Urban safety net: On urban-MGNREGA

Synopsis: Instead of going forward with the ‘urban-MGNREGA’, the government needs to focus on coming up with new ideas to alleviate the condition of the urban poor.


Recent data from both the private and public sector has revealed that there is considerable distress within India’s labour force. This distress has manifested in an increase in the agricultural workforce.

This is also indicative of the distress faced by urban poor due to various blows to the urban sector compounded by the pandemic.

In this context, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on labour, has recommended for putting in place an employment guarantee programme for the urban workforce in line with the MGNREGA. This is the first time it has received such a backing.

What are the issues with employment guarantee prog for the urban workforce?

According to various reports, it was judged to be both an unmanageable fiscal burden and to present severe implementation difficulties across regions.

Substantive differences in the pattern of work and distress: There are substantive differences in the pattern of work and distress across rural and urban areas of India that make designing a MGNREGA for urban areas difficult.

– For example: rural employment can often be seasonal. This means that there is scope for a 100-day supplement of seasonal wages in periods when there is no seed to be sown or harvest to be taken in. Whereas, Urban employment does not always exhibit this feature.

It is also true that many of those who are in distress due to the pandemic in urban areas may be in work that does not involve manual labour unlike, casual agricultural workers, the primary target of MGNREGA. Thus, the work in an urban job guarantee scheme may not find as many takers.

Design of welfare programmes: Too many welfare programmes are connected to specific locations, and in particular “home” villages. This leads to migrants to cities and towns experiencing an unusual problem of existence. The demand for “one nation, one ration card” during the pandemic revealed the need to design welfare systems that are transferable and mobile.

There are, in addition, other source of problems that need to be addressed, including the shortage of affordable housing. If daily wage earners need constant work in order to not be rendered homeless, then they will of course not be able to stay in towns and cities through crises of any sort.

What is the way forward?

Some states have already started experimenting with urban wage support programmes. These should be examined for lessons, and new pilot programmes should be started to evaluate how an urban safety net can be designed and implemented.

Finally, like the MGNREGA itself, an urban safety net cannot be a permanent solution. Structural solutions like up-skilling and lifelong learning need to be put in place.

Source: This post is based on the article “Urban safety net” published in Business Standard on 14th Sep 2021.

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