The webinar ‘Asserting Livelihood and Dignity — Part 3: Urban Livelihoods’, part of the ‘Reimagining the Future: People’s Agenda for a post-COVID Economy’ series was held on 9 June 2020. The session was jointly organised by Centre for Financial Accountability, India, and Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA).
At the opening, Roshni Nuggehalli, Executive Director, YUVA, introduced the session and set the context for the discussion. The series is part of a larger process to initiate debates on alternative economic options in a post-COVID era, while also trying to address current and immediate needs. By attempting to be both visionary and grounded, the goal is to look ahead and use this time to reimagine our collective futures. The collective effort involves a number of civil society organisations, trade unions, non-profits, and social movements across the country. YUVA, too, is a part of this collective, and is supporting the collective by organising and coordinating this session on urban livelihoods. This webinar discussion was being moderated by K. T. Suresh of ActionAid India.
The panelist, Professor Ritu Dewan, retired Director, Department of Economics, Mumbai University, made a presentation in two parts: one, on the existing structural, macro-level fault lines that have been made visible and deepened; and two, on her experience in research and activism over the last two months, and what to take forward at broad and local levels.
Professor Dewan began by talking about a few of the patterns that had been developing over the last decade, but especially the last few years. For one, the economy has been gradually collapsing at a macro-level for a number of years now, and recent GDP data shows it at its lowest level of growth in many years. This has been paired with a number of other indicators — a decline in wages in absolute terms; a 5 per cent rise in the number of people below the poverty line (for the first time in decades); a massive decline in female workforce participation; and a massive increase in inequalities, as shown by the recent Oxfam report on inequality in India. Many of these have had more acute effects in urban rather than rural areas.
Combined with these patterns are the actions on the part of the government to conflate the new labour codes. These will have negative effects on a large number of people, as they effectively take away the right of domestic workers, beedi workers, etc to be recognised as workers, leaving them bereft of any benefits of registration or organisation. Importantly, what has caused international outcry is that the right to safety at the workplace no longer includes sexual harassment, a huge setback and a hurdle on the way to better livelihoods. Other processes at play include the privatisation of insurance, the increasing informalisation of the economy, etc. All of these leave hardly any space for workers as people, mostly as afterthoughts. The claims of self-reliance or atma nirbharta while the influx of foreign capital continues, and the huge scale of privatisation of public assets redefines self-reliance by taking out it’s very basis. How this is going to shape employment remains to be seen.
Based on her academic and civil society work of the last few months, Dewan proceeded to lay out a few ideas for moving forward. Among these were focusing on rural–urban migration; considering a national urban employment guarantee; thinking about where the problem of the economy really lies, and focusing on demand rather than supply; the possibility of some kind of basic income. Others included farmers and workers’ cooperatives as a source of livelihood; rethinking the One Nation One Ration Card in the light of households which have partly migrated; and focusing interventions to the ward level for employment in local institutions in slums. Other things to think about were the fiscal policies that had shifted a large amount of the burden onto states; the issue of unpaid work, especially that of women; and the inaccessibility of health services, forcing the unpaid economy to take responsibility for what the state should be doing.
The next speaker was Anita Das, the Founder and General Secretary of the All India Women Hawkers Federation and the Additional Secretary of the National Hawkers Federation, Jharkhand, where she has worked for close to 10 years on the implementation of The Street Vendors Act, 2014, towards the creation of markets for street vendors where evictions have taken place.
Das began by saying that this was the right time for these discussions to happen. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the real numbers and plight of workers and migrants, and the government has been silent. The main thing is that the migrant workers should have been either sent home or looked after before the lockdown was implemented — they should have at least been accounted for. It’s not just this government, even the previous government didn’t do anything for these workers, and even today nothing is being done. The way that people are being sent home in buses and trains, and many losing lives on the way, while flights are available for the rich to travel, says a lot about the priorities of the government.
The situation is really bad for the workers of the country, and the whole country has seen it. In the coming days there will be huge problems to face. As for the street vendors, they too are in a bad state. Some who were locals are still trying to work, but others aren’t able to. Very few items are being allowed for sale and is viable for a small percentage of street vendors to take up the profession. Even now, just like after 2008, it will be these daily small-scale businesses like street vending that will keep the economy afloat, so the unions need to be able to work together with the established ones and those who will be pushed to this profession because of the crisis.
Das mentioned that they have been making the demand for weeks now that people be given INR 3,000–5,000 for a few months to keep them afloat, but governments at all levels have refused; they even refused the proposal for a subsidy scheme. Instead they are saying they will give a loan of INR 10,000. This is already present in the 2014 Act, so there’s nothing new in this. Besides, INR 10,000 is nothing, it’s barely enough to cover a family for a few weeks, never mind managing the business of street vending and getting supplies. The government is still pandering to the big business owners and industries, and ignoring the common people.
There are so many street vendors who aren’t registered. What is really needed is an urban employment guarantee scheme. A registration and a survey should be done to bring everyone into the fold as per the 2014 Act. This will prevent conflict between old and new street vendors. For the last few months, Das mentioned that they have been trying to reach street vendors and bring them together to fight for not only their rights but also those of others.
After this, the panel was addressed by S. M. Vijayanand, former Chief Secretary of Kerala, and presently the Chairman of the state’s Sixth Finance Commission. Vijayanand began by speaking about the idea of livelihoods in the urban and how this needs to be expanded to include health, education, public services, and social inclusion. A new governance paradigm could be turned to, one that relies on local government in the frontline, in partnership with non-profits, volunteers and self-help groups. The governance imperatives of local needs, local development, and local democracy were the secret of the success of the Kerala model. Participatory development is key, as it focuses on bringing the state to the doorstep of the citizens, rather than the other way around, and ensures accountability. One replicable feature that has emerged is the partnership of equals — social democracy and political democracy come together in the formal linking of self-help groups (SHGs) with municipalities. When over 60 per cent of the elected women in municipalities or local governments come from SHGs, this engenders local governance.
The Kudumbashree model for human development has been quite successful for accessing resources, among other things. There are more than 5,500 urban micro-enterprises under this system. Community resource persons have also been effective for coordinating healthcare, credit, and other systems. With relation to COVID-19, the credit worthiness of SHGs should also be noted, with a repayment rate of over 98 per cent in Kerala. Despite this, the relief package does not mention loans to SHGs, when this could have been an important, gender-sensitive economic stimulus.
Vijayanand, too, touched on the importance of an urban employment scheme, saying that urban poverty is not being understood properly, and has much weaker, disorganised schemes compared to the rural counterparts. Even a relatively small amount of expenditure could have a large impact for the poorest of the poor. Even in the case of COVID-19 and local relief work, the assurance is very important — that nobody will go hungry in Kerala. This is achievable because of the partnership between local government and Kudumbashree.
He then noted a few issues in urban livelihoods, i.e., urban poverty is not understood; urban primary health is not being approached properly; and the issue of migrants has been ignored until now, but now is a good time to work on it. He said that what succeeds is the partnership between SHGs and local governments. This ensures that there is clarity of responsibility and of communication, freedom to take decisions locally, and a space for trust and respect in local governance. The urban does indeed have more opportunities, so why are these livelihoods not being protected? The lack of social, physical, natural capital can be addressed by devolution and empowering of local SHGs. The concept of a voluntary technical core, where skilled volunteers from elite public and private institutions can assist in the development of programmes and policies to tackle urban poverty, was missing in India, and the COVID-19 situation may spur some action towards that.
He ended with some suggestions for moving forward. It was time to localise development, and enable supply chains to go both from rural to urban areas and in reverse; also, there is a need for skilling, and matching people with micro-enterprises, with the government as the intermediary. It is time now for a new agenda. Extreme situations enable us to see clearly and it is clear that public health, migrant workers’ rights, and institutions of the urban poor need to be worked on. Overall, there was a need to move from a capitalist to a welfare state, and beyond to a ‘caring’ state, one where livelihoods are asserted with dignity, and this can only come about from a paradigm shift in governance.
After this, the second round of comments by the panelists followed. Professor Dewan emphasised thinking about livelihoods and living spaces first and foremost, and trying to work them together. Das spoke about how, despite their efforts, the step taken by the government of going ahead with the proposed INR 10,000 would be very ineffective, as this amount was not even close to covering the minimum expenses of a street vending enterprise. Add to this the rate of interest at 7 per cent, and the proposal becomes quite unreasonable. A direct transfer for basic services and staying afloat was needed, but at a broader level, the model of 100 days of work could be implemented in urban areas. Vijayanand spoke about the role of those from Kerala who were working in the Gulf Countries, and how their return could be both a challenge and an opportunity for Kerala. He too spoke about employment guarantee schemes, possibly linked to local agriculture. A model whereby Kudumbashree women direct the work could also provide the impetus for local urban development. He also touched on the topic of social exclusion in Kerala, saying that while the situation was much better in the state, the Scheduled Tribes groups had not benefited as much, which was a source of shame for Kerala, and that while much progress had been made for Dalits at the lower levels, they were not able to break through into the higher end of economic development, and both of these were extremely important areas of work.
After this, the panelists responded to some of the questions and comments placed by the audience members. Professor Dewan touched on how the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) had effectively enshrined the right to livelihoods as a constitutional right, so it made no sense to not have an urban counterpart. She also noted how the recent financial relief package just covered a few components that had already been announced in the budget, along with a few schemes that were already existing, put together and made to look like a new package. In reality, the model of loans was really very unethical. The claim of there not being enough funds was also quite hollow, as being a budget analyst herself she had seen that a lot of funds were being spent in places that had no need for it, among them projects like the Central Vista, etc. Even the INR 1,500 being given to women was administratively extremely inefficient, as receiving it in three installments required a huge expenditure both at the end of the government and of the beneficiaries. Das spoke about the challenge of how to keep the street vendors’ businesses running in these trying times, perhaps moving to an online platform where a number of sellers could be organised together. Vijayanand answered a few questions and comments from the audience, speaking about Kerala’s social democracy model; the importance of planning boards; and the possible rise in the political demand for primary urban health.
The session ended with K. T. Suresh expressing thanks to the panelists for their time and insights, and a rich and detailed session. One major theme that seems to have emerged was the importance of the government to be proactive in trying to implement schemes at the scale of an urban employment guarantee scheme; as well being willing to listen and respond both to civil society and to the people about the real needs and the best ways to move forward, rather than insulating itself and taking decisions from above.
To watch the complete webinar recording, click here.
Compiled from the original webinar by Andrew deSouza