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Urban Employment

DUET: A scheme for the urban poor

Print edition : Aug 05, 2022 T+T-

DUET: A scheme for the urban poor

Workers under the Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme cleaning the premises of the Mananchira pond in Kozhikode. States such as Kerala already have employment programmes for the urban poor.

Workers under the Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme cleaning the premises of the Mananchira pond in Kozhikode. States such as Kerala already have employment programmes for the urban poor. | Photo Credit: K. Ragesh

Economist Jean Dreze proposed the scheme in 2020.

An urban employment scheme would seem the simplest and most obvious solution to the country’s alarmingly growing unemployment rate. Addressing this concern, economists and academics in the country have proposed urban employment schemes both before and after the pandemic. While States such as Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan already have employment programmes for the urban poor, others appear to be initiating them. Experts, however, suggest a centrally sponsored nationwide plan, an urban counterpart to the MGNREGA, but with its own unique framework.

In this context, the eminent economist Jean Dreze proposed a programme called the Decentralised Urban Employment Training (DUET) in 2020. Dreze, who participated in drafting the MGNREGA, has come out with a simple straightforward idea that attempts to alleviate urban poverty by providing work in areas such as improving a city’s infrastructure and public institutions. 

Jean Drèze.
Jean Drèze. | Photo Credit: KRISHNAN VV

Dreze says: “The COVID-19 crisis has drawn attention to the insecurities that haunt the lives of the urban poor. Generally, they are less insecure than the rural poor, partly because fallback work is easier to find in urban areas, even if only pulling a rickshaw or selling snacks. Still, the urban poor are exposed to serious contingencies, both individual (like illness and unemployment) and collective (lockdowns, floods, cyclones, financial crises, and so on). Social networks and mutual support can help, but they have obvious limits, especially in times of collective crisis. There is, thus, a need for better social protection in urban areas. Furthermore, aside from assisting the unemployed, this would be a useful form of economic stimulus in the post-lockdown period, and help to revive public services.”

DUET will work on a system where the government issues “job stamps” that will be distributed to approved public institutions such as schools, colleges, hostels, shelters, jails, museums, municipalities, transport depots, health centres and even government buildings. Each job stamp will gain a person a day’s work within a specific period. The proposal says the approach is simple yet it has many advantages.

To start with, the scheme will work through a placement centre, which will not need a large number of staff to steer it as the approved employer will be responsible for giving out the stamps. As the employer will have a stake in it, they will make sure the work is carried out. This could be painting, repairing, or cleaning work. Given the condition of a large number of public buildings, this kind of employment could help with maintenance. Moreover, the workers will have a secure entitlement to a minimum wage and other possible benefits, says Dreze.

Training

Apart from low-skilled work, job stamps could be issued even in departments that could do with extra labour periodically, such as health centres, municipalities, parks, traffic management and public transport. The ‘T’ in DUET looks at training. Dreze says this component will have long-term benefits, as it would involve unskilled labour working alongside skilled labour within a period of time—training on-the-job, so to speak. The placement agency could work as a hub for sending interested candidates to public institutes such as industrial, health, educational and vocational training centres.

“The difference between DUET and MGNREGA is that the rural scheme offers work during slack agricultural months.”

One of the key features of the proposal is that an independent authority will be appointed or designated at the municipal level to monitor, inspect, audit and evaluate the work. All DUET employment should be subject to worker safety and welfare norms specified in the scheme and existing labour laws. All urban residents above the age of 18 will be eligible to register under DUET, but special registration drives can be conducted or placement agencies can be  in low-income neighbourhoods.

Female participation

In December 2020, Dreze added a variant to DUET 1. He said the scheme should give priority to women workers. It would not be a quota but an “absolute priority.” At a seminar in March 2021, Dreze said: “Giving priority to women would have two further merits. First, it will reinforce the self-targetting 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 will promote women’s general participation in the labour force. India has one of the lowest rates of female labour force participation in the world.”

“For DUET, and especially a DUET for women, induced migration is unlikely to be more than a minor downside of the scheme.”Jean Dreze, development economist

The difference between DUET and MGNREGA is that the rural scheme offers work during slack agricultural months. It is a “safety net” when crops fail or if a drought hits the area. Each rural worker is entitled to 100 days of work. The urban plan is to provide job work through a placement agency to approved institutions on a per day basis. Additionally, DUET is not an employee guarantee scheme nor is it legislation. It is a programme to provide a supplementary income in times of a slowdown.

Critics say the scheme needs to clarify who is eligible for job stamps. Reverse migration post the pandemic, for instance, may be a challenge. Will migrants be allowed to get work through the scheme? Dreze says that the emphasis on women leading the scheme and being given jobs addresses the migrant issue. First, most migrants are men. Second, if a few women migrants look for work under DUET, it will hardly make a difference. If it means more people will be attracted to urban areas, Dreze wonders: “Is that a bad thing? For DUET, and especially a DUET for women, induced migration is unlikely to be more than a minor downside of the scheme. Hopefully, the benefits will make up for it.”