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Insights into Editorial: A ‘duet’ for India’s urban women

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Context:

The COVID-19 crisis has drawn attention to the insecurities that haunt the lives of the urban poor.

Generally, urban poor are less insecure than the rural poor, partly because fallback work is easier to find in urban areas if only pulling a rickshaw or selling snacks.

Still, the urban poor are exposed to serious contingencies, both individual (such as illness and underemployment) and collective (lockdowns, floods, cyclones, financial crises and so on).

Conditions of urban poor women are more deplorable than rural women:

  1. Nuclear families in slums, usually without caste-community affiliations. Husband has less fear of relatives or elders of the community. Could be more abusive / domestic violence than rural.
  2. Crime, Drugs, Liquor, Gambling, Juvenile Delinquency more prominent in urban slums than rural.
  3. When male members of a poor family engage in these evils, it has repercussion on the females of the house as well.
  4. Urban areas have higher cost of living. So, Urban poor woman has to engage herself in petty-labour while looking after the household chores and childcare.
  5. Rural women might have the help of grandparents / family elders / in-laws to take care of raising the children and dividing the domestic chores. So, she may have slightly better peace of mind.
  6. Urban slums have unhygienic conditions, and they are more prone to damage in urban floods results in disease, financial distress.
  7. In Rural floods, Government relief and compensation packages are bigger and arrives more quickly due to the electoral politics.
  8. Urban slums more prone to eviction during anti-encroachment drives compared to rural slums.
  9. Thus, due to aforementioned challenges, the condition of urban poor women more deplorable than their rural counterparts.

To secure Urban Poor:

  1. There has been much discussion, in recent months, of a possible urban employment guarantee act.
  2. The nuts and bolts of the act, however, are not so clear, and we have little experience of relief work in urban areas.
  3. Further, it takes some optimism to expect a national urban employment guarantee act to materialise in the current political climate. A stepping stone would help.
  4. There is, thus, a need for better social protection in urban areas. There are not many options.
  5. Universalising the Public Distribution System in urban slums would be a step forward (and it can be done under the National Food Security Act), but food grain rations do not take people very far.
  6. Employment-based support is one way of doing more. It has two major advantages: self-targeting, and the possibility of generating valuable assets or services.

Idea of Decentralised Urban Employment and Training (DUET):

  1. Activists and social scientists had proposed an urban employment scheme called Decentralised Urban Employment and Training (DUET).
  2. The government, State or Union, would issue “job stamps”, each standing for one day of work at the minimum wage.
  3. The job stamps would be liberally distributed to approved public institutions such as universities, hostels, schools, hospitals, health centres, museums, libraries, shelters, jails, offices, departments, railway stations, transport corporations, public-sector enterprises, neighbourhood associations and urban local bodies.
  4. These institutions would be free to use the stamps to hire labour for odd jobs and small projects that do not fit easily within their existing budgets and systems.
  5. Wages, paid by the government, would go directly to the workers’ accounts against job stamps certified by the employer.
  6. To avoid collusion, an independent placement agency would take charge of assigning workers to employers.
  7. This approach would have various advantages: activating a multiplicity of potential employers, avoiding the need for special staff, facilitating productive work, among others.
  8. It would also ensure that workers have a secure entitlement to minimum wages, and possibly other benefits.

In implementation of Decentralised Urban Employment and Training (DUET):

Many States have a chronic problem of dismal maintenance of public premises DUET could provide a first line of defence against it.

Some projects may require a modest provision for material expenditure, but that seems doable.

To work well, DUET would have to include some skilled workers (masons, carpenters, electricians and such). That would widen the range of possible jobs.

It would also help to impart a training component in the scheme workers could learn skills “on the job”, as they work alongside skilled workers.

Roping in skilled workers, however, will take some effort: they tend to get a fair amount of work in urban areas, and to earn relatively good wages.

Aside from prompting a lot of useful and mostly enthusiastic feedback when it was placed in the public domain, the DUET proposal was the subject of a recent symposium by ‘Ideas for India’, where many eminent economists shared valuable thoughts and doubts.

Of course, many practical issues are likely to arise in the design of the scheme. But the idea seems worth pursuing at least.

Merits: Women first

  1. To facilitate women’s involvement, most of the work could be organised on a part-time basis, say four hours a day.
  2. A part-time employment option would be attractive for many poor women in urban areas.
  3. Full-time employment tends to be very difficult for them, especially if they have young children.
  4. Wage employment for a few hours a day would be much easier to manage. It would give them some economic independence and bargaining power within the family, and help them to acquire new skills.
  5. Remember, the economic dependence of women on men is one of the prime roots of gender inequality and female oppression in India.
  1. Giving priority to women would have two further merits. First, it would reinforce the self-targeting feature of DUET, because women in relatively well-off households are unlikely to go (or be allowed to go) for casual labour at the minimum wage.
  2. Second, it would promote women’s general participation in the labour force. India has one of the lowest rates of female workforce participation in the world.
  3. According to National Sample Survey data for 2019, only 20% of urban women in the age group of 15-59 years spend time in “employment and related activities” on an average day.
  4. This is a loss not only for women, who live at the mercy of men, but also for society as a whole, insofar as it stifles the productive and creative potential of almost half of the adult population.
  5. If wages are paid directly to the workers’ accounts, siphoning DUET funds off would require collusion with workers, real or dummy.

Conclusion:

The conditions of urban poor women are deplorable than rural poor women. The need of the hour is to provide them with opportunities for health, education, work through initiatives like SHGs, NGO programs and Government initiatives like DAY-NULM, PM Awas Yojana, ICDS etc.

It is, thus, not easy to guess how intensively job stamps will be used.

There is nothing to lose: if DUET does not work, we shall learn from it at least.

The best way to find out is to give the scheme a chance. As it happens, that can easily be done, by way of a pilot scheme in select districts or even municipalities.

This would help us in achieving the SDG-5 which empowers all women & achieve gender equality.