The stark rise in the vulnerability of and violence against the urban poor in India has revealed the varied manifestations of prerogatives and unjust discrepancies in our socio-economic systems. This has highlighted the urgent need for a perusal of India’s policies on urban governance and poverty, as well as their effect on rural-to-urban migrants. The country’s urban population has seen a steep rise in the last century from 25 million in 1901 to 377 million in 2011.
However, such an urgent growth in population has not been met with an adequate increase in the supply of basic amenities. Already exposed to housing, economic, social and personal vulnerability, the urban poor have been further marginalised during the pandemic due to increase in unemployment, lack of shelter, limited alternatives of livelihood and absence of social protection, given that the majority of them work in the unorganised sector.
At the start of the pandemic, supply chains, factories and other workplaces were forced to shut down due to State-imposed lockdowns. Overall, the pandemic resulted in a huge economic crunch down in the country, with India’s GDP being recorded at a -23.9% in the April-June quarter. These factors led to the retrenchment of workers, leaving many urban poor without employment. In light of this, India witnessed a huge migrant crisis in March-April as migrant workers, unable to find any work in the cities, travelled back to their homes on foot. Their hardship did not end once they got home, as they struggled to get absorbed into the rural economy, exposed to an oversupply of workers.
Government Response and Its Effectiveness
The Indian government has made several interventions to address the issues faced by the urban poor during the pandemic. These include a 1.7 lakh crore economic package for both rural and urban populations under the existing PMGKY, which provides cash transfer support to the most vulnerable citizens, food rations to 800 million beneficiaries registered under the National Food Security Act, and affordable housing under the Developing of Affordable Rental Housing Complexes scheme for urban migrants and poor.
However, the benefits of these schemes are often out of reach for many of the urban poor employed in the unorganised sector, due to their inability to meet the documentation requirements and a lack of awareness of the schemes. Moreover, financial assistance from the governments or employers has only been able to reach a quarter of the workforce.
What Can Be Done?
While immediate measures such as creating a database of urban poor and inter-state cooperation may be the need of the hour, it is equally necessary to push forward sustainable measures to tackle city planning and growing urbanity in the long run. Reforming smaller cities and towns, and incentivising people to migrate to these places through the creation of job opportunities, improved housing and a better livelihood, will help in reducing population density in metropolitans. This will further assist in preparing better to mitigate any future crises.
These measures should be complemented by bringing in health system reforms to address health and social vulnerability of the marginalised, increased public spending, active social engagement and stricter regulations of private sector services, ensuring a better provision of universal and equitable health service delivery against cases of medical negligence, employment of unqualified doctors, overcharging, organ transplant scams and delays in providing cash maternity benefits.
As almost 70% of the social protection schemes are applicable only to rural areas, a revision of government policies for urban-areas specific schemes and wider community engagement will help to address questions of mobile professions and lives. The introduction of an equivalent of MNREGA (a rural employment guarantee scheme) or PM-KISAN (income-support scheme for farmers) could help in addressing issues of underemployment and unregulated daily wages.
Some successful examples of such a proposal can be seen in the case of Himachal Pradesh which had announced the MMSAGY for assuring 120 days of work to the urban poor. Similarly, Odisha implemented the Urban Wage Employment Initiative allowing urban informal workers to carry out public works identified by urban local bodies.
However, the efficiency of the schemes in facilitating a long-term enrichment of the lives of urban poor has been questioned, as the work they guarantee is often informal, low-skilled and underpaid. The economic and practical feasibility of these plans needs to be continuously debated in the legislature to advance the design solutions for overcoming the aforementioned challenges.
While the pandemic has had a daunting impact on the urban poor, the persistent worries of low budgetary provisions, faulty human resource management—as well as heavy centralisation of power with little independence of urban local bodies—hamper building health, education and livelihood capabilities for the urban poor. It may be just an opportune time for India to reconsider its existing policies on migration, poverty and urbanity, to create a growing social economy and facilitate inclusive urbanisation.
Swarna Jain holds a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and currently serves as a columnist on socio-political and developmental issues at Future Globalist. She has previously worked at the interstices of education, healthcare and gender in India, focusing particularly on developmental journalism, the role of NGOs and civil societies, rural economies, slum rehabilitation and gender injustices.