinance to guarantee 120 days of employment to urban households. It may be issued by this month only, and if delayed, it can be brought in the monsoon session. It will provide basic income security to address joblessness in urban areas and will be for every urban household where adults volunteer to do unskilled manual work,” the source added.

State Urban Development Ministry Director Manmohan Sharma said “Himachal is the first state preparing to bring a law that will make it legally binding on the government to provide jobs or a wage allowance for 120 days” in case of failure to provide employment.

“A few states have launched schemes to provide employment in urban areas but they are not a guarantee,” he added.

Schemes to address urban joblessness post-Covid have been launched in states such as Jharkhand, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and Rajasthan, which has announced the introduction of an urban job guarantee scheme with an outlay of Rs 800 crore. Kerala was the first state to make similar provisions way back in 2010-11.


Also Read: BJP MP says youth of Bihar in frustration due to unemployment, asks govt to provide solution


Clamour for urban job guarantee

The migrant crisis of 2020 saw lakhs of people returning to their home states — often on foot — as factories and employment venues shut down amid the Covid lockdown.

Joblessness has been a challenge for previous governments too but the soaring numbers post-Covid create a tough for the incumbent BJP government — nearly 9 lakh people are reportedly registered with employment exchanges in the state. In all age groups, unemployment in the state spiked to 9.6 per cent from 7.8 per cent, as revealed by a labour force survey for the June quarter of 2021-22.

In urban sectors across India, unemployment rate touched 9.3 per cent in January-March 2021 from 9.1 per cent in the same period a year ago, a survey by the National Statistical Office (NSO) showed.

A BJP leader observed: “Himachal is a small state where industries are limited to two-three pockets. Tourism and medicine factories are employment generators but the two-year Covid cycle has affected every industry and the creation of jobs. Ahead of the elections, the unemployment crisis can have a major impact and it’s our responsibility to address it in time.”

Soon after the pandemic erupted, the state launched the MMSAGY. “Directions were issued to all urban local bodies to implement the scheme in an effective way. Today, more than 5,000 people have benefited from it,” Bhardwaj said.

Under the MMSAGY, as many as 7,593 applications were approved till February 2022 and half of these were from women — a votebank that has been “loyal to the BJP” for long. “Women have emerged as an important votebank in recent times, so keeping in mind the voting pattern, such an intervention was needed,” said another senior BJP leader.

Himachal’s upcoming legislation is also expected to fulfil a long-standing demand of the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and Swadeshi Jagran Manch for an “urban MGNREGA”, and is expected to bolster the demand for an urban job guarantee law at the national level.

Binoy Sinha of the BMS welcomed the move but said: “We want a national-level urban MGNREGA, which we had even proposed to the finance minister (Nirmala Sitharaman) during Budget consultations in 2020 and 2021. We saw the migrant crisis during Covid and if we really care about addressing poverty and joblessness, it is better to have a law at the national level.”

In 2021, the standing committee on labour in its 25th report asked the Centre to bring a law for the urban workforce in line with the MGNREGA.

But the same year, the finance ministry denied in Parliament that the central government was considering a proposal to bring an “urban MGNREGA”.

Schemes in other states

Amit Basole, professor of sustainable economy in Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, who authored a detailed report on urban MGNREGA, said: “A few states have formulated urban MGNREGA-type schemes but they can be discontinued as there is no legal guarantee.”

Kerala launched the Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme (AUEGS) in 2010-11 with a budget outlay of Rs 200 crore and a proposed internship programme to include skilled youth into private enterprises that would be given state funds as subsidies.

Launched by the then CM Kamal Nath in 2019, Madhya Pradesh’s Yuva Swabhimaan Yojana guarantees 100 days of employment for youth only.

Odisha’s MUKTA Yojana was launched during Covid in 114 urban local bodies and was extended ahead of local body polls in 2021. The state has generated 13 lakh person-days of employment since its launch, according to Odisha government data.

Nikhil Dey, who was one of the brains behind the MGNREGA, said the real challenge in most states that have introduced similar schemes is low outlay. “They need more budget for broad coverage and this can only happen under the central government,” he said.

Basole sees Himachal’s proposed law as a way forward. “It’s good that Himachal is bringing a legislation and it is the next step for a national urban job guarantee Act. Maybe, after reviewing state experiences, the Centre will plan a national scheme. Covid has proved that for social and economic security, such schemes can be effective.”

Sharing Kerala’s “urban MGNREGA” experience, the state’s Urban Secretary Arun Vijayan said: “Our experience has been very enriching and shows 100 per cent utilisation and creation of human-days [of employment]. It helped a lot during the pandemic in protecting livelihoods.”

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)


Also Read: Sonia Gandhi urges Centre to ensure proper MGNREGA budget allocation


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