It is a critical moment in time for Delhi. As the city undertakes an exercise visioning the future for the next 20 years, the 2041 Master Plan, the Capital is plagued with severe challenges that hurt the quality of life of its citizens. Pollution levels have reached all-time highs; the landfill has soared past the height of the Taj Mahal; and the entire country is facing “job loss growth” and falling labour-force participation by women. Extreme times call for new ways of thinking and doing. Historical approaches to planning in Delhi are insufficient to address today’s challenges and realities – and the new 20-year plan presents an unprecedented opportunity to do things differently.

That’s why we’re calling for a new approach entirely: a livelihood-centred approach to master planning. A bottom-up planning approach that responds to the way people actually live and work in the city could be an economic and social game-changer in the future of urban India. This requires a shift from planning exclusively for the formal city, to planning also for the majority of urban workers, who are engaged in the informal economy

An inclusive city

Achieving a more inclusive Delhi in 2041 means taking stock of the actual situation today. The city needs to first acknowledge the major role informality plays in the Capital.

Only a small share of Delhi’s population (less than 15%) is engaged in formal employment. The majority of Delhi’s workers carry out their livelihoods in informal work spaces, where they spend upwards of 12-15 hours a day (even longer for women who have additional care responsibilities). In Delhi alone, there are over 3 lakh street vendors in public spaces, 8 lakh-10 lakh construction workers who build the city, around 3 lakh waste pickers on dump sites and in city streets, and others, like home-based workers, whose numbers are more difficult to ascertain but who spend the majority of their working time in informal settlements.

It is therefore essential that the masterplan take into account this reality of informality and not just plan for the small percentage of residents who work in formal office parks. Incorporating what the majority of people do and how they work should be a key planning driver, and for Delhi that majority is informally employed.

Using a livelihood-lens will not only benefit informal workers, it could also help planners see the interconnectedness of the city and plan more realistically to improve the quality of life for all. For example, it is important to understand that informal workers’ need for livelihood not only drives workers’ migration to the city, but the nature of their livelihood determines how and where they live and how they interact with the city.

They tend to live and work in informal settlements or informal workplaces. Where they live in the city, conversely, impacts their labour market choices. Poor conditions of both – living and working conditions – can trap them in the ever-spiralling cycle of poverty.

A woman day labourer holds her baby beside a construction site in New Delhi. Credit: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

If planners think beyond discrete land-use policies and outdated building codes and take into account this interconnected use of the city, the city and its residents could reap the benefits. Living in well-serviced settlements that are not plagued by tenure insecurities can increase productivity, decrease time and cost burdens of travel, and allow urban poor households to incrementally build on their resources.

In addition, a livelihood-centred approach also makes good economic sense. Cities can plan to integrate informal activities into local economic development strategies, which can serve as a poverty-alleviation measure and a first step towards addressing employment issues and decent-work deficits that plague the Indian economy today. For example, when cities promote the recycling industry, which is largely informal, they also promote labour-intensive growth, fuelling the economy with more jobs. When cities recognise that informal settlements are thriving industrial hubs, and the location of many home-based businesses, they promote, protect, and integrate urban informal livelihoods into the cities’ economic development. In addition, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods promote local vendors markets and support smaller commercial establishments, creating economically and socially thriving areas.

Key starting points

There are some concrete ways in which the masterplan can develop a livelihood-centred approach. One of the key factors is that it will need to address the issues of the large informal workforce and better integrate them with the larger urban fabric.

Here are three key starting points.

1) Allocate formal spaces. The availability of a formal space to carry out their livelihood can be a huge step for informal workers whose sites of work are often diverse and unrecognised. They are currently penalised and prosecuted for working in these spaces and space allocation in the plan for particular uses like vending or sorting waste can lend legitimacy to the activity and offer the possibility for integration.

For example, city plans could allocate proper spaces in all neighbourhoods for informal waste pickers to sort and segregate waste. These spaces could help waste-pickers to sort better, improving their earning potential. These designated areas would also ensure that remaining wet waste could be managed at the neighbourhood level, which is a cleaner and greener outcome for all citizens.

2) Recognise homes to be workplaces. For a range of people from home-based workers to street vendors, either all or part of their economic activity takes place within their homes. The masterplan needs to recognise that homes are workplaces by maintaining flexibility in use norms, enhancing size and density norms for low-income housing, and envisioning supportive infrastructure and services.

3) Create inclusive use of public spaces. Since a lot of informal work happens in what are termed as “public spaces” in the plan, workers in these spaces, such as vendors, can be deemed as encroachers, occupying the space meant for pedestrians or for parking. Asserting vendors’ access to public space not only positively impacts the livelihood of the street vendor but has a direct correlation to public safety. More eyes on the streets makes it safer for all, but especially for women, and an inclusionary reimagining of public spaces would have vendors at the heart of it.

Rag pickers carry sacks of sorted recyclable materials at the Ghazipur landfill site in the east of New Delhi. Credit: AFP

A model for India

Master planning is no easy task, especially in increasingly complex urban environments. As cities change and grow, it’s time to rethink how we shape them for what they are and what we want them to be.

Centring livelihoods into urban planning processes represents an innovative, more holistic way of thinking, which Delhi needs right now. The pay-offs could be enormous: it has the potential to create a more liveable city for all; be a key driver for inclusive economic development; and align Indian cities with global benchmark targets, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda. The ripple effect of improved growth could address key urban issues of unemployment and poverty alleviation, and the city of 20 years from now could look remarkably more integrated and equal.

It is therefore critical that Delhi’s masterplan think of the city as more than brick and mortar. Cities are filled people who live and work in them – an oft-repeated mantra that rarely translates into the city planning process. It is important to see city planning much more than a centralised and top-down process of spatial management with a view to impose “order” and discipline on organic developments, as it has historically been viewed. Rather, planning needs to be informed by voices from the ground and be made bottom-up.

This is exactly the purpose of the Main Bhi Dilli Campaign, an autonomous collective of civil society organisations, activists and researchers, aiming to articulate a people’s vision for the city. By questioning the history of exclusionary planning in Delhi, the campaign hopes to intervene in the formal planning process to envision a more equitable, just and sustainable city. The campaign calls for a planning process that is more public-facing and participatory, and maintains that until then, the real issues of the vast majority, especially the most marginalised, will not be addressed.

The Delhi Master Plan is often seen as a path-setter for city development plans all over India. Drafting through more participatory and inclusive approaches can bring to life many innovative models and practices that can be carried over to other cities as well. Most importantly, putting the integrated issues of livelihood and habitat of the urban poor at the centre of mapping Delhi’s future signals a recognition for the vast majority of residents who live and work in the city – and acknowledges that the city belongs to them as well.

Shalini Sinha, India Country Representative, Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing(WIEGO) and Malavika Narayan is the coordinator of the Main Bhi Dilli Campaign.