The Urban Informal Economy
November 19, 2020

The Urban Informal Economy | Insights from Charcha 2020

Voices from the community

The unsanitary conditions in which street vendors and informal workers, many of who are being compelled to come into work, but without the necessary precaution in times of Covid, pose a huge risk to their lives, and the containment of the disease. Our cities have regulated this space but not enabled it in the spirit of promoting small businesses serving the supply chain for vegetables, food and other retail products. The lack of recognition results in frequent evictions, harassment and a complete lack of support during times of a crisis.

Self-employed, and non-migrant communities like auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers have been severely impacted by the lockdown.Unions of drivers have been advocating a Welfare Board to provide a safety net for its members for nearly ten years now. The lack of action has hugely compromised the city’s ability to take care of its citizens.

A talk by Dr. Lisa Björkman on her book “PipePolitics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai”illustrated how Mumbai’s taps are dry for the rich and poor alike, despite the city not lacking in water or financial resources. The chronic water shortage faced by informal settlements in Mumbai points to a systemic failure in planning water distribution, setting up the infrastructure and monitoring the efficacy of water systems in serving the needs of a large and growing city.


Building resilience in communities

Ongoing, long-term and continuous engagement channels in vulnerable communities has become the backbone of response and recovery measures during emergencies, like the one we are facing now. Engaging community voices in ideating, planning and designing policies or physical interventions leads to more appropriate and socio-economically sustainable solutions.  

The nonprofit sector has played a key role in organizing workers in marginalised sectors providing essential services, like waste management and building their capacity to solve hyperlocal problems. In cities that have a high percentage of migrants, this also includes a need to build a strong sense of ownership among heterogeneous, and often transient communities towards common good and collective action.


Needs in urban housing

Housing is a critical urban service for informal workers and their families. However, delivery of this service is patchy at best and awful at worst. Down-top approaches can be built and can replace traditional top-down ones, if designed thoughtfully. Lack of tenure security, provision of basic services and the lack of a social infrastructure and amenities results in urban sprawl and informal settlements. There is an intent of ‘housing for all’ in policy making but is sees disjunction in formalising or regularising such a settlement.  

The link between livelihoods and housing is very critical, but often comes into consideration only at the very end of a development program. As you go lower in the income groups, it becomes a bigger imperative to look at a holistic design for livelihoods and housing.

Big hairy problems of this nature require participation of the ‘rights-holders’ / citizens. Government, at several levels, has budgetary provisions but often remains unspent, in the absence of participatory problem solving. Development agencies such as housing boards have a big role to play in bridging community needs with a strategic plan.


Challenges and the way ahead

Studies point to gaps in coverage of welfare programs of the government in the urban context, as well as a lack of inclusiveness in registering for welfare boards. Processes and documentation requirements need to be simplified for the unorganized sector to improve access and coverage.

Gaps in delivery of critical services such as sanitation, health, and education to informal workers have resulted in loss of confidence, and the decision to leave cities. There are specific barriers that prevent circular migrants from benefiting from these services which are addressed by identity programs such as Aadhaar, technology and political intermediaries in finding solutions.  

Decentralization of administrative power has worked in rural India in the panchayati raj system. However, in Urban India, there are few models of decentralised institutional presence with meaningful mandate.Models that drive transparency and accountability in urban systems face resistance, and need to be backed with political will. If done right, this will go a long way in building resilient cities.

Pressure points

  • Recognizing citizenship of migrants and making their access to welfare portable
  • Securing welfare for informal and self-employed workers
  • Need for infrastructure investments to serve basic life needs in large cities
  • Affordable housing and tenure security as a means for improved quality of life
  • Decentralizing power and decision making in urban governance

Download the full Insight report on Charcha 2020, covering 16 events and 150+ hours of discussion.

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