IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

A ‘duet’ for India’s urban women

8th December, 2020 Editorial

Context: Public works could provide valuable support to the urban poor, especially if women get most of the jobs.

  • The COVID-19 crisis has drawn attention to the insecurities that haunt the lives of the urban poor.
  • The urban poor are exposed to serious contingencies, both individual (such as illness and underemployment) and collective (lockdowns, floods, cyclones, financial crises and so on).
  • There is, thus, a need for better social protection in urban areas. Universalising the Public Distribution System in urban slums would be a step forward (and it can be done under the National Food Security Act), but food grain rations do not take people very far.
  • Employment-based support is one way of doing more. It has two major advantages: self-targeting, and the possibility of generating valuable assets or services.

A simple proposal

  • An urban employment scheme called Decentralized Urban Employment and Training (DUET).
  • The government, State or Union, would issue “job stamps”, each standing for one day of work at the minimum wage.
  • The job stamps would be liberally distributed to approved public institutions such as universities, hostels, schools, hospitals, health centres, museums, libraries, shelters, jails, offices, departments, railway stations and urban local bodies.
  • These institutions would be free to use the stamps to hire labour for odd jobs and small projects that do not fit easily within their existing budgets and systems.
  • Wages, paid by the government, would go directly to the workers’ accounts against job stamps certified by the employer.
  • To avoid collusion, an independent placement agency would take charge of assigning workers to employers.
  • This approach would have various advantages: activating a multiplicity of potential employers, avoiding the need for special staff, facilitating productive work, among others.
  • It would also ensure that workers have a secure entitlement to minimum wages, and possibly other benefits.
  • Many States have a chronic problem of dismal maintenance of public premises — DUET could provide a first line of defence against it. Some projects may require a modest provision for material expenditure, but that seems doable.

Women first

  • To facilitate women’s involvement, most of the work could be organised on a part-time basis, say four hours a day.
  • A part-time employment option would be attractive for many poor women in urban areas.
  • Full-time employment tends to be very difficult for them, especially if they have young children.
  • Wage employment for a few hours a day would be much easier to manage. It would give them some economic independence and bargaining power within the family, and help them to acquire new skills.
  • The economic dependence of women on men is one of the prime roots of gender inequality and female oppression in India.
  • Giving priority to women would have two further merits.
    • First, it would reinforce the self-targeting feature of DUET, because women in relatively well-off households are unlikely to go (or be allowed to go) for casual labour at the minimum wage.
    • Second, it would promote women’s general participation in the labour force. India has one of the lowest rates of female workforce participation in the world.
  • According to National Sample Survey data for 2019, only 20% of urban women in the age group of 15-59 years spend time in “employment and related activities” on an average day.
  • This is a loss not only for women, who live at the mercy of men, but also for society as a whole, insofar as it stifles the productive and creative potential of almost half of the adult population.

Try it out

  • There is a big difference between DUET and the “service voucher” schemes that have proved so popular in some European countries.
  • The service vouchers are much like job stamps, except that they are used by households instead of public institutions, for the purpose of securing domestic services such as cooking and cleaning.
  • The service vouchers are not free, but they are highly subsidised, and households have an incentive to use them since that is a way of buying domestic services very cheap.
  • In the DUET scheme, the use of job stamps relies on a sense of responsibility among the heads of public institutions, not their self-interest.