Give back to ‘city makers’

  • 1

Give back to ‘city makers’

Saturday, 06 June 2020 | Arjun Kumar

Give back to ‘city makers’

The absorption of jobless migrant workers in newer fiscal activities with dignity would significantly depend on the nature and type of Government policies put in place to jumpstart economies of cities

Symmetric to global trends, COVID-19 has had multi-dimensional impacts on the Indian economy and society. Amid rising concerns over the lives and livelihoods of the poorer sections of the population due to the nationwide lockdown, the Government announced seemingly bold economic packages. However, with a few exceptions, lack of coordination in the official sphere at the ground level has had appalling consequences, especially on the millions of “city makers”, the urban informal workers, who represent a significant share of the workforce and contribute in multiple ways to the economy.

Employed mostly in the unorganised sector and living in informal settlements in cities, they have borne the major brunt of the lockdown. They have no job contracts, no regular work, are often employed casually and are without any social safety nets to support them and their families during exigencies. Moreover, their livelihood opportunities are constrained by multiple barriers that include deplorable housing conditions, inadequacies of urban services, in-built socio-economic disparities relating to caste and gender and also the policies and practices of governments.

The challenges during the lockdown:  An IMPRI survey to understand the impact of the lockdown on the lives of migrant workers revealed that almost  three-fourth of the 3,121 respondents from over 50 cities of India were engaged in informal employment, i.e. daily wage work, petty trades/business and as temporary workers without any social security benefits.  It was found that six out of 10 workers had lost their jobs during the lockdown, with unemployment being highest among the casual labourers and self-employed respondents. A whopping 74 per cent of the casual labourers lost their jobs while 67 per cent of the self-employed workers could not pursue their economic activities due to the lockdown.

The workers, who had no other option but to remain confined within their houses without any work, could neither realistically practise social distancing, nor could they afford it. The inability to earn during the shutdown translated into 54 per cent of the people being unable to pay rent for their accommodation.

The loss of jobs had a spillover impact on the education of children, too, as most city-makers send their offspring to Government schools. In the prevailing new normal of online teaching methods and reliance on digital modes of learning, education has become a distant dream for the children of migrant labourers because they have no smartphones for accessing such education, forget about computers.

With 88 per cent of the city makers depending on household income, savings, financial help from relatives and friends and so on, for meeting their health-related expenditure, this temporary job loss has added to their anxieties that any kind of health emergency, including COVID-19, would exacerbate.

What they want: Quite understandably, most people want to return to work and almost three-fourth of the respondents said that they would join the same job in which they were engaged prior to the lockdown, if possible. In other words, this loss of jobs or livelihood options was considered as a temporary phenomenon.

However, the absorption of jobless migrant workers in newer fiscal activities with dignity would significantly depend on the nature and type of Government policies put in place to jumpstart economies of cities. This can mostly be done by providing boosts to local businesses and small and micro-enterprises.

The challenges: A defining challenge for devising appropriate mitigating policies for the city makers is the lack of data about them both prior to and during any kind of emergency. So, preparedness and early action by the communities are essential. To benefit from any Central and State Government relief measures — both cash and non-cash — people must possess Government documents (ration card, Aadhaar card), bank account and be enrolled in different Government welfare schemes and so on.

The survey revealed that coverage of and eligibility for Government support programmes was a major concern, as evident from the possession status of various important documents by the respondents.

About 23 per cent of the respondents did not have ration cards, 32 per cent did not have zero-balance Jan Dhan bank accounts and on an average only one out of 10 respondents were covered under the Government of India’s flagship public health as well as life insurance schemes — Ayushman Bharat, PM Jeevan Jyoti Bima and PM Suraksha Bima Yojna.

About 65 per cent of the surveyed respondents were aware of the AarogyaSetu App and among them 62 per cent reported use of the app. Only 38 per cent respondents were aware of State WhatsApp helplines. For other apps and e-initiatives, the awareness levels of the respondents were very poor. Roughly about 20-30 per cent of the respondents were aware of State e-coupons for rations, State e-pass or other different State apps and use of these apps among them turned out to be even more pathetic.

Lack of access to smartphones and unstable internet connectivity were the major impediments in using the apps and portals.

Regarding their awareness on eligibility for Government support programmes, only 37 per cent of the respondents thought that they were eligible for benefits under the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana (having an outlay of `20 lakh crore for the COVID-19 response). However, only 34 per cent of the respondents could avail benefits like cash transfers and free ration under this scheme.

The solutions: In the light of the above evidence, it becomes extremely important to think of precise policy improvements to tide over the crisis. To start with, the stringent Aadhaar-requirements for accessing different schemes must be relaxed for at least the next six months. Another option could be a job assurance programme that would give needy households livelihood security during health crises.

Essentially, the COVID-19 crisis requires extremely localised and coordinated responses. So, city governments and their elected representatives should decide on vigorous delivery of basic urban services that might be the most effective in their contexts. Financially-empowered city governments with clear functional domain and adequate institutional capacity can respond rapidly and contain the outbreak of COVID-19.

It is equally important to improve and expand the coverage of the Public Distribution System (PDS). Bridging the awareness gap regarding available Government support programmes, especially the PDS, through timely and reliable information and expanding the coverage of such programmes to the needy but non-registered segments via certain temporary forms of authentication as alternatives, can be very useful.

The last Economic Survey (2019-20) spoke of “Thalinomics”, which says that a good vegetarian and non-vegetarian platter costs a minimum of `25 minimum and `40, respectively. Therefore, in order to ensure that the poorest sections of the population are able to fulfil their dietary requirements, each identified needy person must be provided with a dollar a day (around `2,000 per month).

Further, for everyone to be vigilant about the spread of COVID-19, digital literacy for children belonging to poor families, and smooth transfer of digital payment of welfare schemes, poor households should  be provided an Android phone either for free or at a subsidised rate through PDS shops. In addition, the private sector (under the CSR component) should come forward and provide free sim and data coupons to Below Poverty Line households. It is the most opportune time to ensure digital literacy among the people.

In the US, $300-$400 are being  given weekly to the unemployed as an allowance. Therefore, to ensure a dignified assistance to the poor, the Government of India can afford to give $1 (about `75) a day to each poor person. If we give `2,000 per month assistance to 12 crore people (the bottom quartile population in the urban economic ladder), it will translate to `24,000 crore a month and `72,000 crore for three months. This is certainly doable.

Moreover, if we can give an Android phone in a graded manner to around five crore people (prioritising the elderly, women and children going to Government schools) in the cities, it would amount to around `30,000 crore (cost per handset around `6,000). Overall, this would amount to `100,000 crore and would be crucial as India moves into the “unlock” phase. Such provisioning is certainly doable and would just need a reorientation of the Budget 2020-21. And to this, the `35 lakh crore worth of forex reserves could be rightly utilised to pay for the war against COVID-19, as it would help distribute the pain similar to the Keynesian tenets during World War-II and create a better society. 

(The writer is Director, IMPRI)

Sunday Edition

Dehradun | Mourning the lost sights

14 July 2024 | Sidharth Mishra and Paritosh Kimothi | Agenda

No Monkey Business this!

14 July 2024 | Gyaneshwar Dayal | Agenda

A Mesmerising Ode to the Eyes

14 July 2024 | SAKSHI PRIYA | Agenda

Sculpting India’s Cultural Landscape

14 July 2024 | SAKSHI PRIYA | Agenda

Exploring Humanity’s Connection in Art

14 July 2024 | Team Agenda | Agenda