Building Back Better: Informal Workers Stake Their Claim for an Inclusive Delhi

Hero Image
Street vendor in Delhi, India
Published Date
Avi Majithia, Shalini Sinha, Malavika Narayan

Delhi stands at a critical historical juncture. More than a year after the onset of the COVID-19 crisis and a few months after a devastating second wave of infections, the city remains in a state of crisis. A policy opportunity that comes along only once every two decades – to define a new vision for Delhi’s future – has opened up at this time, allowing for potentially meaningful change. The Delhi Master Plan 2021-41 is the city’s main spatial planning document which will set the tone for the city's development for the next 20 years. Designed to cover the whole city, it envisions goals and norms for use of land, the built environment and infrastructure. It is legally binding and will form the basis for the development of zonal and local area plans to follow, largely shaping the ground on which all other policies and plans are built. 

The plan is not just an abstract document: it defines what makes it “on the map” of the city, in some cases with devastating consequences. Past plans have excluded many informal settlements and workplaces, providing a basis for evictions and displacements that have shaped the life and livelihood trajectories for multiple generations of Delhi residents. 

In 2018, Focal City Delhi (FCD) alongside a diverse coalition of allies working on livelihood, gender, housing and other issues formed the Main Bhi Dilli Campaign (“I, too, am Delhi”, MBD), which calls for the master plan to adequately address the issues of livelihood and habitat for the urban poor. Since its formation, the MBD has advocated to make the plan more inclusive and reflective of the lived reality of the majority of workers and residents of the city, rather than a privileged minority. Over the past three years, we have written extensively on the need for meaningful citizen engagement with the master plan, the need to adopt a livelihood-centred approach to planning and how, in the middle of a global pandemic, Delhi has the unique opportunity to build back better and plan a city that serves all its citizens

The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the public agency responsible for creating the master plan, recently (in early June 2021) invited input from the citizens of Delhi on the draft plan. Despite its stated aims for citizen participation, the process for sourcing public input was highly exclusionary. The draft plan is a technical document of over 400 pages, containing a detailed land use map – reading and understanding such a document takes time. It took the DDA three years to draft the plan, yet the public was given only 45 days to comment.  

Once the draft plan was released, MBD worked quickly  to force open a window for meaningful participation. First, the campaign put sustained pressure on the DDA to extend the timeframe for citizen feedback. Through letter-writing to authorities, media campaigns and public protests, the campaign contributed to the DDA granting a 30-day extension to the public comment period. 

Second, we worked to deconstruct the plan and disseminate its content in simple language to the broader public in Delhi. To do this, the MBD leveraged the strength of its diversity, and sector (e.g. street vendors, waste pickers and home-based workers) and thematic (e.g. gender, housing, transport, livelihood and environment) groups quickly and carefully reviewed the plan clause by clause. 

Through this initial rapid review process, we learned that some of our advocacy during the 3-year long drafting period had been successful – for the first time the plan recognizes the informal economy as the largest employer in the city and contains some enabling language for its integration and recognition. But in other critical areas, the plan falls short. While much of the language of the plan indicates inclusion, the accompanying allocations and development norms don’t match this vision. Without concrete spatial allocations or references to established laws or policy mandates that govern different sectors of informal work, the plan’s progressive language has no teeth. This disconnect raises major doubts in how effectively the envisioned integration of workers would be enforced or implemented.  

The results of the review and accompanying recommendations were shared via  social media, public meetings and a press conference. This initial broad public awareness strategy was aimed at helping as many people as possible to understand the plan and to encourage them to go online and submit their own suggestions and objections.

With the extra time secured for feedback, the campaign’s final strategy focused on massive, direct community outreach. The MBD worked with a cadre of grassroot leaders who held close to 250 meetings with street vendors, waste pickers, domestic workers, home-based workers, residents of informal settlements and other community groups across the city. Leaders used popular education techniques in markets, public spaces, parks and streets to deconstruct the complex maps and figures and to support communities to articulate their needs and objections to the draft plan. By the deadline, MBD partners and community leaders went to the DDA office and filed nearly 25,000 objections from communities across Delhi on issues relating to livelihood, housing and social infrastructure. The DDA initially resisted, but campaign representatives ultimately convinced them to accept every single objection and to provide individual receipts for proof. This is a historic achievement in the city’s planning process that has in the past been the exclusive domain of well-off and powerful groups. 

The process described here took place at an extremely vulnerable time – right after the devastating second wave of COVID-19 in Delhi that has affected working-poor communities most acutely. It is a true testament to the strength of worker organizations, activists and individual workers that they were able to recognize and act on this critical moment – against great odds and barriers – to claim their right to engage with the draft master plan and participate in defining Delhi’s future. The pandemic showed that past approaches to planning had failed to account for the needs of the majority, resulting in massive hunger, displacement and loss of employment and housing in the past year. Now, the working poor of the city of Delhi have taken a first step towards building back better by making their voices heard in the city planning process. 

Top photo: Street vendor, Delhi, India. By R. Choudhary
Informal Economy Topic
Informal Economy Theme