22 January 2014

National Urban Livelihoods Mission - Empowering The Lives of Urban Poor

Like countless others, forty-year- old Usha left her village in Uttar Pradesh and came to Delhi in search of a better life. Two decades later, she finds herself living in a jhuggi while she struggles to bring up her five children on the meagre salary she earns as a domestic help.

Dismayed that the bustling metropolis has failed to fulfill her dreams, Usha is now resigned to her fate as she is convinced she can do little to improve her living conditions or provide a better future for her children. However, Usha and others like her   residing in the slums and resettlement colonies of Delhi and other Indian cities need not despair any more. Help is round the corner for them.  They will soon get an opportunity to learn new skills, get a bank loan and even set up their own small business.

It could well turn out to be a life-changing experience for the country’s urban poor, especially the women, who will not only be personally empowered but will also be able to alter the lives of their children.
All this will be made possible by the UPA government’s newly-launched National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM) which will be rolled out across the country in the coming months.

The NULM is actually an improved version of the earlier poverty alleviation programme for the urban poor titled Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana (SJSRY) which was found to be wanting for a variety of reasons. Having identified the problem areas in the implementation of the SJSRY and recognising the need to address the needs of the growing population flocking to cities in search of a better livelihood, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (HUPA)  restructured the old scheme and unveiled it in its new avatar as the NULM.

To begin with, the UPA government did not hold back on the funding. A budget of a whopping Rs. 6404 crore has been provided for the remaining period of the 12th five year plan for cities with a population of one lakh or more with Rs. 950 crore being allocated for 2013-2014.

It has also expanded the beneficiaries of urban poor to include the homeless and street vendors who are invariably ignored in government programmes.  A special provision has been made for the funding of all-weather 24/7 shelters with all essential facilities for the urban homeless. In addition, up to five per cent of the NULM budget has been earmarked to provide support to urban street vendors which will include skill upgradation and development of vendor markets. Explaining the salient features of NULM, Mr. B. K. Agarwal, joint secretary, ministry of HUPA, said under the improved programme urban poor, especially women, will be organized into self-help groups (SHGs), while infrastructure and trained manpower will be provided to upgrade their skills in keeping with the requirements of the market. In addition, beneficiaries will be helped to secure loans if anybody wants to set up his or her own enterprise.

“This will be first time that women in cities will be organised into thrift and credit-based SHGs to meet their financial and social needs. This is the main emphasis in NULM. We borrowed the concept from the rural areas where this experiment has proved to be extremely successful,” Mr. Aggarwal said, adding this approach has been found to be an effective catalyst for change.

SHGs are typically small groups of 10-20 women who are bound by a common agenda. Not only are these groups an effective mechanism to improve the livelihood of its members but they are also found to be an excellent support system for the women and increases their levels of confidence and self-esteem.

There are innumerable studies from rural areas which also show how involvement of women in SHGs has empowered them to play an active role in community matters like provision of adequate drinking water facilities and children’s education. With the UPA government keen to begin implementation of NULM at the earliest, the ministry of HUPA  has organised several workshops in various state governments for all stake holders, including banks, to explain the  features of the new programme and  create awareness about it.
“Bank representatives were specially included to tell them that they should be more sensitive to the loan requirements the urban poor,” Mr. Agarwal pointed out.

Although municipal committees have been identified as nodal bodies for the implementation of NULM, they have been provided special funding to hire technical experts and also to draft civil society groups in the management of the programme since the local bodies do not have the expertise to do so. These professionals will mobilise the women into SHGs and encourage them to develop a corpus through their savings which can be used by a member for a personal need or for setting up a small business. In addition, the women will be helped to open bank accounts so that they have access to credit. A provision of Rs. 10,000 has been made for the formation and activities of each SHG for the initial two years.  

“Earlier they were getting money at exorbitant interest rates but no longer,” said Mr. Aggarwal, stating that so far a bank were reluctant to sanction loans and would do so on the basis of a project report submitted by an account holder.

Now, he said, individuals and groups can get financial assistance under the mission’s Self-Employment Programme (SEP) at a subsidized interest rate to set up their own micro-enterprises. In addition, beneficiaries can also avail credit for other activities like carrying out repairs to their house or funding a child’s education through their SHG’s.

Being uneducated and having no skills, the urban poor are particularly vulnerable as they are forced to work as maids, cooks, guards or in sweat shops where they toil in poor working conditions, often being denied minimum wages. The framers of the NULM have decided to give them an opportunity to learn new skills so that they can command a better salary or set up self-employed ventures.

Since it is a critical component of the mission, 50 per cent of the budget is to be spent on the training of 2.8 million urban poor in the current five year plan. While training institutions will be set up for this purpose, the skill training providers will also place them in remunerative jobs and keep tabs on them for the first six months to guard against any exploitation.

“The skills imparted can range from retail to nursing, depending on what the market requires and on completion of the programme, each person will be given a certificate,” Mr. Agarwal said, adding that these training centres will have a well-planned curriculum and will be equipped with the necessary tools and training materials.

The NULM is indeed an ambitious programme as nobody has, so far, focused on improving the livelihood of the urban poor. As Mr. Aggarwal said, if implemented well, it could have a far-reaching and visible impact on the lives of those eking out a living in the slums of the country’s urban centres.            

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