While mapping both occupational and residential vulnerability, we have seen that the social standing of a person often makes the experience of negotiating the city more cumbersome. Gender, caste, religious identity and disability often determine a person or household’s access to urban space as well as the more abstract space of the labour market. If vulnerability is conceived as the risk to slip into poverty, it is imperative to engage with the social identities of a household or an individual, to effectively recognise and analyse the multi-dimensionality of the lived experiences of marginalised subjects. Intersectionality is useful to conceptualise the simultaneity of multiple identities that make one vulnerable.

Most interviewees shared that they migrated to urban areas, to escape limited employment opportunities in the native villages. But the social identities in rural areas continued to shape their livelihoods and lives in urban areas. Research has shown that disparities have endured in India across social and religious groups due to differentiated and unequal access to skill and education (as well as land and capital endowments) and (lack of ) occupational mobility.

It has also been shown that urban male workers from “SC, ST, OBC and Muslim communities earn disproportionately lower than what is consistent with their education and experience”. While their occupations are already low-paying, they earn even less than the market rate in these occupations.

Here, social vulnerability is discussed along three axes—disability; gender, ie, the experience of being a single woman; and the Muslim identity. These case studies attempt to dismantle the “universalism” of residential and occupational vulnerabilities, revealing the heterogeneity of vulnerability depending on one’s social location.

Disabled people

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2007, interprets disability as an “evolving” concept, one that is born out of an interaction between the physical condition and the social barriers a person suffering from such a physical condition faces. The treatment of the medical condition, though of paramount importance, must be seen as aligned with addressing the social stigma that comes with it.

The medical condition, as evident in several interviews with disabled people from different age groups and parents of disabled children, is less crippling in a city like Delhi than in rural areas or even small towns. State negligence, however, in providing proper education, public infrastructure and jobs excludes people from equal opportunities.

Social marginalisation leads to exclusion from accessing health care, education, or employment leading to poverty, which in turn results in restricted access to safe housing and food, health care and so forth. In the Vikalangbasti (colony of the disabled) near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which houses about 450 households (about 1000 people), most people are disabled and earn their livelihood by seeking alms. Only around 10 per cent households have ration cards.

The case of the Viklang basti shows how disability is made even more challenging by state apathy. Twenty-six-year-old Gaurav lost his eyesight after Class 12 when a fever affected his brain. Growing up in a poor family of a single mother and other siblings, he eventually started computer classes and plans to apply for admission in a college for distance learning. “I had only heard about disability. Now I know what it means. Sometimes I stand at bus stops for an hour because no one tells me what bus number is approaching. One day I asked the conductor to drop me at Nehru Place, and he dropped me at Nehru Nagar instead. I reached home at 10 at night,” he recalled.

He explained that he gets a pension of Rs 1,500 from the government and a bus pass from the terminal on showing the disability certificate, but all he wants are options for a full-time job. He says his family has never let him feel impaired, but the lanes in the slum are so narrow that stepping out alone is difficult.

Rakesh, who has a locomotive disability since childhood, and is from the same slum in Govindpuri, has a similar complaint. He says that there is no way a wheelchair or a crutch could be used in the slum. Even in school there were no ramps or lifts and often it would be difficult to attend a class on the third or fourth floor. Till the tenth standard his mother had to carry him to the school. Though the government has reserved quotas for the disabled in jobs, they are not serious about maintaining it. “This time, my seat for the exam for a railway job was in Rohini Sector 6, 40 kilometres away from my house, even when I had attached my disability certificate and my address with the application,” said Rakesh.

Rupin, who manages a disability helpline for an NGO in Delhi, informed the researcher that they get 7–10 calls a day, mostly from lower middle class or poor households. Most of the callers are concerned about their child’s school admission or about entitlements like pensions. He said that unlike in rural areas, the urban poor in Delhi do not always stay permanently in one location. Running prolonged awareness programmes, therefore, becomes more difficult.

Twenty-five-year-old Shabana pointed out that schools are not easy for such children. She, as a child, was almost never helped to go the toilet as the teacher would not be supportive in such matters. Because of limited mobility, she chose to educate herself through a correspondence course for college. Though she might get a job in the future, she is worried about travelling to the workplace everyday.

She complained that most of her seats for university examinations were in faraway colleges. In one of the examination centres, disabled students were made to sit separately, which was an insulting experience for most. When asked what she would want from the government besides a pension, she said, “I don’t even want pension if I get a job. That pension money does not even cover my medicines. I would prefer to work and earn on my own. What I want is that the government create conditions that allow for us to work.”

Single women

The institution of marriage and family has been given so much importance in Indian society and its laws and policies that single women often have to face a stigma in addition to solitude and poverty when there is no family support. One must acknowledge that single women are not just victims. Their decisions to either leave their husbands, often single-handedly running their families and bringing up their children, or to not marry at all, exhibit their grit and agency.

But being a woman and choosing to stay single often magnifies the gender discrimination that follows; single women are often looked at with pity, sympathy or as sexual objects. In an urban setting, with smaller nuclear families, the experience of being single could be more difficult; but as most women we spoke to admit, it is easier to work and earn to live in one’s own in a city than in their native villages.

Cities, especially large urban areas have more single women or women-headed households. Unless backed by better human capital endowment, their participation in the labour market will continue to be on unfair terms. Poverty is higher in urban areas among female-headed households as compared to male-headed ones. Also, stigmas and societal pressure make these women more vulnerable.

Kiran, a second-generation street vendor in the Lajpat Nagar Central Market, lost her husband to an illness a few years ago. As a child, Kiran used to stand at the car park to sell wares which she would put on car bonnets. After her marriage, she struggled with poverty in Gujarat – her husband had an unstable income and yet did not allow her to work. In 2005, she returned to Delhi with her children. She came back to Lajpat Market to work as a street vendor and paid half her earnings to her mother to stay at her house.

Her husband came back to her after he gathered that she had started earning and they took a house on rent in a slum. She lost him soon after. However, even before her husband’s passing, Kiran had learnt what it meant to be a single woman fighting to arrange food, shelter and education for her children. She said, “People judge you even when you try to rent a house. So many men see you on the road and think ill of you. They tell you, ‘Road pe baith ke kya karegi? (What will you do on the road?)‘ They want to offer money and think you are available.”

Jaishree in Shakurpur married outside her caste at a young age. The relationship turned out to be physically abusive and she returned to her maika (mother’s house) in a few years. But Jaishree’s mother, Kalyani, no longer welcomes her: “I do not want Jaishree here. I did not get her married; she chose herself and must find a solution to this. I am single and have brought up my daughters with much difficulty. If the elder one comes back, no one will marry my younger daughter.”

With a two-year-old child, and no one to support her, Jaishree finds it very difficult to work and earn without someone to take care of her infant.

Age and the inability to continue to work make single women especially dependent on their children or any support they can get from neighbours or relatives. A 70-year-old widow, Antara (name changed), now lives with her daughter’s family in Vasant Kunj. She said that even though she was being cared for, she wanted to have access to a pension to help her daughter financially and buy her own medicines. However, staying in the ragpicker’s colony with not even a valid Voter ID card or other identity proof she has not been able to get her entitlements.

In conclusion, Kiran, Jayshree and Antara may all be clubbed together under the category of single women. However, once one considers factors such as age, mobility, area of residence, and the capacity to work, their experiences of Delhi could not have been more different.


According to Planning Commission estimates, among religious groups in urban areas, the poverty ratio is highest for Muslims at 33.9%, ie, one out of every three Muslims in urban India lives below the poverty line. The Planning Commission while releasing its poverty estimates in March 2012 for the first time segregated its data into religious groups, along with the other usual social groups. But as Kalyani Menon rightly points out, it is more than economic impoverishment that a poor Muslim faces in a city like Delhi.

Here, while “the securitisation of the state impacts everyday life in the form of metal detectors, security cameras, check points, identity verification and armed personnel policing public space, notions of security are infected by majoritarian understandings of nation and citizenship that position Hindus as the normative subject, while relegating religious minorities to the murky margins of the national imaginary.”

Menon writes about Ameena Baaji who sees the burqa as an integral part of her religious practice. But she is forced to take it off when she comes out of her neighbourhood to see her doctor or else she is perceived as being “dirty” or a “thief”.

Like many other major cities, Delhi also has its pockets of predominantly Muslim-inhabited areas like Jamia Nagar, Okhla, and most parts of Old Delhi which are derogatorily called “mini Pakistan” In Delhi, Muslim “ghettos” have emerged as a result of the Muslim minority community seeking a sense of security and belonging in numbers. An architect and urban planner, Sadiq Zafar writes, “High population density, sub-standard housing structures, crowded streets, unplanned haphazard growth and encroachments make Okhla one of the most vulnerable residential pockets...Basic issues like water supply, sewage and drainage, parking, waste collection and disposal and natural ventilation are some of the core issues which people face collectively at the grass roots.”

This commonly observed segregation does not imply that Muslims do not live in mixed spaces in Delhi. As Mohammad Kaleem, who now lives in Shakur Basti and who had travelled to Delhi with other migrants from Uttar Pradesh long back to work in a construction site said, “When we came it was a mix of people from different religions travelling for work. So even today after 35 years, this settlement has a mix of Hindus and Muslims staying together. Here it is different from Old Delhi; people are daily wage labourers here and discrimination based on religion is not common.”

But difficulty in finding jobs in such mixed places is commonly experienced by Muslims. Hafeez (name changed), a street vendor in Lajpat Nagar, left his native village after he lost his father at a very young age and came to Delhi to stay with his uncle. He was not put into any school and started working as an air-conditioner mechanic for cars. But because of the seasonality of the job and the low income, he came to Lajpat to sell wares. “All other shopkeepers and even vendors would say ‘Yeh Musalman hai’ and refuse to give me any space to work.”

Access to labour markets is also limited by access to education. One fourth of Muslim children in the country go to unrecognised schools; only 15 per cent are enrolled in English medium schools and only 4 per cent in Madrasas.

Exclusion in both occupational and residential spheres in such cases is deeply rooted in prejudice against and in the marginalisation of a religious minority.

Excerpted with permission from “Strife in a Metro: Affirming Rights to Admission in the City of Delhi”, Rajanya Bose and NC Saxena, published in India Exclusion Report 2016, Yoda Press.