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A women’s urban employment guarantee act


MGNREGA workers in Kancheepuram.
| Photo Credit: B. Velankanni Raj

Reducing gender gaps and increasing women’s empowerment are part of the Sustainable Development Goals. Notwithstanding ethical and constitutional imperatives, there is also evidence suggesting that increasing women’s employment rates can be an engine for economic growth.

Unmet demand

Despite functioning at a fraction of its intended capacity, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has been pivotal in providing financial autonomy to women in rural areas. More than half the MGNREGA workforce are women. However, urban realities are different. Social norms, lack of safety, and hostile transportation options are some of the factors inhibiting urban women to enter the workforce. The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) pegs women’s employment rate in urban areas at 22.9% in the last quarter of 2023. There are clear signs of high unmet demand for employment among urban women. First, the unemployment rate in urban areas, which is a measure of how many would like employment (irrespective of whether they are actively seeking it or not), is 9% compared to 4% in rural areas. Second, there are two types of unemployment — individuals who would like to work and are actively seeking a job versus those who would like to work but may not be actively seeking a job. A much larger share of unemployed women in urban areas are seeking employment compared to rural areas. Further, nearly 25% of urban women have completed higher secondary education compared to 5% in rural areas. The low urban employment rates among women also points to wastage of much potential.

To address overall urban unemployment, some States have an urban employment programme. While these are not restricted to women, early evidence suggests a higher participation rate for women. Building on these and other ideas such as the Decentralised Urban Employment and Training Scheme by Jean Dréze, we propose a national Women’s Urban Employment Guarantee Act (WUEGA). We envision a WUEGA where women form at least 50% (ideally 100%) of the programme management staff. Involving women and local communities can also potentially strengthen the constitutional mandate of decentralisation. Each worksite would have essential worksite facilities including childcare facilities. Work must be available within a 5-km radius and public transportation must be free for women. A detailed list of possible urban works such as plantation and harvesting reeds on floating wetlands already exist; these should be supplemented based on local needs and wider consultation. Incentives such as automatic inclusion in welfare boards can be created; these could act as agencies to provide maternity entitlements, pensions, and serve as resources for emergency funds. For many women, the school to work transition is impeded by the lack of skills and mobility issues. A recent study of women in Delhi and Bengaluru found that three out of five reported not having adequate skills as a constraint to getting secure employment. Apprenticeship for women college students from different disciplines could be done; this could become a channel for women with higher degrees to join as programme functionaries. This could also act as a stimulus for younger women to take up technical courses. Women who have completed Class 10 could be eligible to run Information Facilitation Centres at each urban local body with computer training facilities. Such centres can be empowered through regular capacity-building initiatives to compensate for the gap in skills. Given the low levels of apprentice intake in India, apprenticeships embedded within an urban employment guarantee for women can neatly dovetail with the larger mandate of apprenticeships of making women more job-ready. Additionally, it can be a means to empower local communities acting as a single window for grievance registration. A social audit unit of WUEGA with at least 50% women staff can be conceived for independent monitoring of the programme. Social audits would require an array of skill sets and this could be an important avenue for women who have completed Class 12 to join part time or full time and improve their job readiness.

Women-led initiatives

There is precedence of such initiatives. In Karnataka, for instance, women handle end-to-end waste management in gram panchayats of selected districts including collection and driving of the ‘Swacch’ vehicles. Not only has the initiative been a success, it has also enabled several women to acquire driving licenses.

As per the PLFS, an estimate of the number of women in urban areas in the age group of 15-59 who are out of the workforce is 10.18 crore. If we add those who are self-employed and in casual labour, we get about 11.65 crore. In reality, to begin with, perhaps 50% of them are likely to be interested in such a programme. Assuming 150 days of work per year at ₹500 as daily wages, the wage component, to be funded by the Union government, would then cost around 1.5% of the GDP. Adding material and administrative costs to this is likely to make it around 2%. Such a scheme has to be rolled out in a phased manner with periodic assessments on uptake and the nature of the shelf of works. This is also likely to smoothen the cost. Depending on its positives and challenges, this can pave the way for an urban employment programme for all, not just women. The benefits of this act far outweigh fiscal conservativeness. It is also time to move from income as insurance to assurance of income, especially for women.

Rosa Abraham teaches in Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Rajendran Narayanan teaches in Azim Premji University, Bangalore and is also affiliated with LibTech India. Views expressed are personal. The authors thank Akshit Arora for data support



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