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Urban Employment And Social Policy In The Wake Of COVID-19

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

By Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar, Sunidhi Agarwal, Ritika Gupta, and Nikhil Jacob

The exodus of migrant workers to their home states due to loss of livelihood in the wake of the COVID-19-induced lockdown was unprecedented. It brought unimaginable hardship to these city makers who thrived on the low paid and unstable jobs provided by their foster cities.

The pandemic exposed the ill-preparedness of the urban spaces in handling such a crisis. This is corroborated by data which shows that the urban areas were much more affected during the lockdown and had a poor recovery rate post lockdown, in comparison to the rural areas, noted Dr Amit Basole. He was delivering a special lecture on urban employment and social policy in the wake of COVID-19, organised by IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and Indrastra Global, New York.

Dr Basole added that a slowdown was in operation in the economy several quarters before COVID-19 and multiple factors like demonetisation, the goods and services tax rollout, the non-performing assets crisis, the long-run structural weaknesses in the economy, insufficient domestic demand etc contributed to this. The growth rate of employment was lower than the growth rate of the working-age population. It is during this turbulent situation that the pandemic made a landfall, remarked Dr Basole.

The pandemic led to the unfolding of the migrant crisis because the lockdown impacted the large employer sectors like trade, transport, hospitality, construction, manufacturing etc the most. These sectors are largely informal employers who offer no job security and social protection. In fact, the Social Security Net is rooted in domicile and not the workplace. Also, urban migrants have low incomes and possess poor savings. They found themselves at the intersection of all of these issues and hence they had to leave, added Dr Basole.

The Urban Unemployment Challenge

Dr Basole highlighted that the Indian pattern of metro focused economic growth is imbalanced and not able to create the needed employment. There is a regional imbalance in labour demand and supply as well which leads to long-distance migrant flows in the first place.

Even amongst the educated youth, he noted that there is a mismatch between their aspirations in the urban areas and what is actually on offer in the labour market. This is proved by the higher rate of open unemployment amongst the educated youth. There is also a poor social security net in urban spaces. All of this leads to a very tricky situation in urban employment, he added.

Impact of COVID-19 On Employment

Based on the findings of various surveys and CMIE data, Dr Basole highlighted two important factors:

  • Irrespective of the urban/rural or male/female categorization, the workforce participation rate dipped sharply in April (lockdown), and started recovering by August (post-lockdown), however by December, the recovery rate more or less stalled.
  • The impact of the lockdown on employment has been higher in urban areas while the recovery has been lower compared to the rural areas. 45% of urban workers were at high risk. Comparing this to the meagre proportion of 12% of urban workers who are at the lowest risk, shows the extent of the effect.

Dr Basole also analysed the gendered impact on employment during COVID-19 where women were at disadvantage. The post lockdown recovery was poorer for women than men with about 47% still haven’t recovered by December against 7% in men. The recovery has led to the informalisation of the workforce.

Impact Of COVID On Income

Dr Basole highlighted earnings dip during the lockdown, either due to loss of workdays or due to the fall in the wage rate. However, compared to the rural sector, the recovery in income levels post lockdown shows that the urban sector is lagging. The trend is the same for per capita household income.

Policy Response To COVID-19 And Its Effectiveness

Dr Basole dwelled upon the immediate policy responses to the pandemic like the additional spending through Public Distribution System (PDS), increased allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), cash transfer through Jan Dhan accounts, front-loading of Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM – KISAN), assistance under the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) and the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PM – GKY) etc. He noted that the fiscal outlay spanned about two-four per cent of the GDP, which is on the lower side than international peers. He remarked that there is room for India to do more on the fiscal side.

Representational image.

Speaking on the effectiveness of some of these measures, Dr Basole added that the provisions through Public Distribution System (PDS) were effective, however, there were last-mile service delivery and leakage issues. Also, its effectiveness in the urban areas was weaker due to poorer Public Distribution System (PDS) network compared to rural. The assistance under Jan Dhan had issues of penetration and access as only 30-40 per cent of the population possess a Jan Dhan account.

Dr Basole also spoke about the various state-level innovations and augmentations like the expansion of Public Distribution System (PDS) to include the Above Poverty Line (APL) beneficiaries, further augmentation of cash transfers schemes and employment guarantee programs that were put in place by few state governments.

Way Forward

In the short term, he postulates measures such as a cash transfer of Rs 6,000 (50% of average per capita GDP) for three months to as many households that can be reached with current digital infrastructure; expanding the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) entitlements to 150 days at wages on par with state minimum wages; formulating a National Employment Guarantee Scheme; universalising the Public Distribution System (PDS) and an increase in the Centre’s National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) contribution to at least Rs 500 per month.

On same lines, Prof Mehrotra added that a Cash Transfer of Rs 500 per month to 60% of the population and a social security net/old-age pension will raise aggregate demand and revive the economy. All of this together will cost not more than 1.2%of GDP i.e., Rs 2.5 lakh crores, he added.

Drawing on the medium to long term measures to be taken, Dr Basole added that there should be policies put in place to improve the social protection system; formalise the enterprises; create a wider cash transfer net, establish an unorganized sector welfare board as put forth by Prof Santosh Mehrotra and widen the microenterprises policy net such that direct income support or wage subsidies can be delivered.

Dr Basole laid special emphasis on the need for a National Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme, which could de be designed as a self-targeted one on the lines of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) with 100 days’ work guarantee at near urban casual wage.

The works carried out under this should be public works, ecological services and care services and the urban local bodies should be key players in its implementation. Prof Mehrotra believes under such scheme, people will be pulled out of the villages which will, in turn, reduce the demand for the rural employment guarantee scheme and thus soothe the fiscal position of the government while facilitating infrastructure and urban development.

Mr Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Govt of Maharashtra, opined that the utility of wage employment programme in urban areas has been outlived and it may not be feasible or sustainable in the long term. He suggested that since the cities are service-centred, a wage program in the service sector may be considered in the short term but in the long term, there should be a focus on upskilling and training the people. Technology is the key, he added.

Prof Mehrotra states that urban guarantee should focus on hundreds of tiny towns which provide poor public services as the urban local bodies are extremely poorly funded. Through such an urban employment guarantee it should be aimed to improve the quality of public service in Tier 3 and Tier 4 cities and only that will create employment that can pull workers from agriculture, added Prof Mehrotra.

Representational image.

He emphasized skilling programs, which needs to be demand-driven and provided by the private sector for it to be effective. In response to reservation of jobs in some states, he commented that domicile issue is a short-term political response to a very constricted labour market which are not creating non-farm jobs. He went on to add that what India needs is a long-term effort in the form of an employment policy and a revised industrial and manufacturing policy.

Dr Basole maintained that even in an ethical society where all the necessary measures are put in place, a pandemic like Covid-19 will bring about losses. However, in the present context, the losses are placed disproportionately with the greater brunt faced by the most vulnerable. He further stated that there are urban labour markets where there is a serious underemployment problem.

Creation of public works through an urban employment guarantee will cater to the underemployment issue and bring up the earnings. In response to a query raised on floor minimum wages, he stated that such laws are ineffective. Rather, tightening the labour market and a rise in productivity will lead to a rise in wages. Legislating the wage is not the way to go ahead, he added.

Dr Basole cautioned that the Metro driven growth model is not the ideal way forward and instead a far more distributed pattern of growth and employment generation should be envisaged. There should be a focus on the small towns and cities as there is a serious undersupply of public goods. Increased creation of public employment is needed to provide the necessary services and to make the small towns dynamic job creators.

Others who participated in the webinar were Mr Neeraj Prassad, Assistant Professor, O P Jindal University; Mr Varun Aggarwal, Founder, India Migration Now; Ms Urvashi Prassad, Public Policy Specialist, NITI Aayog; Mr Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Govt of Maharashtra and Dr Arjun Kumar, Director, IMPRI.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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