In Delhi, the unplanned and the informal are not the exception. A vast section of the city’s residents live in informal settlements, and eight out of 10 workers are informally employed. Insecurity of work and tenure marks their day-to-day existence. Whether it be vending on the streets, picking and sorting waste from people’s homes, manufacturing goods from clothes to shoes (often from within homes and small workshops) or constructing the roads and buildings that make up the city – it is their labour that sustains and makes possible the life of all residents of Delhi.

Yet the recently released draft Delhi Master Plan 2041, the key document that will guide the development of the city for the next 20 years, has scarcely included any provisions for the workers of Delhi.

We have written earlier on the need for a livelihood-centric approach to planning. The devastation of livelihoods during the course of the Covid-19 pandemic further highlighted the need for concerted steps to make cities more equitable and enable an economic recovery for all. The draft MPD 2041 as it is, largely misses this mandate.

However, there is still time. The plan is currently at the draft stage and can be amended to build an inclusive, worker friendly city.

What does the MPD 2041 say about livelihood?

The economic vision laid out in the plan is divorced from the realities of urban employment in Delhi. Taken together with measures facilitating the privatisation of public land and leaving the provision of housing almost entirely to the private sector, the main aim of the plan becomes quite clear: it is to create a market-friendly “world-class” city, irrespective of whether the majority of Delhi’s residents have any share in it.

While “facilitating economic development” is a key objective, all the plan’s strategies are designed to benefit only a small group of corporate professionals. Further de-industrialisation of the city is sought with support only for hi-tech, knowledge, finance and real-estate developments. For the majority of the city’s workers, these strategies are at best irrelevant, and at worst, will serve to further marginalise them. The question arises whether the real workers of today’s city have any part to play in the “unique economic role for Delhi” that is being envisioned.

Ironically, despite being a spatial land use plan, there is no reference to the workspaces of people in the informal economy, even as it is identified as the largest employer in the city. For instance, there is no recognition or allocation for labour chowks that are key productive hubs that dispense daily wage employment for construction and other sector workers. “Dhalaos”, vending markets and homes, all of which are vibrant hubs of economic activity, find no mention in the section titled “spaces of economic production”.

Increasing women’s workforce participation is cited as a key performance indicator for the master plan. But this remains merely lip service – the plan contains no concrete provisions to specifically address the barriers to the labour market faced by women, such as increasing public social infrastructure that can alleviate the unequal care burden that falls on women and keeps them from the workplace.

It does not even mention women-dominated sectors like domestic work (which makes up 13% of the female workforce in Delhi) and home-based work (a sector that accords women flexibility and absorbs labour during economic stress periods). Recognition in policy and planning documents is the first step towards an enabling environment that could create more decent work opportunities for women informal workers, but the present draft plan misses this entirely.

Some recommendations

A detailed outlining of different sectors is essential to conceive holistic strategies for the informal economy and has the potential to enable inclusive integration of workers and decent working conditions. Given that the master plan is still at the drafting stage, the following are some key recommendations which should be urgently adopted.

1. Make spatial provisions for informal workers: Informal workers largely work in public spaces and without formal recognition, face harassment and marginalisation. The Master Plan must formally recognise the existing spaces for informal work in the city. For informal waste pickers, this means allotting decentralised spaces for sorting and segregation of waste as per the 2016 Solid Waste Management Rules. For street vendors, existing vending markets must be protected and the plan must mandate that any decisions to declare vending or no-vending zones must only lie with elected Town Vending Committees, as the 2014 Street Vendors Act provides.

Beyond recognising these existing spaces, the plan should also be able to provide for more space for livelihood to emerge organically. This could be through opening up more land for vending through expanding permissibility, formalising spaces for natural and weekly markets to come up, and by providing basic facilities to ensure vendors’ safety and comfort. Low capital micro businesses and self employed recyclers in repair and reuse industry must be recognised and promoted as integral to the circular economy that this plan seeks to promote, by allocating space, enhancing work conditions and improving access to waste and recyclables.

2. Facilitate the links between housing and livelihood: For many informal workers, homes are not just places of shelter but also places of work, and there needs to be a concerted effort to recognise and promote livelihood as part of the policies for housing for the poor. The present approach of converting slum clusters to vertical buildings and parcelling the large portion of the land away to private developers, would have a detrimental impact on livelihoods that are sustained in and around homes.

Regeneration schemes (aimed at improving quality of life, safety and infrastructure) available to other types of residential settlements must be extended also to informal settlements. This has to be accompanied by the requisite permissions to mix residential and productive uses, which can potentially support small-scale commercial and manufacturing activity.

3 Prioritise strategies for transport and social infrastructure that support workers: The availability of affordable and efficient public transport and safe pedestrian-friendly streets is critical to support informal workers who often walk to work or use public transport. Ensuring adequate public social infrastructure is an economic investment, allowing people to engage effectively in the economy. Public child care facilities, local health centres and educational institutions must be planned in decentralised locations, for every neighbourhood, to improve access, especially by women.

An anganwadi centre per 800 households, in line with national child care policy norms, is a critical way to actually enable an increase in women’s workforce participation. Further, livelihood is a key public function which should be part of a decentralised social infrastructure. The proposed facility of “multi-use community work centres” is a good model that should be strongly mandated through neighborhood level allocations and contain supporting services such as skill training to help shift from precarious to more productive enterprises.

A city plan that lays the roadmap for the future of Delhi cannot ignore the realities of the majority of its residents. Doing so will carry over the worst structural inequalities that characterise our city today, revealed starkly and with tragic consequences during the pandemic. The fact that lakhs of our working people found it better to walk thousands of kilometres rather than try to sustain themselves in the city during a lockdown shows the precarious conditions of work and life they experienced even before the crisis.

The Delhi of 2041 must do better, and become a city that provides just and equitable lives for all its citizens.

Malavika Narayan and Avi Majithia are with the Focal City Delhi team of Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising, a global research-policy network that seeks to improve the status of the working poor. Shalini Sinha is India Country Representative, WIEGO.

This is the third of a five-part series on the draft Delhi Master Plan 2041. Read the entire series here.

All the authors are writing in their individual capacity but also as part of the Main Bhi Dilli Campaign. The Campaign, a network of individuals and organisations based in Delhi had been engaging with the drafting of the Master Plan since 2019 with a focus on informal work, housing and inclusive planning.

As a campaign, they consider their work to be on-going until the final plan is published. Therefore, their hope with the series is offer not just critiques but propositions, suggestions, revisions and changes to the Draft Plan. All the suggestions offered here have also been filed as official submissions within the planning process’ suggestion and objection mechanisms. The articles have been put together by Gautam Bhan and Mukta Naik on behalf of the Main Bhi Dilli campaign.