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Is an urban job scheme possible? Modi govt unsure but 6 opposition states & Himachal show the way

Kerala & West Bengal have been operating their schemes since 2010. Rajasthan is latest entrant. Himachal plans to bring a law to give a legal guarantee to its urban job scheme.

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New Delhi/Chennai: The Narendra Modi government may appear to be reluctant to bring in a guaranteed job scheme for the urban poor despite a growing chorus from various sections. But seven states, including BJP-ruled Himachal Pradesh, show that it may not be an impossible feat.

The other six states — Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Jharkhand and Rajasthan — are governed by opposition parties.

Kerala and West Bengal have been operating their schemes since 2010. Rajasthan is the latest entrant. All these job schemes are modelled on the lines of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the flagship scheme providing jobs in villages.

Himachal Pradesh plans to bring a law to give a legal guarantee to its urban job scheme, the state’s Urban Development Minister Suresh Bhardwaj told ThePrint in a telephonic interview.

“We are running an urban employment scheme (Mukhya Mantri Shahri Ajeevika Guarantee Yojana), but it has no legal guarantee. Now, we will back it with an Act. A bill will be introduced in the monsoon session of the assembly in August,” Bhardwaj said.

Launched on 16 May 2020, the scheme is renotified every year. “We launched the scheme on a pilot basis, but decided to continue it after seeing growing demand from the urban poor,” Bhardwaj said.

Once the law is passed, poll-bound Himachal Pradesh will be the first Indian state to have an Act assuring jobs to the urban poor. “Once a person is registered, it will be mandatory for the government to ensure 120-day employment,” Bhardwaj said.

Detractors can argue that Himachal may find it easier to implement such a scheme given its population of 68.65 lakh (2011 Census), of which just 10 per cent lives in urban areas.

But two big states — Tamil Nadu and West Bengal — have also implemented such schemes for the unemployed urban workforce.

The work offered by the states varies in nature — from tree plantation, beautification of public spaces, horticulture and forest-related work, heritage conservation, prevention of defacement of property, to cleanliness and sanitation work, and forest conservation.

Wages given by the states are comparable to what is given under the MGNREGS. Payment under MGNREGS, meanwhile, is not uniform.

For instance, the daily wage is Rs 204 in Uttar Pradesh while it is Rs 292 in Bihar. Karnataka pays the highest MGNREGS wage of Rs 441 while Haryana doles out Rs 377 to a worker.

Also Read: Covid-induced migration ‘was a shock’, economist blames ‘failure to understand inequality’

Different scenario in Tamil Nadu

After announcing the Tamil Nadu Urban Employment Scheme late last year, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government officially launched it in March 2022.

The scheme with a budget of Rs 100 crore is expected to generate employment for the urban poor in 15 municipal corporations, 7 municipalities and 37 town panchayats in the state. A uniform wage of Rs 363 per day is given under the scheme.

K. Valliamma, 36, a resident of GKM Colony in Greater Chennai Corporation’s Thiru Vi Ka Nagar, is one of the beneficiaries of the scheme. Along with some 15-20 women in her neighbourhood, Valliamma has been desilting a storm-water drain since March and has completed nearly 70 days of work under the 100-day job scheme.

Valliamma, who previously worked as a domestic help, opted for the scheme after she came across government officials who went door-to-door to register people for the scheme. “We got the government card and began work. Initially, for the first two days, the work seemed very hard but we have become accustomed to it,” she said.

Every day, teams of two women each scoop sand and silt out of the storm-water drain and dump them in sacks. “One person scoops the silt, the other holds the sack,” Valliamma explained, adding that they fill 30-35 sacks a day.

“We get Rs 4,000 each for a fortnight’s work. We work six days a week from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm,” she said. “Initially, they were handing out cheques, but we found it difficult to deposit in the bank. Now, they transfer the salary to our bank accounts.”

Another beneficiary, Valliamma’s neighbour A. Amudha, 35, said she’d prefer a different kind of job. “Perhaps something like sweeping,” she said. “Do you think they will continue to employ us even after this work is completed?”

Odisha shows the way

The Tamil Nadu Urban Employment Scheme is modelled on Odisha’s Mukhyamantri Karma Tatpara Abhiyan (MUKTA), which was formerly known as the Urban Wage Employment Initiative. The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government first issued notification on 18 April 2020 for the scheme covering 114 cities of Odisha.

Launched initially for 6 months with an outlay of Rs 100 crore, MUKTA has now been regularised with an annual budget of Rs 1,000 crore. Odisha, which has an urban population of 70 lakh, has fixed the daily wage rate at Rs 326.

G. Mathi Vathanan, Principal Secretary, Odisha Housing and Urban Development Department, said that MUKTA was initially launched to help the migrants returning home during the nationwide lockdown in March 2020.

It was followed by a six-month extension with an additional allocation of Rs 100 crore, as the pandemic showed no sign of abatement. “But we decided to regularise the scheme with an annual budget of Rs 1,000 crore after our feedback showed a huge demand for jobs among the urban poor. We realised that there was a long-felt need for a social safety net among informal workers. The scheme provided that,” he said.

The scheme, Vathanan added, is unique as it’s a completely community-led partnership, mainly through women-led Self-Help Groups (SHGs). “There are no contractors or middlemen involved. The community/SHGs are given 7.5 per cent of the project cost as supervisory charges for implementing the work.”

The projects taken up under the scheme range from construction of multipurpose community centres, paved walking track, rainwater-harvesting structures to renovation of water bodies and development of open space.

Vathanan said that, so far, 28,500 projects had been completed and 28 lakh man-days of work generated. “Besides, some 6,500-plus projects worth Rs 500 crore are under implementation.”  Until now, there have been 6 lakh wage-seekers and wages totalling Rs 98 crore disbursed to the beneficiaries, he added.

Like the DMK government in Tamil Nadu, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-led coalition government also took a leaf out of Odisha’s MUKTA to launch its Mukhyamantri SHRAMIK (Shahari Rozgar Manjuri for Kamgar) Yojana, or MSY.

Soon after the first Covid lockdown in 2020, the government estimated that over 10 to 15 lakh workers had returned from other states. In August that year, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren announced the job scheme for urban unskilled workers.

“Unlike MGNREGA, the MSY is a scheme. Currently, there are no talks to turn the scheme into an entitlement,” said Binod Kumar Thakur, State Mission Manager, Directorate of Municipal Corporation, Urban Development and Housing Department of Jharkhand.

He added that workers are given work mainly under the municipality or housing department. It mostly consists of cleaning, beautification of the city, or the upkeep of city structures. The minimum daily wage under MSY and MGNREGS is Rs 306 and Rs 225, respectively.

The MSY has been allotted an annual budget of Rs 5 crore. But, Thakur explained, that Rs 10 crore was assigned to the scheme in the form of a
critical gap fund.

Under Jharkhand’s 100-day job scheme, workers above the age of 18 years and living in civic localities since 1 April 2015 can apply for a job card either online or through their ward administrators.

On receiving an application, a job card with three-year validity has to be made within 15 days.  Job-seekers have to be given work within 15 days of application receipt too. If the government fails to do so, then the workers are entitled to compensation.

Rajasthan, the latest entrant

In May, the Congress government in Rajasthan became the latest to approve an employment scheme for the urban poor. Joga Ram, Secretary, Local Self Government, told ThePrint that the government had launched a portal through which job-seekers could start registering for the Indira Gandhi Shahari Rozgar Guarantee Yojana (IRGY-Urban).

“Under the scheme, 100 days of employment in a financial year will be given to a family living in urban areas. The Rajasthan government has started mapping every family living in urban areas through the Jan Aadhaar cards,” Ram said.

The government will incur Rs 800 crore annually for the implementation of the scheme, which mandates that a registered worker gets work within 15 days of requesting for a job, according to a Rajasthan government statement.

West Bengal and Kerala — the oldest players   

West Bengal and Kerala were among the first to launch a guaranteed job scheme for the urban poor on the lines of MGNREGS, way back in 2010.

Under West Bengal’s Urban Employment Scheme, unemployed persons from Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) are engaged directly in various infrastructure development projects taken up by municipalities and municipal corporations. ULBs may involve various state departments or development authorities for execution of the projects taken up under the scheme.

Last February, in the run-up to the Bengal elections, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that the daily wage would be increased from Rs 144 to Rs 202 for unskilled workers, and from Rs 172 to Rs 303 for semi-skilled workers.

A new category of skilled workers with a daily wage of Rs 404 was also added to the scheme. Some 40,500 unskilled, 8,000 semi-skilled and 8,000 skilled workers will benefit from the government’s decision, Mamata said.

As for Kerala, the Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme (AUEGS) provides at least 100 days of employment to every household whose adult members are willing to do unskilled manual labour.

In 2020-21, an amount of Rs 75 crore was earmarked for the scheme, which created 32.53 lakh man-days of work, according to the 2021 Kerala Economic Review. Job card was issued to 1, 91,722 persons in general category, 44,497 in Scheduled Castes and 4,357 in Scheduled Tribes, it added.

Also Read: Raise minimum EPS pension to Rs 5,000, start urban MGNREGA: RSS-affiliate BMS’ Budget demands

Why the Centre is reluctant 

The Centre, however, is not in favour of introducing a job scheme for urban poor.

A senior finance ministry official, who did not want to be named, said that there are high fiscal costs involved in running such schemes. “The problem with such schemes is that once it’s on your books, it doesn’t come off. And the allocation for such schemes becomes recurring. The government, as of now, is not in favour of introducing such a scheme,” the official said.

Dr N.R. Bhanumurthy, Vice-Chancellor of Dr B.R. Ambedkar School of Economics University, Bengaluru, told ThePrint that any government would have to consider three aspects — ideological, practical and fiscal — before deciding on implementing such a scheme.

“Ideologically, I think, in the absence of any automatic stabiliser in the economy except for MGNREGS, which caters to rural areas, there is a need for similar scheme in urban areas also to help the urban poor whenever there is a downturn in the economy,” Bhanumurthy said.

A programme like MGNREGS does not act as an asset creation scheme but more of an economic stabiliser, he added.

According to him, the shock among the urban poor is far more frequent compared to their rural counterparts during crises. “There is a need for policy intervention, but one will have to look at the practical aspects as well. It’s going to be much more difficult to implement a job scheme in urban areas than rural areas.”

From the financial point of view, too, Bhanumurthy said, it was much more difficult to implement a scheme like MGNREGS in urban areas. “The job demand is going to be much more in urban areas and the allocation has to be much more than MGNREGS to meet it.”

In the Union Budget 2022-23, the allocation for MGNREGS was kept unchanged at Rs 73,000 crore. “The government will have to consider if it has the fiscal space available for making this kind of allocation,” Bhanumurthy asserted.

So far, he said, the budget allocated by the states for their urban job schemes is minuscule. “Besides, so far none have done any assessment of how the schemes fared. Without evaluation, it will be difficult to gauge how effective the schemes have been,” Bhanumurthy added.

(Edited by Tony Rai)

Also Read: India urgently needs Right to Work. We are in a Great Depression in slow motion


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