Poverty & Inequality

DUET: Creating a resilient ecosystem for vulnerable populations

  • Blog Post Date 10 November, 2020
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Ishu Gupta

Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

ishu_gupta@zhcet.ac.in

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Advaita Rajendra

Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

advaitar@iima.ac.in

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Ankur Sarin

Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

asarin@iimahd.ernet.in

Providing their perspective on Drèze’s DUET proposal for an urban work programme, Gupta et al. contend that its objective should not just be financial support but the creation of a wider ecosystem that is more resilient for vulnerable populations in urban areas. They discuss the scheme’s potential to promote livelihood security while enhancing democratic accountability and local participation.

 

A governance failure to account for the fact that a majority of people still lived hand to mouth, has made visible the precariousness that a bulk of India’s urban workforce continues to experience. The subsequent economic crisis has amplified demands that the needs of the most vulnerable residents be met. The necessity to create employment-based safety nets in urban settings is critical among them.

Jean Drèze’s articulation of a public employment programme in urban areas moves the discussion forward significantly and calls attention to several aspects – from budgeting to strengthening public institutions, and seeing employment as a universal right. Adding to the ongoing discussion, we point to existing available resources and governing structures within the urban milieus; how they can both be mobilised as well as strengthened, and the value of doing so. In comparing the DUET (‘Decentralised Urban Employment and Training’) proposal to alternative instruments like cash transfers, we should also consider the potential of the instrument to involve, activate, and support urban local governments. The objective of a programme like DUET should not merely be to provide financial support but to create a wider ecosystem that is more resilient for vulnerable populations. The rural experience with the MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) is suggestive of how policy design can improve participation, capacity-building, and the allocation of financial resources to local governments – important outcomes in their own right (Faizi 2010). A programme like DUET provides us an opportunity to do the same in the urban space – bringing the 74th Amendment1 and what it mandates, back into the policy discourse.

Urban areas are governed either as city councils, municipalities, or municipal corporations (MCs), with all of them having elected representatives and sources of revenue through tax collections and support from state governments. While additional resources will undoubtedly need to be brought in, a key advantage of starting with urban local bodies (ULBs) is the availability of public money within the discretion of corporations. These funds should help bootstrap local initiatives and should be further incentivised by the central government matching funds spent by the ULB based on an easily measurable metric like workdays created per rupee spent.

For instance, in some of the larger corporations, local elected representatives are given discretionary funds to be spent on ward-level civic work. In Ahmedabad, which has the 7th largest MC in the country, each elected representative is allocated Rs. 3 million every year. There are 192 ward councillors distributed across 48 wards of Ahmedabad MC, with discretionary funds adding to a total of about Rs. 576 million every year. This amount can currently be spent on a list (see Table 1) of things with minimal bureaucratic procedures (for an example of Ahmedabad, see Table 2). Many of the activities listed by Basole et al. (2019) in their report can potentially be undertaken in the list already approved by the city. The local area development funds available with urban MLAs (Members of Legislative Assembly) can also be spent in a similar manner.

Table 1. List of activities the Ahmedabad MC permits expenditure of discretionary funds on

Type of work

Nature of work

Developmental works in unhygienic localities

  • Providing water, drainage, roads, toilets in slums and chaalis2
  • Putting boards near building societies and chaalis
  • Changing pipelines (under the cleanliness drive) where there are leakages in water/drainage PVC (polyvinyl chloride) lines, in blocks of ‘Economically Weaker Section’ colonies built in different areas by MCs

Public Roads

  • To build dividers and speed breakers on public roads
  • Traffic circles
  • Gate repairing and upgradation of chabutras (raised platforms for seating)

Providing amenities in public buildings

  • Benches made of fibre or steel
  • Provide water coolers
  • Provide water purifiers, tube lights, fans, light poles, solar lights, solar water heaters, solar plants, L.E.D light, etc.

Municipal Schools

  • Toilets, urinals, water facility, compound wall, wire fencing, electrification, fans in primary and secondary schools

Anganwadis

  • Constructing the buildings for anganwadis (childcare centres) managed by the MC
  • Purchasing sports and exercise equipment

Gardens

  • To create and manage public gardens

Crematorium

  1. Primary facilities for crematoriums of every religion

Note: As outlined in the circular dated 19 April 2018, Department of Urban Planning, Ahmedabad MC.

Table 2. Designated authorities for approval of work done without tendering (via quotations) by Ahmedabad MC.

Approval amount3

Approval authority

Up to Rs. 25,000

Joint Director (Mechanical)

Up to Rs. 25000

Additional City Engineer

Up to Rs. 50000

City Engineer

Up to Rs. 1,00,000

Medical Officer of Healtha

Rs. 25,000-1,25,000

Deputy Municipal Commissioner

Rs. 1,25,000-3,00,000

Municipal Commissioner

> Rs. 300000

Standing Committee

Source: As outlined by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in circular no. 50, dated 29-09-2018

a: Potentially limited to health-related work only.

Currently, the utilisation of these funds remains a black box. For instance, with the help of innumerable RTIs (requests filed under the Right to Information Act) we have found that the highest shares of expenditure during 2016-2018 from these funds in Ahmedabad was incurred on construction and maintenance of roads (~38%), followed by streetlights and poles (~16%), installation of benches (~13%), water and drainage facilities (~12%), and dustbins (~9%) – mostly through a network of councillors and contractors. Topping-up and prioritising of these funds towards employment creation would help steer this expenditure towards potentially better causes. More importantly, it would also open the utilisation of these resources to greater scrutiny as the utilisation of DUET funds would require estimates of person workdays needed for any activity, and information on whether the activity is being conducted by private or public actors. Gathering these estimates, bringing them to the scrutiny of ward committees, and making them public would not only help measure the impact of these funds on job creation but also go a long way in making public expenditure in urban areas less vulnerable to misutilisation and inefficiencies.

Administratively, a programme like DUET needs a ‘placement office’ where information on potential sites for employment can be matched with those looking for employment. These offices would need to coordinate across various government departments (potentially across local areas as well) to identify job opportunities, monitor utilisation of job stamps, and be accessible to job seekers. An existing option in urban local bodies (ULBs) are sub-zonal offices. In Ahmedabad, sub-zonal offices are available at the ward level and other corporations are also likely to have such ward-level counterparts. These house offices for major departments, MLAs, and ward councillors in one complex. They also typically have an e-governance office where all the complaints are received and registered – usually around drainage, engineering, health, and cleaning. The complexes can also be used for registering potential workers, the issuance of job cards, managing the database of workers and their skills, and allocation of work. Further, there can be websites for sharing of this information publicly.

A key actor that DUET should tap into are local ward councillors for their knowledge of the local environment, including needs and resources. In conversations with councillors on the proposed scheme, they have expressed confidence in the role they can play because, among other things, they are quite familiar with the skills of different community members. The electoral accountability that these councillors are subject to adds an additional mechanism for governing the programme.

The design challenges for the proposed scheme include ensuring that the programme does not become a mechanism for local governments to provide essential services by underpaying already underpaid – and stigmatised – work like several types of waste work. Instead, the employment should be directed towards tasks that improve the quality of living of residents and communities involved in the work, and not those of the upper classes who already disproportionately benefit from what cities provide. An employment programme that helps create assets in the communities that workers live in, would help do that.

Secondly, the question of migrants is a complex that also one that needs addressing – should their job guarantees be tied to their destination or origin sites?

It might seem more convenient to move to cash transfers or increase municipal budgets and not worry about creating a programme like the DUET. We see DUET as a platform to bring together the demands of employment, at a time when there is documented distress and loss of livelihoods. It can serve as a nodal point, bringing together the requirements of several government departments and eventually even private players. Even if DUET does not provide a guarantee to start with, it would be a first step in understanding the demands of the unemployed and the demands of urban infrastructure and how these could be best matched and met, while making the metric of job creation an objective for government expenditure. It directly increases the stake that urban residents have both in the process and outcomes of public spending. While cash transfers might seem like a more malleable instrument, they do not incorporate one of the most important elements of employment generation – dignity. When the lockdown had crippled them, several migrant workers we assisted, reminded us that “hum kaam karney walei log hain” (we are people who work) and not those that want alms.

Notes:

  1. The 74th Amendment mandated the devolution of powers to the urban local bodies or city governments, giving them constitutional status to carry out local governance.
  2. Chaalis refer to large buildings divided into several small houses that offer cheap and basic accommodation.
  3. Small-scale works are done through quotations instead of tenders. The authorisation hierarchy is different from tenders, which is generally done at the city or zonal level.

Further Reading

  • Basole, A, M Idiculla, R Narayanan, H Nagendra and S Mundoli (2019), ‘State of Working India 2019’, Azim Premji University, April 2019.
  • Faizi, Amir Afaque Ahmad (2010), “Impact of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in Strengthening Local Government Institutions in India”, Asia-Pacific Journal of Rural Development, 20(2): 141-166.
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