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Sonia Preisler - Blog 3: People Building Better Cities

Sonia Preisler - Blog 3: People Building Better Cities

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Recently I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on “Rethinking Urban Informality: Ideas for an Inclusive City”.

As cities expand and grow, too many people are being excluded from basic entitlements such as decent housing, security and personal safety, access to water and sanitation, and equal opportunities.

In a mega city like Delhi, exclusion is heightened and layered with societal, historical discrimination based on (not exclusive to) caste, class, religion, sexual, cultural background, place of origin, sexual orientation and gender, which rationalizes the exclusion of people in society. We often blame policies and governance as the main instigators of this discrimination, yet forget that the first culprits in creating experiences of exclusion against the marginalized sections of society are the city’s citizens. Historical systematic violence and social marginalization manifest stigma and shame that further rationalize acts of exclusion. This is violence.

The emergence of heavily gated communities is a direct indication of these widening social gaps, and prejudice attitudes. Accompanied by social barriers, the city’s middle and upper class have set living standards for themselves that are only sustained by the exploitation of people. Here in Delhi, people have created a culture of wanting things at their doors (all services). Households have at least one domestic worker, perhaps a driver; all of these jobs require early mornings or late evenings. What was mentioned at the conference, is that people are coerced into living in inadequate spaces that don't provide basic services because they need jobs, and those providing the jobs think this is acceptable.

What is the informal? The informal sector is actually just the part of an economy that is not taxed, monitored by any form of government, or included in any gross national product (GNP), unlike the formal economy.  This can include street food vendors, waste collectors, etc.

Historically, citizens belonging to the “informal sector” were seen as a ‘burden’ to the city who resided in urban informal settlements. Negative stereotyping deemed these communities as centres of criminal activity, violence, etc. This discourse towards the urban poor or the informal sector continues which is reflected in immense discrimination and segregation.

An example of this here in New Delhi is the millions of workers informally involved in collecting, sorting, recycling and selling waste material. Waste created by others and discarded without much thought. These workers work hard to reduce carbon emission and save energy spent in handling waste. They also contribute towards saving public money and provide many widespread benefits to the society, municipalities and the environment.

Ironically however, they face harsh working conditions, low social status, deplorable living conditions and no support from the government. All despite the fact that waste collectors are vital actors in recycling about 20 percent of the city’s waste. Furthermore, they work without any direct payment; are not part of the public solid waste management systems; are socially invisible; and seldom reported in official statistics. They are also continuously excluded in legislation, criminalized by administration, ignored by society, and rarely included in decisions about city development. Even though, their understanding and experiences are extremely valuable to understanding the city’s needs.

Various questions and comments came up during the panel regarding the identity of informality, the way in which the informal struggles to keep a foothold in the city— regardless of the contributions of the informal to society. Conversations also revolved around how to create inclusive growth.  Lastly, a definite agreement was made by all panelists, of the strong need to change the way urban informality is understood.


For me, the conference raised a lot of questions regarding labels such as "informal", perhaps in the same way that I find "illegal" to be problematic (when talking about people).

So, what are the benefits to an informal sector? What are the negative aspects? What changes with government regulation? How can policies and government programmes be inclusive of the informal sector? How can people who hold informal jobs be protected from exploitation or violence? We also need to ask ourselves, why the informal sector exists? Who does it benefit? Who does it hurt?

Everyone has a right to inclusive cities. In order to build empathic cities, we need holistic processes that work with people in low-income households and communities. Part of this, is making sure that society stops processes of “othering”.  Communities know best the issues they are dealing with and understand the way in which cities can be bettered. How can we better understand the layers of intersectionality and complexities that exist?  Check out this project to read more about such approaches.


** Note: I am speaking from my experiences as an outsider who has only temporarily lived in this city and from conversations that stemmed from the panel discussion. I have definitely only encapsulated a small fragment of the issues of the informal sector, and what that means in a city like Delhi, especially South Delhi. These issues are multilayered and complex and I by no means am trying to simplify them or claim that they are easy to solve.