V: Contesting global urbanism



Women organising, advocacy and Indian cities in between informal dwelling and informal economies: An interview with SEWA’s Renana Jhabvala

Renana Jhabvala is a community and social worker based in Ahmedabad, where she has carried out extensive work with women working in the informal economy, tackling issues concerning trade union organising and poverty. She is known for her work with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and her writings focussed on informality gender and power dynamics. She has won several awards for her activism, including the prestigious Padma Shri, awarded to her by the Government of India in 1990.

MICHELE LANCIONE: Both Colin and I were honoured to meet you at a British Academy and National Institute of Urban Affairs’ event on ‘Governing the Plural City’, which took place in Delhi in December 2018. Inspired by your intervention, we would like to take this opportunity to hear more about how you have been engaging Indian cities, gender and politics in your work. Would you mind introducing yourself to our readers, perhaps saying something around your activism with SEWA?

RENANA JHABVALA: I have been associated with SEWA, full time, for over forty years. SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) is primarily a trade union of women in the informal economy, with a total membership of around 1.7 million women, of whom just above one- third comes from urban areas. SEWA was founded in 1972, in the State of Gujarat, but today, SEWA is present in 14 states of India. Just after a few years from our foundation, we realised that just fighting for rights was not enough. And so we focussed on helping our members to set up what we call developmental organisations, which mainly take the form of cooperatives, such as a cooperative bank, and then production cooperatives, like weavers, farmers cooperatives and so on. As time went on, we realised that only being a cooperative may not be enough for our members, so we also helped them to form companies. So our approach combined cooperatives, companies and advocacy for rights and development together.

COLIN MCFARLANE: Could you just say a little bit about how you individually became part of the movement? What was it that drove you to become involved SEWA?

RENANA: I’m from Gujarat, but I grew up in Delhi, where I did my bachelor’s degree in mathematics. Since I was doing well, I got a scholarship to go to Harvard, in the US, for a master.

When I was approaching the end of it, I decided to move into a more practical subject, so I applied to do a PhD in economics, and I got into Yale University with a good scholarship. But before starting the PhD, I came back to India, for a visit, where I was really struck by the poverty I was seeing in front of me. So I decided I had to do something. I took a year’s leave of absence from Yale, and I asked my parents if they knew of any women’s right-based organisations. And they found that SEWA, which was just a very small organisation at the time. I think there were only but five people there. So I came to meet Ela Bhatt, who was the founder of SEWA, and I said I’d like to work with them for a year. And she said, Okay! So, I worked for a year, and then I took a second year’s leave of absence, and then I took a third year’s leave of absence.... And then I never went back.

MICHELE: That is a wonderful journey! Could you tell us a little bit more around what did not make you go back to the USA and in particular around the challenges that your constituency face in Indian cities? Earlier you refer to matters of formality and informality, and we would also be interested in hearing more around those.

RENANA: I did not return to tile US as I was fully involved with SEWA and found the work important and challenging. You may have heard of WIEGO, Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing, I am one of the founders. They’d done a study for us some years ago and found that eighty per cent of worker in urban India are what one would consider“informal”.This doesn’t necessarily mean all of them are poor, but we would say at least fifty per cent, sixty per cent of those are. In Indian cities, big industries have gone out of the urban core, leaving behind very small manufacturing, small workshops and home- based work - which are sectors with a huge degree of informality. Among these, the largest number of women workers are what we would call “home-based workers”: women who use their home to make something for to sell out there, in the economy. Of these, there are two types. First, there are the “piece-rated workers”, women who work for a supply chain. Sometimes those supply chains may be international, linked to really big brands, but more often they’re either national or just local brands. The second group comprise women who are sort of self-employed, working their own little workshops and then sell their products in the market themselves. The distinction is not fixed: often a piece-rate worker can also become self-employed, and vice versa. But what does not change is that the largest number of women in urban area are doing some sort of home-based work. Official statistics are not capturing the full extent of home-based workers. And the same goes for other women working in the informal economy, including domestic workers, street vendors or women selling their labour and services, like carrying loads on their head and so on.

COLIN: I was going to ask. Renana, one of the questions that people sometime have in relation to India and domestic workers is that domestic workers sometimes live in informal settlements, but sometimes the latter does not necessarily take the form of what some would call a “slum”. The housing conditions of informal workers vary greatly. Domestic workers often live in poor-quality housing near their place of work, but that housing is not technically “informal”. It may be a formal housing addition, a subdivided house or something like that. Have you found that is the case?

RENANA: I prefer to use the notion of informal settlements since when you think of a “slum”, you think of a dirty place, with drainage run coming out, disease and the like. But as you say, the picture is nuanced. Informal settlements take many different forms. In our extensive work around the topic, we found that informal settlements show different progression towards formality. So you have settlements which are so informal that they have no piece of paper that tells anybody that they have any right to that place. Then you have informal settlements which go a couple of steps better, and they’ve lived there for a little while and maybe they have an electricity bill or maybe they have a ration card which shows that they have lived there for a while. Then you go a little better and you find that places got authorised by the city government or the state government, but it’s not really authorised because it’s still agriculture land, so you can’t sell it. This is because most of these documents are not freehold, but only leasehold agreements. This is fine when someone moves there, but if then that person want to move out, things get complicated because they can’t technically sell land with a leasehold document. And so you have the phenomenon of illegal sales and a further complication of the “informality” picture.

MICHELE: From that point of view - that of extensive urban areas with complicated histories of entitlements and legal issues - what is for you the biggest challenge? On the basis of your experience and of your own organising, what do you think that would be, for these cities and their people, the biggest challenge they will have to face in the next fifteen years to come?

RENANA: Let me focus on three things. Number one is infrastructure: drinking water, drainage, sewerage, sanitation.... The problem is that cities do not have the capacity to provide enough of these basic infrastructures. Their first choice is always for toward the authorised, formalised, better-off settlements. Then the second challenge is solid waste management, because we are producing huge amounts of solid waste in Indian cities. I don’t have the figures with me now, but it’s just adding and adding and adding and then we have the landfills, and the landfills are filled up and becoming dangerous. I think sewerage and solid waste management, those are the two major, major challenges for Indian cities, which, of course, become much worse for informal settlements.

RENANA: The third challenge is around urban land. Cities are facing major challenges because the Indian laws concerning land are extremely complex, and the agencies managing those are overlapping, creating confusion. Moreover, our land records are very poor, so everything remains informal. Delhi is a particularly bad example at that. In Delhi, sixty percent to seventy percent of ownership is still informal, and these are not just the poor, but also real estate people who buy and sell land that might not be technically for building. Communities, even middle-class ones, come up in places that are not authorised for construction.This is a major challenge for the present and future of our cities. How can someone improve their housing conditions if they don’t have formal titles? How can you get access to finance? These are issues that affect many urbanites in India, not only the poor.

COLIN: I think one of the things that we’re really interested in is how the story and the challenges you just illustrated to us might or might not relate to “global urbanism”.

RENANA: To me “global urbanism” is both about informal settlement and the informal economy. I want to go back to the latter for a moment. If you take WIEGO’s figures again, the informal economy is very large everywhere, not only in India. It varies from fifty percent in South-East Asia to something like eighty percent in South Asia and many parts of Africa. Informal workers are not really recognised as part of the economy, as it is the case, for instance, with street vendors, who are always removed because they’re “illegal”, or home- based workers, who are not supposed to work in their home. In this context, the interesting part is that when city planners think about the city, when they plan, they rarely think of the economic in any extensive sense.They think about beauty; they think about residences; they think about how to make the city more liveable but not how to make the city more suitable to every economic level. So, they don’t think about growth at all when they do city planning. They don’t think about employment. They think about living as somehow detached from the live and felt realities of‘work’.

RENANA: In relation to the ‘global urbanism’ part, I can say only that in the informal economy, the conditions are really more or less the same everywhere, and the same goes for city planning. And so, therefore, the kind of problems that arise for the poor are the same. In a sense, I’m not going to be able to link it with global capital, but I feel that the way that both planning and development of cities is happening all of the world is the same. Everybody seems to aspire to the same things. In India, everybody wants to become Shanghai: and those models of developments don’t take into account in any way the life that goes on into the informal economy or informal settlement.

MICHELE: Thank you for this very powerful line, Renana. Do you think that, despite the similarities across the processes making up urbanism globally, there is something else, specific to your context, that you wish to highlight? Perhaps something related to the ways in which you do your organising to respond against these global trends. You have written extensively about the way women can be empowered through membership-based organisations, so perhaps you could expand on the specific challenges of doing that in the context of an homogenising global urbanism?

RENANA: First of all, I really feel that the most effective way of being included and pushing back, against these forces of exclusion, is through organising and through making your voice heard, especially at the level of policymaking. Let me give you two examples. The first relates to the whole issue of informal settlements. Now there is some space for people living in those settlements to have their voice heard, and that is because of the democratically elected municipal bodies. The idea is that if we can get the informal settlement people to organise and form themselves into what we call a community-based organisation, we are able to influence the local municipal counsellor. So, if there’s no drainage in their area, they can go to the municipal counsellor; they can do sit-ins outside her house. This enables the possibility of resistance.

RENANA: The other thing that has happened is related to the large-scale demolition that used to take place in India, without providing alternative housing. Many politicians - both at the municipal and state level - have lost their seat because they didn’t do anything about large- scale demolition in their area. Now [thanks for the direct link between a specific area and a democratically elected municipal body] things are changing. Of course, the people who don’t want informal settlements, pushed by the real estate developers and other powers, have their voice much stronger. But we can still push back, through community-based organisations. In some places, we have helped these communities to come together at the city level as federations to influence planning.

On the other hand, it’s very difficult to organise informal economy workers because for most of them, there is no space of representation. This is because most of them don’t have legal title to their dwelling land or their workspaces: their settlements are not recognised; their work isn’t either. We have to find other ways.The most successful organising we’ve had, especially with street vendors, has been through the courts under the right to livelihood.

It was about fighting for a right to business and trade, which in turn helped them to get some recognition and some spaces. The global is important here. In the early days, we used to organise street vendors at the local levels. But then after India became more global, which was in the nineties, the voice of street vendors disappeared under the power of investment from big companies, which reduce the visibility of those perceived as small, local issues. So, in response to that, we helped to form a national alliance of street vendors to tackle the issue more systematically. The outcome was a national policy for street vendors in 2004 and a law protecting street vendors in 2014.

MICHELE: At this point, do you want perhaps to tell us a little bit more about what you are going to do next, based on your successes and maybe also on some failures?

RENANA: Maybe two tilings.The first relates to the big challenges brought forward by housing finance for the informal sector. On the one hand, if you have informal income, then banks will not give you a loan. On the other, even if you have formal document for work, but you live in an informal settlement [so you can’t have legal rights to the land], you will not get a loan anyway.To tackle these, four years ago, we have set up a housing finance company. Our aim is to give loans to ‘informal workers’, as well as to change the law in relation to the kind of documents that one needs to show to access finance. That’s one side of it. The other side is related to the ability of informal workers and settlers to have their voice heard. Playing at the global level is important in this respect. So, at the international level, we were one of the founders of the international network (WIEGO), which created a strong link between research, activism and advocacy.

COLIN: Perhaps as a final question, would you mind going back to the future of the cities you know most, Ahmedabad, Delhi.... What sort of cities are we likely to see, say, by 2030? And what is in your view the role of the kind of groups you’re working with in the city twenty years from now, thirty years from now?

RENANA: With Delhi, things are extremely complicated because there are so many authorities. Ahmedabad is in a different position because the municipal corporation has a lot of power. I feel positive about integration of informal settlements into the city structures; we see this happening more and more. The informal settlements issue, I think, will get integrated in some ways. But it’s the informal economy which is getting a lot of pushback, leading towards growing unemployment and a very, very high level of inequality of incomes in urban areas. This provides for a really scary mix. At the moment, India doesn’t have that much urban crime like other parts of the world, and that’s because people do have places to work and live. But if you take the informal economy away, without integrating it with something else, at a time in which people’s aspirations have grown, this will really lead to very' negative situations. I’m not an optimist about integration of the informal economy into the city.



  • [1] Special thanks to Lucy Lennon for the great and careful work of proofreading of the text.
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