Migrant workers of urban India, whether engaged in construction activities or other economic activities of cities, are the builders of our cities. The available data suggests that there are about 500 million informal workers in the country. The pandemic provides us a window to take a sneak peek into their living standards, social security and find solutions within our urban planning, design, and governance mechanism
Six months on, the pandemic is not over yet. It is getting worsened by the day, in terms of the number of cases and death being reported in India. The nation that has managed to control the pandemic in the initial phase with phased wise lockdown is struggling to cope up with the evolving challenges of opening up of the economy. When the lockdown was announced, none of us can forget the scenes flashed on our TV screen where hundreds of migrant workers gathered at railway stations and bus stops to leave the city for their respective homes in far-flung villages. This indicates that Indian cities have to be made inclusive in real terms to ensure inclusivity at all fronts.
When the lockdown was announced, it also came to surface that people working in informal sectors were living in poor living conditions and had a greater risk of getting infected. The problem of equitable access to housing facilities and adequate civic services is of major concern. Now the unlocking of economic activities has begun, we should not forget the lessons learned during the lockdown and continuously work on making cities inclusive. The idea of the government to start the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHC) must be explored further to ensure its wider reach and financial suitability. And, this cannot be done until private players find it rewarding.
Economic meltdown and urban poor
As per economic theories, if the GDP of a nation registers negative growth in two financial quarters then it is considered a recession. The government data suggest that the Indian economy is in the recession phase. This is because of nationwide lockdown and a sudden halt in economic activities. People are staying away from discretionary buying and it has resulted in low demand in the market. Workers in the informal sector are the worst affected because of job-loss and pay cuts. The unemployment rate is gradually coming back to the pre-COVID time but the demand for discretionary products is going to remain low hence would affect the income of the informal workforce for some more time. The migrant workers are the backbone of industrial activities in the cities and the vulnerabilities of informal jobs must be addressed to make sure cities are inclusive.
This calls for a discussion on initiating an urban employment guarantee scheme that can benefit the people in need of a job. There are a host of good examples available as a few state governments have taken some initiatives at their level to employ the needy. The Odisha government announced a Rs 100-crore Urban Wage Employment Initiative for the urban poor in 114 urban local bodies. Himachal Pradesh and Kerala have initiated employment schemes for the poor. Odisha had engaged civil society organization through which they gave funding to resident welfare associations in low-income colonies to build community centers, repairing of civic infrastructure such as stormwater drains, etc. Most of these works were labour intensive and the result of this is visible in the unemployment rate of different states during the last six months period. There is a need for more discussion on finding out the fitting solutions for addressing economic vulnerabilities of the urban poor in cities and also ensuring adequate access to civic services and infrastructure.