Heena*, who is in her forties, works under Kerala’s Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme in Ernakulam’s Maradu municipality. She has also worked under the national rural jobs programme when Maradu was a panchayat. Heena has supplemented the income of her family of five with the meagre earnings from these employment schemes, alongside other jobs.

The fallout of the pandemic has exacerbated her difficulties as it did for many of India’s urban poor. “I have a loan for an under-construction house, my husband is unwell; my eldest son is the only real earning member,” she said. “An urban employment scheme such as this is helpful for poor women like me, but it needs improvements.”

Since the onset of the pandemic and multiple lockdowns across the country, millions of people have been rendered jobless, have lost their savings and experienced reduced incomes and a fall in the quality of jobs. While the job loss has shifted to men during the second wave, the first wave saw disproportionate job loss among women in urban areas.

In 2021, the number of employed women, globally, is estimated to be 13 million less than in 2019, while the number of employed men is expected to be the same as in 2019, said a July 2021 International Labour Organization policy brief. In India, only 15% of women employed in December 2019 were able to hold on to their jobs through the lockdown and afterwards as opposed to 60% of men, IndiaSpend reported. Urban women account for about 3% of total employment, but experienced 39% of total job losses in the first wave, according to a July 2021 report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

During the countrywide lockdown and the first wave of Covid-19 in April 2020-June 2020, 26.6% of workers in urban India, and 40% of urban women, worked less than 36 hours a week, according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2019-’20. In the previous quarter (January to March) 11.3% of urban workers had worked less than 36 hours.

Since the onset of the pandemic and multiple lockdowns across the country, millions of people have been rendered jobless. Photo credit: Arun Sankar/AFP

Under the circumstances, has the time come for an urban employment guarantee scheme that can offer social security to the urban poor, particularly women? What is needed is an urban employment guarantee programme specifically targeted at women, which leverages existing administrative databases to expand the social security reach, experts have said.

In this story, economists and researchers tell IndiaSpend how urban employment guarantee schemes can address the needs of the unskilled unemployed and educated unemployed, and how a well-designed scheme could be used as an opportunity to promote better facilities for women workers. We also list suggestions that can help design a gender-responsive urban employment guarantee scheme, based on a 2020 report by the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy, an action-oriented research centre, which facilitates women’s economic empowerment.

Urban jobs programme

In September 2020, media reports claimed that “discussions are at an advanced stage for a job programme aimed at urban and semi-urban areas” and that the Centre plans to extend the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme to smaller towns to tackle the fallout of the pandemic. MGNREGS provides 100 days of unskilled work for adult members of a rural household. In the same month, however, the government informed parliament (on September 17 and 22) that it neither plans to implement a national urban employment guarantee scheme nor extend the scheme to urban areas.

This was contrary to the recommendations of the Lok Sabha Standing Committee on Labour in an August 2021 report that noted that “there is an imperative need for putting in place an Employment Guarantee Programme for the urban workforce in line with MGNREGA”.

India needs national policy commitment to preventing urban workers from falling into poverty, noted a September 2020 analysis by the London School of Economics and Political Science. A survey conducted in May 2020-July 2020 found that nearly 70% of urban workers in India had no guarantee of a minimum number of days of work in a year, and more than two in three among them “would like to have a guarantee of 100 days of work, primarily to overcome the livelihood insecurity from Covid-19”, it said.

“An urban employment guarantee makes even more sense during the pandemic when there is large unemployment,” said Amit Basole, economist, at Bengaluru-based Centre for Sustainable Employment. In normal times, the objection to such a programme usually is that urban labour markets are unlike rural markets, where people are out of work or underemployed for significant periods of time each year. But underemployment may exist even in normal times and such a programme can address that issue, he said.

Pandemic fallout

Governments in Odisha, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand initiated urban employment guarantee schemes in 2020, though these have no special provisions for women. The schemes were launched to fight the pandemic-related loss of income and livelihood in the urban population, high unemployment and migration of workers to their home state after the lockdown in 2020, according to a December 2020 report by Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy.

In February, West Bengal announced a 40% increase in daily wages – to Rs 202 (Rs 2 lower than the MGNREGS rate announced in March 2020) – for unskilled labour under its urban employment scheme, which was started in 2010.

In Odisha, it is reported that 13 lakh persondays were generated for 350,000 urban poor, 40% of whom were women; while in Himachal Pradesh nearly three in four applications approved were of women. West Bengal did not specifically allocate work for women. “The number of days of engagement of an individual will be decided on the basis of experience and available opportunities of work,” noted a 2011 West Bengal government notification.

Until March 2021, nearly 90% of 2,42,272 job card registrations in Kerala were by women. It generated 33 lakh persondays in 2020, the highest since the launch of the scheme in 2010 and 21% more than in 2019, according to the Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme data.

“E​​mployment guarantee means that work is provided on demand, and that funds are available to meet the demand at all times,” Jean Drèze, economist and social activist, told IndiaSpend, “For the guarantee to be effective, adequate efforts should be made to spread awareness of the scheme and ensure that the work application process is user-friendly.” Himachal Pradesh may be meeting some of these conditions partially, but they are certainly far from being met in Jharkhand and Odisha, Drèze said.

In September 2020, Drèze suggested “decentralised urban employment and training”, which could move towards a demand-driven urban employment guarantee. Later, in March, he wrote that a women’s decentralised urban employment and training “merits special consideration”. While it would reinforce the self-targeting feature of decentralised urban employment and training – because women in relatively well-off households are unlikely to go for casual labour at the minimum wage – it would also promote women’s general participation in the labour force, he said.

An employment guarantee for urban women, based on part-time work, may be feasible especially in smaller towns and “if it gives priority to women, the scheme would have much value in any case given India’s abysmal levels of female workforce participation in urban areas”, he added.

Kerala experience

Kerala’s Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme, launched in 2010, prioritises work for women in urban households by setting aside 50% of the total jobs available for them. Designed like the countrywide MGNREGS that was launched in 2006, the urban employment scheme aims to provide 100 days of employment in a financial year, but for urban poor households. It currently equals the MGNREGS wage rate of Rs 291 per day.

The promise of 100 days of employment is not being met, however. “I hardly got around 14 to 15 days [of work] last year and have never got 100 days of work,” said Heena, under the rural or urban programmes. The workdays under Ayyankali scheme have been lower than received under MGNREGS, she added.

While 85,208 women got some work under the urban employment scheme, only 4,418 families received the full 100 days of employment in 2020-’21, data show. Nevertheless, during 2021-’22, the urban employment scheme aims to provide 100 days of employment to 10,000 households.

“Most of the workers are women from poor families and it [the urban employment scheme] is a source of income even if it is only for a few weeks,” said Fatima*, another worker in Maradu.

The scheme’s limited budget militates against providing more jobs, said an official in charge of the scheme who did not want to be identified. Kerala did generate 21% more persondays in 2020 than in 2019, as per the urban employment scheme data, which the official said was due to an uptick in demand due to the pandemic, adding that government programmes had converged with the employment scheme to create more jobs.

The scheme has been allocated Rs 100 crore for 2021-’22, and an additional Rs 100 crore has been allocated for a proposed Ayyankali internship programme in private enterprises “where employment guarantee wages will be given to the entrepreneurs as subsidy”, according to the 2021 state budget speech.

Both Heena and Fatima are also part of the Kudumbashree programme, Kerala’s women-centric poverty eradication mission, which has 4.5 million women members. In 2018-’19, Kudumbashree brought together the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban) and the Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment, a housing scheme for the landless and homeless in Kerala, with the urban employment scheme, which made it possible to provide 90 persondays of employment for constructing houses in urban areas.

“More people are demanding work since the pandemic than the number of persondays available,” Heena and Fatima said. If there are more people in a ward, there are fewer persondays to go around. “We last worked before the state assembly elections [in April] this year,” said Fatima, whose coffee vending stall in the municipal office went out of business due to the pandemic.

Offering similar wages (Rs 291 per day) for the Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme and the rural jobs programme in Kerala is inadequate, workers said, even though the rate is among the highest in the country. “We need an increase in wages to manage the high cost of living,” said Heena. Typically, the low wages in Kerala’s context make both urban and rural jobs programmes unattractive for men.

In 2019, the Anoop Satpathy committee recommended Rs 430 per day as the national minimum wage, which included an additional house rent allowance averaging Rs 1,430 per month (Rs 55 per day) for urban areas.

Low wages combine with other factors to make Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme less effective than intended. “Though the Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme was claimed to be on par with MGNREGS, the poor design and implementation along with the political and administrative apathy has dented its popularity and spoiled its potential to some extent,” noted an April 2021 analysis in the Economic and Political Weekly.

The municipalities and corporations do not have enough autonomy to decide on projects suitable to the local context (depending on the region, population and type of jobs), said Jos Chathukulam, one of the authors of the EPW analysis and director of the Centre for Rural Management.

It is possible to attract more workers to urban employment schemes – without disturbing the existing labour arrangements – if they are targeted at women and there is demand for labour appropriate for women, said Basole.

Village women work at a dry pond under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme. Photo credit: Ahmad Masood/Reuters

Designing programmes

From a gender perspective, an urban employment scheme must ensure gender parity in wages, proximity to the place of work, flexibility in timings, provision of childcare facilities, and fair and safe facilities at the worksite to support women, noted the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy report. Women would benefit if safety concerns in urban spaces are addressed well.

“[When] a programme is not specifically targeted for women, they are likely to get pushed out of it when the demand is high,” said Rosa Abraham, a senior fellow at Centre for Sustainable Employment.

Some of the works provided under the scheme include cleaning of waterways, clearing and cleaning of roads, removal of plastic waste and lifting of heavy slabs, said Fatima, adding that sometimes men [colleagues] help with work that is physically demanding.

Heena noted that sometimes when jobs are available in other wards in her municipality, workers are unwilling to go because the transport costs would make the income unviable.

To ensure improvement in urban employment, a quota for women can be determined apart from creating multiple schemes, say experts. To determine a quota, the programme can consider the employment pattern in MGNREGS and take an average of women labour force participation rate in the last three employment rounds, said KR Shyam Sundar, professor at the Jamshedpur-based Xavier School of Management.

In addition, the government could consider creating two schemes – one for the self-employed and the other for the wage employed – so that the latter space is not crowded, he suggested.

But the roles of local elected bodies, state governments and the Centre – key to sustaining urban wage employment – must be clearly defined to ensure accountability.

A 2019 Centre for Sustainable Employment proposal to create a National Urban Employment Guarantee Programme suggested that the Urban Local Body should be entrusted with administering the programme, with state governments collating and approving the annual work plans and sending expense estimates to the central government.

The current schemes run by most states are not large; these must be decentralised and given fiscal support by the Centre, said Basole of Centre for Sustainable Employment.

What experts suggest

For a viable, gender-responsive urban jobs guarantee programme:

  • Provide work that is appropriate for women
  • Provide work close to where people live
  • Ensure wage parity for all
  • Offer wages that are based on the number of jobs completed rather days worked
  • Provide childcare facilities and ensure worksite is harassment-free
  • Empowered urban local bodies and give them autonomy in making decisions related to this programme
  • Make the card portable across urban and rural programmes, so that rural-to-urban migrants can access the scheme

Source: Experts and IWWAGE report 2020

*Names of the workers have been changed to protect their identity

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.