A recent editorial in this newspaper (“Drift, dissonance, disappointment,” May 25, 2010) noted with concern that “under UPA-II, the employment guarantee programme, now known as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, despite some strengthening and expansion, is caught in corruption and deficiencies in implementation.” It rightly characterised the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act as one of the social-democratic achievements of the United Progressive Alliance government's first term (2004-2009).
The scheme was well conceived and prepared, with sound inputs going into it from academics, other experts, and various organisations deeply concerned with rural deprivation and livelihood issues. It provided for transparency, a monitoring system, and social audit. The government, supporting political parties, and other stakeholders succeeded in creating awareness among the rural poor about their entitlements under NREGS. There was also effective media support: daily newspapers and magazines took the message across the length and breadth of India. These are important advantages. In the view of several experts, the problems relating to corruption, delayed payment of wages, discrimination against Dalits and women in allotment of work and other perceived deficiencies can be resolved if there is political will at the top and pressure from below.
Even when the NREGS was taking shape, the Left parties pressed for a separate employment guarantee scheme for the urban poor, whose condition was not much better. However, the imperative need to give priority to the rural masses affected by the worsening crisis of agriculture and the rural economy pushed the suggestion for an urban scheme to the back burner. The crisis soon began to affect even the limited job opportunities available to the urban poor owing to growing migration from villages.
The global financial crisis and economic slowdown cast their shadow on urban India as well. The resultant retrenchment, layoffs, wage-cuts and so on added to the miseries of the urban poor, already burdened with large-scale unemployment. Under these circumstances, the demand for an urban relief programme was revived. In early 2009, impressed by the fairly successful performance of NREGS, the 42nd Indian Labour Conference recommended a similar programme for urban areas. In June 2009 Union Minister of Planning V. Narayanasamy announced that the government was thinking of an NREGA-type programme for the urban poor. However, no serious national level initiative was in evidence.
In Left ruled States
However, some State governments felt the need to draw up a programme to protect the urban poor in the context of a sharp rise in the prices of essential commodities, above all basic food items. West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, States governed by the Left governments, took the lead.
Tripura was the first to launch a State-level urban employment guarantee programme modelled on NREGS, in July 2009. To begin with, the scheme would cover 48,000 urban families, including 22,000 families in Agartala, who would benefit to the tune of Rs. 30 crore. The Tripura Urban Employment Programme (TUEP), covering the municipal town of Agartala, the State capital, and about 15 nagar panchayats, seeks to provide work for at least 50 days in a year. Each beneficiary would be paid a daily wage of Rs. 100. The unemployed would be engaged in water body creation and maintenance, repairing old roads and laying new ones, cleaning markets and parks, and so on. Interestingly, the State government has decided that there should be no discrimination between BPL and non-BPL people.
As for West Bengal, Finance Minister Asim Dasgupta proposed an urban employment programme while presenting the current year's budget. He announced an allotment of Rs. 250 crore for the purpose. Under the programme, an unemployed person could be appointed either as a worker or supervisor to implement or maintain a project. The daily wage would be Rs. 100 for a worker and Rs 120 for a supervisor. There would be no engagement of contractors. The number of days a person could be engaged would depend on his experience and the availability of work.
In Kerala, Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac announced in his budget speech in March the introduction of a scheme named the Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme. (Ayyankali (1863-1941), a Dalit leader, fought against social injustice and discrimination against Dalits.) Dr. Isaac said he had earmarked Rs. 20 crore for the scheme. The State has made the outlay for the scheme in spite of a drastic fall in the State's share in the devolution of resources to States by the Finance Commission. (The State is expected to lose around Rs. 5,000 crore during the next five years.) The modality of the implementation of the scheme and other details, it was announced, would be worked out after considering the needs of the unemployed in the urban areas in due course.
It is clear that urban India badly needs an employment guarantee scheme but this cannot be done by mechanically replicating NREGS. Addressing this very issue, an editorial in The Hindu (‘Creating urban employment,' March 4, 2009) observed: “Replicating the NREGS will not yield the same results because urban realities differ. The success of the NREGS is set against the rural-specific milieu characterised by poorer educational attainment levels, lower levels of economically active population, declining employment opportunities in the agricultural sector, and a shift towards the tertiary sector as a job producer.” Several differences, demographic and socio-economic, between the rural and urban regions should be factored in before deciding on the scheme for urban areas. “The causes if unemployment in rural and urban areas differ, and so do the possible avenues of employment,” the editorial points out.
With migration to towns growing by the day and the urban poor becoming more and more impoverished, governments at the Centre and in the States must think of providing appropriate protection to the needy, rural or urban.
Response to “Ambedkar film: better late than never”
Here are some responses to my last column:
Dr A. Padmanaban, a former Governor of Mizoram, wrote: “The questions posed only point to the indifference, and casual and apathetic attitude of the Central and State Governments in dealing with the film on the great national leader … On the whole, the mindset of the ‘upper castes' at all levels has not changed as expected … in the attitude and action towards Dalits and their leaders.”
Dr. Arun Sadasivam said in his e-mail: “Such films will instill good values of social justice into the younger generations.”
K.P. Mani Kumar wrote: “Though belated, the coverage was extensive.”