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With urban unemployment levels surpassing rural areas, India needs urban NREGA

By Bharat Dogra* 

Persistence of high levels of unemployment in recent times has been an extremely worrying concern in India. At the same time high levels of inflation have further added to the problems of people in more recent times.It is in these difficult circumstances that the demand for introducing an urban employment guarantee scheme/Act has fast picked up support. If last year it was the parliamentary standing committee which had recommended this, more recently support for this has come from the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. Here it needs to be noted that at most points during the last year urban unemployment levels were to be found to be even higher than rural unemployment levels.
In the middle of all this rising concern some state governments including Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Odisha have introduced their own versions of urban employment guarantee.
A national level initiative by the union government is therefore keenly awaited. This can benefit from the suggestions made already by senior development experts like Dr Jean Dreze whose suggestions for DUET (Decentralized Urban Employment and Training) have already attracted much attention in development circles.
While it is important to introduce urban employment guarantee scheme/law, at the same time it is also important to improve the implementation of the already existing national rural employment guarantee scheme introduced under a law by the previous UPA government (NREGA or MGNREGA).
In particular it is important to ensure that NREGA workers are paid their wages in time. It was estimated some time back that nearly 44% of the workers are not being paid their wages within the stipulated 15 days period. The fact that in over 95% of cases of wage delays, the government fails to provide the compensatory additional payment for which legal provision exists makes the injustice all the more severe for the suffering workers.
A recent report from Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh has stated that many NREGA workers have not been paid their wages for the past six months. In addition most works under MGNREGA in this district have now come to a standstill due to the non-availability of funds for purchasing cement and other essential material.
In fact those monitoring the progress of NREGA had warned much earlier that such problems are bound to arise when adequate budgetary allocations are not made. The crucial guarantee aspect of NREGA often becomes meaningless if the budget allocation is far, far short of what it would take to honor the guarantee. Therefore the government should hasten to increase the allocation for NREGA.
It is important to also learn from such experiences of NREGA while introducing urban employment guarantee. Apart from framing urban employment guarantee very carefully, from the outset there should be a readiness to allocate adequate resources so that workers are not disappointed at an early stage of this scheme.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; recent (2022) books include ‘A Day in 2071’, ‘Navjeevan’ and ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food'

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