In Delhi, a Three-Pronged Approach Raises Informal Workers’ Priorities with Urban Decision-makers

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Shalini Sinha

Urban employment trends in India have defied predictions and stereotypes. Rather than being increasingly absorbed into modern, formal wage employment, the urban workforce in India is becoming increasingly informal.

Delhi is no different: the vast majority of the city’s workers – 71 per cent – are informally employed. 61 per cent of total employed women are in the informal economy. A large number work as wage workers (63 per cent of total non-agricultural informal employment) and 37 per cent are self-employed. The four sectors that WIEGO works with – domestic workers, street vendors, home-based workers and waste pickers – constitute 32 per cent of women’s non-agricultural employment in the city.

71% Employment is in informalGraphic: P. Conley.

61% of women are employed in informal economyGraphic: P. Conley.

32% informal workers in four sectorsGraphic: P. Conley.

Despite its sheer size – and its significant contributions – urban designers, planners, and policymakers have paid very little attention to the urban informal economy in local economic development policymaking and planning. As a result, it is the working poor at the bottom of the economic pyramid, especially women, who bear the brunt of the urban juggernaut in Delhi (as they do around the world), on a daily basis. In many instances, large urban infrastructure projects, city policies and regulations, and local authorities are undermining or destroying the livelihoods of the urban working poor.   

63% of women work for wages, 37% are self-employedGraphic: P. Conley.

Since 2016, WIEGO’s Focal Cities Delhi (FCD) project has sought to improve outcomes for urban informal workers in three sectors of the informal economy: home-based workers, street vendors, and waste pickers. The project aims to bring attention to the practical realities and contributions of informal workers, support collective voice through strong workers’ organizations, and facilitate worker groups’ engagement with urban decision-makers – ensuring that the informal economy is considered in the urban policy arena as having the potential to address many of the employment and poverty issues in India. 

The project has three key components:

1. Increasing visibility of informal workers and their contributions

Focal Cities Delhi works to build a knowledge base about urban informal employment, which challenges many misconceptions about the informal economy in India. In 2016, this included a collaboration with the Harvard South Asia Institute on several initiatives, including a booklet and two webinars on home-based workers: “Home-based Workers, Invisible and Voiceless” and “Cities and Home-based Workers.” 

Similarly, in 2017, Focal Cities Delhi launched a campaign to change public perceptions about informal workers through radio programmes by hosting 13 episodes on the informal economy and the city (access episodes on the FCD page). In 2018, an Informal Workers’ Narratives event was hosted by the Working People’s Charter (WPC), and co-curated by WIEGO Focal Cities Delhi and the Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers (AIW). 

In addition, small evidence-building studies, legal reviews, and literature reviews have been undertaken to strengthen the knowledge base at the city level. FCD has also been running a campaign with partners demanding childcare as a worker’s right

These products and events serve as a platform to bring to the fore the demands of informal workers in the city, and shed light on the struggles they face on a daily basis.

2. Supporting worker groups in effectively implementing laws and policies

Focal Cities Delhi works to build workers’ awareness about key policies, including the 2014 Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill. In 2016, a public hearing was organized to demand speedy implementation of the street vendors law and of the new waste management rules passed in 2016 (The Solid Waste Management Rules 2016).

In 2017, efforts have been made to build the capacity of the waste picker organizations to advocate for the speedy implementation of the SWM Rules at the city level. In addition, we aim to increase waste pickers’ access to municipal waste management systems by building city level platforms and, simultaneously, build awareness about their role and contributions among citizens.

3. Centring Livelihoods in Urban Discourse

The urban informal economy is an integral part of the economic and social fabric of cities. As a result, the policies, regulations and practices of governments – notably city government and local officials – must address the multiple barriers that urban informal workers face. 

FCD strives to bring informal livelihoods into the public discourse around urban issues by using a range of strategies, each developed closely with local partners. For example, through action research with home-based workers, FCD is building an evidence base to be used in advocacy for a housing policy that is inclusive of informal livelihoods. Similarly, FCD explores slum eviction and rehabilitation through a livelihoods lens, assessing social protection access for communities in rehabilitated slums; strengthening partners’ efforts to advocate for land rights for the poor; and studying public and private investments in housing and infrastructure.

FCD strives to, along with its partners, bring livelihoods to the heart of urban discourse and practice. It seeks not only to highlight the impact of rapid urban change on informal livelihoods, but also to help empower the urban working poor, through their organizations, to address these impacts and to advocate more effectively for inclusive – rather than exclusionary – city policies, practices, and services.  


Read more about WIEGO’s Focal Cities initiative in our six target cities.

Read more about Focal Cities Delhi.

Feature Photo: WIEGO

Informal Economy Topic