The People’s Economy and the Future of Cities

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Revaben and her husband Narsingbhai sell vegetables from the sidewalk along one of eight new model roads in Ahmedabad, India. Between about 9:00 in the morning and 9:00 in the evening, they sit on upside-down plastic crates amid huge mounds of fresh ginger, peppers, garlic, cilantro and green beans. Their eldest son sets out from the sidewalk in the morning to sell vegetables from a pushcart, and a daughter-in-law vends from a nearby spot on the pavement. 

In comparison to the vendors on her immediate right and left, Revaben’s vending enterprise seems promising: while her neighbors sell only potatoes and onions, her plot on the sidewalk offers a wider range of goods, and her energetic charm and ease with people attract customers. Unlike a formal supermarket, Revaben offers her clients the possibility of buying very small quantities of the fresh vegetables and spices they need and can afford for the day’s meals. Through this enterprise, she and her husband average about 150 rupees (US$2.80) in daily earnings.

Revaben and her colleagues vend on a road where vending is prohibited. She holds an ID card with authorization to occupy a space in the street around the corner, but that space has turned out to be unsuitable. The location is not bad, but the footpath is too narrow, and the owner of the adjacent house doesn’t want vendors there, so he dumps food and water on their heads when they try to work in that spot. On the other side, there are men working in the street who refuse to move, even though they lack the same formal permission to the space that the street vendors hold. Revaben’s organization, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), pursued access to the space where the men are working, but the municipal corporation was unhelpful. And so Revaben and her colleagues have stayed on the sidewalk of the model road.

The vendors know their days are numbered on this sidewalk that sustains their livelihoods. Earlier, the municipal corporation had offered another alternative, an off-street plot of land that is well located and could accommodate all of the vendors who moved to the sidewalk when they were evicted from their previous location. SEWA agreed that its members would move to this new space, but in its current condition, they could not work there: the land was uneven and full of rocks, cows and garbage. To make it a dignified workplace, it would also need a toilet, and SEWA members would be willing to pay what they could for this basic workplace amenity.

The municipal corporation acknowledged the need to clear the plot to make it suitable for vending, but did not act on it. And while SEWA looked for a way to improve the lot, their contact inside the municipal corporation changed, and the new bureaucrat-in-charge realized he might profit from selling the site to another party. So he argued that because SEWA did not occupy the site immediately when it was offered, amidst the rocks and the garbage, the deal was off.

The Right to the City, says Habitat III’s Policy Unit 1 in its policy paper framework, implies a commitment to cities that prioritize people over profit. The Right to the City is not articulated as just another in a long list of individual legal rights, but rather as a set of principles—most centrally, sustainability, equity and social justice—to guide decision-making in a way that better ensures quality of life for all. In the case of informal workers like Revaben—who number more than half of all urban workers in most regions—these principles can only be realized through organization, mobilization and meaningful engagement with city authorities.

Such engagement is not so easy to achieve, of course. As the United Cities and Local Governments’ Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City notes, cities need to find ways to implement participatory consultation processes to enable all inhabitants to make their voices heard. If city authorities can achieve this, they will be in a better position to find ways to support existing livelihoods and to recognize the social production of the city—in other words, the processes carried out under ordinary people’s own initiative.

How can engagement between city authorities and the urban working poor be improved? One emerging lesson is that it is helpful to create multiple spaces that allow less powerful interest groups to develop their own proposals and build their capacity to engage with broader processes. In Thailand, such spaces enabled informal workers to advocate for, and eventually help implement, universal health coverage. In Peru, such spaces enabled Lima’s street vendors to participate in reforming the city ordinance governing street trade. These spaces recognize both the different needs of various interest groups involved and the common ground where coordination with authorities can benefit a wider public.

A second lesson is the need to build bridges between short-term needs and long-term processes. Many informal workers operate on a day-to-day economic cycle: they work today in order to eat today. On the days they can’t work—because they are ill, or because they are chased away from their workplace—they don’t earn, and therefore don’t eat. In order for them to grow their enterprises over time, they need certainty in their work environment: whether through licenses, uniforms or identification cards that help them fend off those who harass them, as in the case of Pune’s recyclers, or through a basic payment for service delivery, as in the case of Bogotá’s recyclers. Certainty in the workplace can bring a longer-term perspective and inspire further investments in homes and businesses.

These innovations are significant in contexts where multiple forms of disadvantage intersect. Revaben, for instance, combines good management skills with a gentle charm that helps her run a steady business. But she never went to school; her one-room house has water for only two hours a day; and she can’t negotiate her purchases at the wholesale market in the mornings—only men are allowed to do that. For her to bring her voice to the policy-making table, she needs some sense of recognition and commitment from the city to the idea that she is a protagonist in its collective future. This is what the Right to the City means for those in what SEWA calls “the people’s economy.”


An earlier version of this article was written in February 2013 after the author’s visit to Ahmedabad as part of WIEGO’s Law and Informality Exposure-Dialogue Programme.

Top photo by M. B. Graves.

Originally published on World Urban Campaign.

Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group