To make rapid economic progress, India needs to improve the well-being of the workforce that migrates to cities in the hope of a better life. A large number of migrants who returned to their homes in villages have come back to cities in search of work after the Covid pandemic.
Many have, however, chosen to stay back. Social protection-related registration of informal workers has increased but the nature of opportunities continues to be insecure. With mechanisation resulting in the greater displacement of people dependent on farms, the trail of migrants in search of livelihoods is going to increase. Half of India is expected to urbanise by 2030 and at least half of that population could be such migrants.
Loss of jobs and incomes after the pandemic has driven a large section of the urban poor to move back to their villages and withdraw their children from private schools. Healthcare costs have gone up and the cost of essential commodities, other than free food grains, has also increased. What can make the lives of the urban poor better in the short to medium term?
First, there is a strong case for elected leadership in urban local bodies at the basti or slum cluster level. The population of an urban ward varies from 1,500-6,000 in smaller towns to 30,000 to 2,00,000 in the metros. Such a large population is not amenable to community-level connections and local strongmen often determine access to public services for the poor. Article 243S (5) of the Constitution states: “Nothing in this article shall be deemed to prevent the Legislature of a State from making any provision for the Constitution of Committees in addition to the Ward Committees.” The Constitution, therefore, does not come in the way of this much-needed reform.
Second, access to public services is the biggest challenge for migrants. Nearly half the urban population does have access to cheap food grains under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). With the portability of names and cards, access to grains has also improved. There is a need to establish identity markers based on the NFSA list as well as record the deprived households without access who may have been left out of this list. Through a participatory identification of the poor by a community connect process, it should be possible to delete the non-entitled beneficiaries of NFSA as well.
Third, once the deprived households are identified, special community connect campaigns to ensure access to social welfare schemes should be started. Such campaigns should cover schemes related to LPG connection, bank accounts, life and accident insurance, EPFO and ESI facilities, and healthcare programmes like Ayushman Bharat and Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY), employment schemes and drinking water, electricity, sanitation and other projects.
Fourth, nearly 70 lakh women in seven lakh self-help groups are under the National Urban Livelihood Mission. Complete coverage of deprived households by SHGs should be attempted in a mission mode. This process should be accompanied by access to credit for all groups for diversification of livelihoods. Creating basti-level women’s collectives will address several difficult challenges. Loans for street vendors under Svanidhi Scheme is a good step in that direction.
Fifth, the arrival process of migrants to cities in search of work has to be made less traumatic. For this, we need to establish Migration Support Centres. The expansion of rental housing and property titles to settlers who fulfil the basic requirements will ease access to credit. Support for the destitute and the homeless must be made a priority.
Sixth, skilling, upskilling, and re-skilling opportunities must be readily available for poor households in ways that enable them to combine work with skill upgradation. Apprenticeships to the eligible will also help.
Seventh, urban local bodies must have specially designated teams for the poor. Municipal bodies have lost revenues after the introduction of GST as entry tax and octroi are no longer with them. While an increase in property tax is an option, this alone will not suffice. Stamp duty is a big revenue source in urban areas but it’s not directly available to local bodies. All this requires governance reforms. The financing of local bodies requires professionals with specialised skill sets.
Eighth, census towns (rural gram panchayat but urban in character) and many rural growth clusters have been identified by the Ministry of Rural Development as part of the Rurban Mission and some meaningful work has happened both on infrastructure and livelihoods in 300 clusters across the country. Some are tourism clusters, some specific economic activity clusters, and yet others are farm and non-farm clusters. We need to work for their emergence as robust growth centres.A
Ninth, improvement of schools, health facility expansion, and anganwadis will go a long way in connecting deprived households to human development requirements. The Atmanirbhar Health Infrastructure Yojana has prioritised strengthening urban health centres and the creation of frontline health teams.
Tenth, the time has come to enforce minimum wages. Labour contractors very often disburse lower than the minimum wages, though they do not show that on paper. Domestic helps need support for wages as oversupply leads to distress employment. With a section of the population ageing and life expectancy increasing, there should be employment opportunities for people with caregiving skills.
Eleventh, contrary to B R Ambedkar’s hope that urbanisation will break caste hierarchies, our large cities are among the most segregated. Master Plans must factor in the housing and welfare needs of the working class. The well-being of the urban poor cannot be an afterthought.
The writer is a retired civil servant. Views are personal