A walk through the streets of Delhi reveals a diverse, bustling workforce – the vendor that sells fresh flowers outside the temple, the tailor under the tree who darns and repairs old clothes, the woman who makes homemade spices and pickles in the shanty town nearby.

These informal workers feed the economic engine of the city and yet their contributions largely go unrecognised. They remain missing from the imagination of the city, and the absence of their voice in planning and policy has left them constantly excluded and penalised. Now, at the dawn of a new Delhi master plan, in the midst of a global pandemic, workers must have a chance to claim their stake in the city’s future vision.

The pandemic has revealed the depths of workers’ exclusion in the city. They were forced to migrate back to villages, incur massive debts to meet their basic needs and run the risk of exposure to the deadly virus while trying to earn a living. Covid-19 also clearly revealed how the right to decent work is absolutely central for a life in the city.

According to a study by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on informal workers’ livelihoods, the national lockdown resulted in a near-total loss of livelihood for some sectors: 99% of domestic workers, 90% of street vendors, 71% of home-based workers and 67% of waste pickers surveyed in Delhi were unable to work in April 2020 due to the lockdown restrictions.

In April 2020, domestic workers reported zero income while the average earnings of street vendors, waste pickers and home-based workers fell by nearly 90%. (Disclosure: Shalini Sinha, one of the co-authors of his article is WIEGO’s India Country Representative.)

The study found that since the lockdown, some work returned. Nearly 80% of waste pickers, 42% of domestic workers and 53% of street vendors surveyed had resumed work during June 2020/July 2020, but only around 25% of home-based workers could find work. However, even for those working, the quantity of work was reduced – all sectors were working fewer days per week than they were before the crisis.

The earnings of workers in all four sectors fell drastically from pre-lockdown averages. Even in terms of total household income, 97% of workers surveyed reported having less in the previous month than before the crisis, with 54% of workers reporting having no household income at all in the previous month.

With workers facing an economic freefall, it is vital the master plan reimagines the city with their voices at the forefront – enabling them to work and live safely.

Instrument of change?

The way a city develops is a consequence of many different factors, but mechanisms like city planning exert great power by setting planning priorities and allocating urban land for different purposes. Specifically, the Delhi master plan allocates and zones land for uses such as “residential”, “commercial”, “industrial” and “green areas”.

It also sets out targets for physical and social infrastructure provision and lays down the norms for the nature of built form, and how all citizens, not just the elite, can engage with the urban space for their various needs including shelter, livelihood generation and recreation.

Construction labourers in Delhi await Covid-19 rapid tests. Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Provision for informal livelihood

The present master plan in Delhi (applicable till 2021) is almost entirely silent on the aspect of informal work. Despite the fact that 80% of employment in Delhi is informal, there is no mention in the plan of any informal worker groups except for street vendors.

In the case of vendors, the plan makes cursory references to the National Street Vendor Policy (that preceded the historic Street Vendor Act, 2014) in principle but does not lay down concrete spatial mechanisms, such as freeing up or allocating land for designated vending zones or better infrastructure in existing vendor markets, all of which are required for the implementation of the Act in practice.

Delhi’s 2041 master plan, which is being developed this year, provides an opportunity to remedy some of this exclusion. A livelihood-centric approach requires that the plan formally recognise informal livelihoods and make adequate provisions of land and supportive social and physical infrastructure.

For example, the plan should allocate space for waste sorting centres, vending areas and community work stations in neighbourhoods. Such a formal integration of informal workers’ living and working spaces into the plan can prevent penalisation and stigmatisation by acknowledging them as citizens of the city, with legal rights to the city they inhabit.

Such a recognition in the city plan (backed with concrete land allocations) could prompt development plans for the work and housing of informal workers through other government policies as well.

Interventions like these to support informal workers would also make the city more sustainable, accessible and safer, which would benefit the broader public. For example, decentralised waste management, through the designation of neighbourhood-level waste sorting centres, can go a long way to reduce the infamous landfill problem. Increased access to vending space for street vendors means the increased provision of nutritious food at affordable rates, contributing to food security.

Mixed zoning

Trade and commerce through small and large markets are part of Delhi’s identity and this must be preserved. Employment-intensive growth strategies that integrate small industries and local commerce must be adopted.

However, for small businesses to be able to thrive alongside bigger ones, the plan must adopt a strategy of mixed-use rather than single-use zoning. This flexibility allows for economic activity to emerge and grow organically, which often are very small in scale but critical to the economic well-being of the household such as home-based embroidery work.

This is also beneficial for women who often prefer work opportunities closer to home. Single-use zoning punishes smaller-scale enterprises and creates monolithic commercial areas – mixed-use in contrast has the potential to create more vibrant and accessible streets and communities.

Productive asset

Planning innovations to support livelihoods must be complemented by strategies to increase access to housing. Most of the working poor in Delhi live in self-built settlements, many of which are classified as illegal under the current plan.

The new master plan must recognise self-built housing as a legitimate part of the housing stock, rather than an unplanned and therefore illegal development to be demolished. The plan should instead promote in-situ upgrading by granting residents secure tenure rights and through providing basic infrastructure-services, (the building of which can also generate employment).

The plan must recognise that homes are also workplaces, especially for the poor, requiring better design and norms that reflect their livelihood needs and provision of work-related infrastructure for all settlements.

Migrant labourers cycle to Patna from Delhi, amid a nationwide lockdown, on May 5, 2020. Credit: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP

Promote social development

Finally, the plan must promote social development, especially as studies now indicate the present crisis has set India back in key human development indicators. To address this, the next master plan must expand allocations for social infrastructure and lay out a detailed roadmap for the achievement of development targets, especially in public health and education.

The plan should adopt innovative approaches, like the multi-purpose community centre model – which combines key social functions (local health clinics, child care and educational institutions, a citizens service centre for access to government schemes and benefits etc.) in centres that are decentralised throughout the city. These centres have the potential to increase the spread and reach of social protection programs.

The present crisis has taught us how interdependent we are in the city and the importance of collective well-being. But while the risks of the disease are shared, the costs which the most vulnerable have had to bear weigh the heaviest.

It is imperative that when Delhi is planning for the future, we build back better for everyone, placing the working poor at the centre. The city of Delhi, twenty years from now, should be more inclusive and enable every person to lead a dignified life. Adopting a worker-centred approach that prioritises their needs and lived realities, and that invests in public welfare and infrastructure systems, is absolutely essential if we are to recover.

Malavika Narayan is a Research Consultant with Focal City Delhi Project, of Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, a global research-policy network that seeks to improve the status of the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy.

Shalini Sinha is India Country Representative, WIEGO.

They are both members of the Main Bhi Dilli Campaign, a citizen’s collective aiming to make urban planning in Delhi more inclusive and participatory.