Exploring the role of worksite(s) on migrant women’s labour market decisions in Delhi

By Sonal Sharma and Eesha Kunduri

This post was originally published on the SHRAM portal, which is a repository of information on migration in the South Asian context

Sitting by the doorstep of her one-room house in Ghazipur village in East Delhi, on a hot summer afternoon, Anju Sinha is busy putting threads into bookmarks for the online shopping portal flipkart. Beginning around ten in the morning, she continues to do this work till about five or six in the evening. While she is aware that the bookmarks are from one of the printing presses in the Patparganj industrial area nearby, she does not know from which factory exactly. A contractor comes to deliver the bookmarks and threads to her roughly around two to three times a month. She has neither visited the estate, nor has intentions of working there, as the work she is undertaking currently can be managed alongside her domestic responsibilities. More importantly, the work arrangement allows her to be around and take care of her adolescent daughter, who cannot be left alone in an ‘unsafe atmoshphere’ (‘kharab mahual’) like that of Delhi, she remarks. She hails from Nalanda district in the state of Bihar, and came to Delhi about seven years ago with her husband, since back in the village, income from agriculture was not enough to sustain the family. In the beginning, she worked in a tube light manufacturing factory nearby the settlement where she used to live earlier, but quit after a few months due to low wages. She started working as a home-based worker two years ago, and earlier undertook work that involved sewing on the sides of jeans to give them a particular design. She shares that she left that work, since she felt ‘uncomfortable’ going to the workshop to obtain the materials, as it was dominated by male workers. She acknowledges that while the income from her current work is not stable, and fluctuates depending on the work at the printing press, it allows her to sail through times of crisis, and not depend entirely on her husband for money.

Neena Jha, who lives in the same locality, migrated to Delhi about ten years ago with her husband, following a family fued back in the village. She currently works at an electrical wiring workshop within Ghazipur village. Even though the job entails eight to nine hours of work, the relative proximity of the workshop when compared to other factories in the Patparganj industrial estate renders working within the area the most feasible option for her. It allows her to come home during lunch break briefly to take care of her children as they return from school and feed them. She has been working in Delhi for the past seven years, as it is difficult to sustain a family of five on the single income of her husband. Till about a few months ago, like Anju, Neena also undertook home-based work after duty hours, which involved sewing on the sides of jeans. Even though she describes it as part-time work, the fact that she would work after duty hours, and get to sleep for only for three to four hours a day, made her extremely unwell, as a result of which she eventually quit this work. Neena also shares that since her children are very young, the youngest being only four years old, she has sometimes considered undertaking part-time domestic work in the nearby housing societies, however, since she hails from an upper caste background, dismisses the thought for fear of losing respect in her neighbourhood. Her struggle for survival in the city alongside her domestic responsibilities is further compounded by the apathy of her husband in looking after the family.

Such struggles are not unique to the individual lives of Anju and Neena Neena, but rather reflect a fundamental conflict that all women negotiate with throughout their lives- the burden of unpaid household work, childcare responsibilities and considerations of undertaking paid work. As Naila Kabeer (2000: 330) aptly observes, for women it is about ‘whether to take up paid work as well as when and what kind of work’. In a recent paper, we aim to contribute to this line of inquiry through means of a comparative analysis of women’s labour market decisions across three sites of work- industrial/ factory work, domestic work and home-based work (Sharma & Kunduri 2015). Drawing upon work/life history interviews with 30 women workers living in worker settlements around two industrial estates in the city of Delhi, we explore the spatiality and temporality of women’s entry into/ exit from these three forms of paid work. These three arrangements called for an examination in relation to each other because, a) they were largely representative of the work options that were available to migrant, working class women in the field areas, and b) women’s narratives about local networks of employment referred to them significantly. Our findings are three-fold.

1. Women’s decisions to choose certain worksites over the others is related to the nature of work and power relations

Firstly, we suggest that women’s decisions to take up one kind of work arrangement over another are ‘embedded’ in the power and control that is inherent in the nature of certain worksites. For instance, women prefer undertaking part-time work as cleaners in factories over working as part-time domestic helps in middle class households, due to the relatively well-defined nature of work in the former. We attribute this difference in the nature of the two worksites- the ‘private home as a public workplace’ (Morus 2008) when compared to a ‘conventional’ workplace such as ‘the office, factory or an institution’ (NCEUS, 2007). On the other hand, home-based workers emphasize the relative degree of control they gain over their working conditions by being able to work when they feel like, and not being under constant surveillance like in a factory. As Geeta, a home-based worker remarks, ‘It is a matter of our own choice. We work if we feel like, if we do not feel like then we can just sleep.

2. Women’s choices of certain worksites reflect their negotiations against deeply entrenched notions of honour, respect and safety

Secondly, we suggest that a preference for home-based based work over work in the factories is determined by notions of honour and safety. For Anju, even going to a workshop (that is primarily dominated by men) to collect materials evokes discomfort. This discomfort can be located not just in women’s experiences of sexual harassment on the shop-floor, as the narratives of some other workers in our study reveal, but also a stigma surrounding work in the factories, which is often internalised by women themselves. Women’s decisions to undertake home-based work over factory work, we argue, are shaped by familial discourses of honour and respect, which often stigmatises women’s participation in public workplaces, and reproduces the ‘home’ as the site of respect and safety for women. This understanding permeates the accounts of several home-based workers in our study, who mention discouragement and lack of support from husbands as a prime factor that relegates them to work from home. Interestingly, the notion of honour in relation to factory workers is evoked in some accounts of domestic workers as well. Expressing her disdain for factor y work, citing cases of quid-pro-quo sexual harassment of women workers, a domestic worker explains her outright preference for domestic work arguing that “in the factories, the women are rendered helpless” (“factoriyon mein auraton ko itna majoboor kar dete hain”).

3. Women’s negotiations at the worksites and beyond underscore symbols of their agency

Lastly, we suggest that while all three forms represent informal and precarious forms of work organisation, women do not passively accept how the spaces present themselves in the light of the socio-economic and cultural factors. Accounts of factory workers underscore the element of socialisation and camaraderie among co-workers, and how meaning and identity is derived from the workplace. Similarly, the narratives of home-based workers represent the locality or settlement as the site for socialisation with other women, which could also be observed in our fieldwork, as home-based workers were very often found working together in groups of three to four people in places like a common courtyard in a tenement, or on cots or floor-mats laid out right outside one workers’ home. Through such everyday negotiations in both material and discursive terms, we suggest that women workers seek to reconfigure their workspaces in an attempt to change their social positions, and highlight their agency to do so.

By looking at the labour market decisions of migrant, working class women through a socio-spatial lens, we attempt to show that for women, taking up paid work involves more than the economic considerations, which is only one, however significant, aspect of the decision-making process. Narratives have spatial references which give us insights about the various forms of work and how for women the space(s) in which work takes place is important.

(This post draws upon the findings of a research paper as part of a larger project on migration, industrial work and worker identities in the city of Delhi, at the School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi, directed by Dr. Sumangala Damodaran, with which the authors were associated as researchers. The paper entitled ”Working from home is better than going out to the factories’ (?): Spatial Embeddedness, Agency and Labour-Market Decisions of Women in the City of Delhi’ has been published by South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal. The paper is accessible here. The authors are currently researchers at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)


Kabeer, Naila (2000) The Power to Choose: Bangladeshi Women and Labour Market Decisions in Dhaka and London, London: Verso.

Morus, Amanda (2008) ‘The Private Home as a Public Workplace: Employing Paid Domestic Labour’,Journal of Workplace Rights, 13(4), pp. 377–400.

NCEUS (2007) Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector,New Delhi: National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector.

Sharma, Sonal; Kunduri, Eesha (2015) ‘‘Working from home is better than going out to the factories’ (?): Spatial Embeddedness, Agency and Labour-Market Decisions of Women in the City of Delhi’, South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], Free-Standing Articles, Online since 07 September 2015, URL : http://samaj.revues.org/3977


Changing gears: Can the open defecation conversation move beyond subliminal patriarchal messaging?

By Mukta Naik and Kimberly Noronha, both Senior Researchers at CPR

In today’s fast paced, slogan-driven policy environment, the pressure by the political masters (and indeed, the polity) on the bureaucracy to deliver on promises is enormous. The Prime Minister’s declaration of a “Swachh Bharat” by October 2019, complete with the status of an Open-Defecation Free (ODF) India is a commendable goal. But in a scenario of tight deadlines, the temptation is to pluck low hanging fruit, which in this case is women’s dignity and honour.

niti ayog
Photo: Creative Commons License

We live in a patriarchal society; we don’t have to like it, but that is a fact. Patriarchal values are structured around women’s position and identity in society relative to men – largely linked to control over women’s sexuality. The protection of women’s dignity is linked to the honour of the household in particular, and the community at large under patriarchy. So, the logic holds, if you want SMART results, use existing cultural values to, as UNICEF advertises it, “take the poo to the loo”.

Consequently, on 2nd October 2014, the Prime Minister thundered: “I feel most pained that even our mothers and sisters have to go in open. We have to remove this blot… We should do this much at least for the dignity of our mothers and sisters”. Following in his footsteps are the central ministries for Rural Development and, Drinking Water and Sanitation: Bahu betiyan bahar na jayein, Ghar mein hi shauchalay banvayein, [Daughters and Daughters-in-law shouldn’t go outside, build a toilet inside your house], declares Vidya Balan as the base message in a series of advertisements for Swachh Bharat.

Access to a toilet is a real problem for women in India, especially the poor. Does framing this problem in a patriarchal manner alleviate or exacerbate the problem?
Access to a toilet is a real problem for women in India, especially the poor. Does framing this problem in a patriarchal manner alleviate or exacerbate the problem? Photo credit: Mukta Naik

This strategy seems to be working. During a field visit to a jhuggi in north-west Delhi, the Cities of Delhi research team at the Centre for Policy Research encountered a young mother whose pride about the toilet inside their home, the only one in the jhuggis of about 300 houses, is expressed along the lines of honour and caste. The honour of the women is very important in her Rajput household, she tells us, and no expense is too little to make sure that our daughters remain untainted.

In a Kanpur slum where open defecation is the only option, a mother seeks out the help of NGO Shramik Bharti, a local partner of WaterAid to build a toilet in her home, after her 14-year old daughter got attacked by a drunk man while answering nature’s call one morning. For this mother, the motivation was clear but the larger gains were achieving dignity and police consent (as opposed to harassment) for improving quality of life in the slum through fresh construction.

Researchers Nikhil Srivastav and Aashish Gupta from RICE, opine about how campaigns, like the one featuring Vidya Balan, are patriarchal and reinforce the idea of the ghoonghat or pardah in states like Rajasthan where 94% of women practice ghoonghat/pardah (98% in rural Rajasthan) as per Census 2011. Further, they point out that the idea that toilets will reduce violence against women is problematic considering much of this violence happens within the home, something Indian society remains in deep denial of.

They conclude by suggesting that campaigns for sanitation must advocate changed behaviour for men instead of being stuck on the issue of women’s honour, and recommend that Rajasthan can learn from rural Uttar Pradesh where they found a message on a wall that read: “Shriman khatron ke khiladi, jao shauchalay, chhodo jhaadi” [“Dear Mister Fearless Adventurer, Use a toilet, leave the bush”].

The graffiti is in the right spirit of course, but there is many a feminist who could read subliminal patriarchal reinforcement in “Mister Fearless Adventurer”. For example, this phrase could be seen to be praising men who defecate in the open by appealing to their sense of machismo, and may end up reinforcing the behaviour the campaign seeks to avoid. Although the article does not state when the graffiti went up, both UP and Rajasthan had comparable open defecation (OD) figures in 2011 (Rajasthan: 64% OD population; UP: 63%), so the impact of the graffiti in Uttar Pradesh vis-à-vis the Swachh Bharat messaging in Rajasthan is not immediately clear.

While the article makes the necessary intervention against reinforcing patriarchal norms, in the race to be gender-sensitive to sanitation service delivery, are we missing out on one fundamental Weberian truth – in context verstehen? Men and women live together in society. Targeting one group to the exclusion of others is always going to lead to fall-out. Additionally, attempting to completely ‘sanitise’ the delivery of messaging from the ‘germ’ of culture (including that of patriarchy), may adversely impact OD figures if local communities are unable to relate to the cultural contexts of the messaging,

In her rejoinder to Srivastav and Gupta’s piece, Somya Sethuraman says that the authors have latched onto just one message, taking it out of context. Somya points to other advertisements that feature Vidya Balan, for example, giving diarrhoea tablets to a mother because she has sent out her daughter to defecate in the open and will, inevitably fall sick, therefore making health and not patriarchy the central message. According to her, these kinds of advertisements, all taken together, have had a positive effect, not just on the elimination of open defecation, but also on the overall empowerment of women in rural Rajasthan where a number of them have actually given up the ghoonghat / pardah.

Instead of making it an either-or fight of targeting just men or just women, what other low-hanging fruit can we offer government away from subliminal patriarchal messaging towards the focus of ODF behaviour? Bangladesh has seen an impressive 31% reduction in OD figures from roughly 34% in 1990 to just 3% in 2012. In Bangladesh, the media was not used to shame communities into defecating in household toilets (as is being done in India), but rather to reinforce ODF behaviour by focusing attention on best practices and health related outcomes. The recent declaration of the Nadia district’s (West Bengal) ODF status (which was presented and intensely discussed at the 1st Niti Aayog – CPR Open Seminar on “ODF Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat”, held in May 2015; read report here) was accompanied by a significant reduction in adverse health impacts. In the implementation of their strategy, women and school-going children were the main change agents.

Can we find stronger reasons — like improved quality of life, health, independence, and the intangible pride in one’s village or city —to reinforce the message against OD? And can we work with local communities to re-examine the real issues they face, from within and without?

The Niti Aayog – CPR 1st Open Seminar on “Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat" was attended by about 100 experts, researchers, practitioners and policymakers.
The Niti Aayog – CPR 1st Open Seminar on “Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat” was attended by about 100 experts, researchers, practitioners and policymakers. Photo credit: Kimberly Noronha


Gentrification causes homelessness? Simplistically linking problems does not translate to good housing policy

by Mukta Naik

Scholars, bloggers and journalists in the Global North, especially in the UK and the US, have drawn clear links between the process of gentrification and the increase in homelessness since the early 2000s. With the problem of homelessness growing steadily—some 60,000 people in New York sleep in shelters each night as per the Coalition for the Homeless, about 6,500 slept on London’s streets in 2013-24, 70% more than the number in 2010 as per local agencies—quite a bit of passionate soul searching has taken place over its causes. It has seemed logical to pin the blame on the gentrification of erstwhile poor, debilitated areas of the city. Global capital and the greed of investors, sometimes from far overseas, and even the idea of the global city have been named the villains. In short, global capital (the rich) has pushed out local capital (the middle class and the poor) and those at the lowest end of the ‘pushed out’ bunch are now on the streets.


This might well be true, but as this blog on Brooklyn’s homeless problem points out, the real failure lies in the inability of the city’s visionaries to understand that there are new and more complex problems at hand. Plugging the demand-supply gap is no magic solution and housing is far more complex than the solutions that emerge from the government’s simplistic slotting of households into broad income slabs.

Poor targeting in government schemes

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, which does an impressive dissection of incomes and housing rentals in the city is planning to “create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing for approximately 500,000 New Yorkers over the next ten years” along with soft support to the homeless in the form of eviction protection services, increased investments in shelters and a program to remove bottlenecks in allocating affordable units to those living in the shelters. What is not explicit in the plan, though, is the recognition that new “affordable housing” units will not be affordable to the majority of the homeless. New York is an example. This sort of poor targeting is a common ailment in policy and in housing policy particularly, where supply side thinking usually dominates.

What then is a possible inclusive housing strategy for this growing group of homeless (or other excluded groups) in the city? What is the role of housing in fostering better incomes and upward mobility among the working homeless? How can government look at housing provision creatively to address different types of poverty, different types of family units, different types of housing problems?

Ostrich syndrome: Won’t see the complexities, will stick to simplistic and seductive solutions

The point about the need to understand the real housing issues within the city, find the inter-connections and then target solutions has been made several times to the government in India as well. In the past five years of working with housing and urban development issues at micro Home Solutions and now at Centre for Policy Research, I have been involved in several consultations and meetings between experts and the government, with Union ministries like HUPA, the Government of Delhi as well as government institutions like DUSIB and DDA (Do read CPR project Cities of Delhi reports on these). At these meetings and workshops, evidence from research projects and pilot interventions have been presented to back demands for a more contextual approach to housing policy. Some of the suggestions have included government investigation into the need for rental housing for the working poor (and middle class), the support of incremental housing rather than its demolition, improved shelters for the homeless, more rational norms for measuring housing affordability and innovative mechanisms for the poor to transition from one type of housing to another, among others. While these suggestions are heard, they are rarely understood. Moreover, they pale in comparison to seductive solutions that propose to remove the jhuggis (slums), clean the city and rehabilitate slumdwellers in flats built in high-rise towers (read Cities of Delhi op-ed on rehabilitation/resettlement of slumdwellers and author’s critique of rehabilitation into high-rises) .

Pune, Slums and the city: A complex reality Photo credit: Mukta Naik
View from a Slum Rehabilitation project in Hadapsar, Pune: A complex reality
Photo credit: Mukta Naik

At these meetings, the link between gentrification and lack of adequate housing is often discussed. Politicians understand about market dynamics, they’ve seen enough of elite capture. Any subsidised housing the government offers, they know, will change hands and be appropriated by investors and middle- and high-income people; while the poor will build back the slum! At the same time, the Delhi government, for instance, is struggling to find solutions to fill thousands of empty affordable units located in inconvenient (read poorly connected) parts of the city.

Once again, the issue of correct targeting comes to the fore. Communities like the homeless or even renters remain excluded from policy conversations about government-provided housing, while those that are targeted by government housing schemes are unable to benefit from them for reasons of insensitive design and poor location/connectivity .

A new imagination for housing policy

In Delhi at least, there is no pretence that a larger supply of affordable homes will help the homeless. However, it is precisely in cities like Delhi, where the diversity in housing supply is considerable (much of it located in incrementally built quasi-legal areas of the city) and where mobility between housing types is commonly seen, that we have a chance to envision housing differently. In a bustling resettlement colony in northwest Delhi, we approach a rickshaw puller outside a community toilet complex to investigate the functionality of public toilet. He screws up his nose at us in disdain. “I don’t use that filthy toilet,” he says. “I live in a rental home and we have private toilet facilities.” He pays Rs 2500 a month to rent a room and live in dignity, he says, even if it means there is less liquidity for household expenditure and no remittances go home to the village.

Repeatedly, we observe housing aspirations that revolve around dignity and decent amenities on one hand, and those that obsess about property values and status on the other. Somewhere between these extremes lies the opportunity of a re-imagined housing strategy. One that can provide a life of dignity and a lever for upward mobility, but also create diverse forms of supply that answer to the peculiar complexities of poverty and housing need in our cities. But to realise this, the government needs to think out of the many straight jackets it has created for itself: the income classifications of EWS, LIG, MIG and HIG, the rigid space allocations for subsidised housing (we are ridiculously stuck at 25 sq.m. per household), of rental versus ownership housing, of public housing and public-private partnerships (PPP, the magical phrase with a touch of dread). Is it possible to imagine housing policy without strait jackets?

NITI Ayog & CPR seminar: “Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat”

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), India’s national-level mission on sanitation was arguably born from the realisation that open defecation figures in India remain high in both rural and urban areas. A large push to  construct individual household latrines, and convert insanitary (including pit latrines) into sanitary latrines is underway and the target is for India to be Open Defecation Free (ODF) by 2019.

NITI Ayog, the Government of India’s policy think tank and Centre for Policy Research partner to put the spotlight on this issue, which lies at the core of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s success. The seminar titled “Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat” will debate the definition of ODF communities and the evolution of a suitable matrix to measure the achievement of this status under the mission.

Seminar: Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat

Date: Friday, 22 May 2015
Time: 3:00 pm
Venue: Room 122, Niti Aayog, Sansad Marg, New Delhi
For more information, click here 
You can also view the brochure: OSS1 Brochure-final

Lessons in urban development ignored

By Sama Khan

This op-ed appeared in The Pioneer on 5 May 2015 and can be accessed here

The Modi Government is repeating the mistakes of its predecessors by constructing new houses to meet its Housing for All goal. Past experience shows that the urban poor prefer the cheaper option of developing existing slums with basic amenities, writes SAMA KHAN

In order to pursue the goal of ‘Housing for All’ by 2022, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had proposed to build more than two crore houses across the country. This would cover slum housing and affordable housing for the weaker sections.

In this context, it is worthwhile to take a look at how urban housing schemes have fared in the past. The Basic Services to the Urban Poor and the Integrated Housing and Slum Development programmes were launched in 2005 under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission for integrated development of the slums.

Both the programmes were administered by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. The objective of the BSUP was to provide housing either in-situ or in a new location with basic infrastructure amenities in a healthy environment. The BSUP and IHSDP involved construction of dwelling units, and only a few projects covered the upgradation of infrastructure amenities.

According to the Ministry’s database, a considerable number of houses have not been completed under the BSUP and IHSDP programme. Out of the total sanctioned houses under BSUP and IHSDP, 71 per cent have been completed and of these only 54 per cent of the total sanctioned units have been occupied whereas 29 per cent were under progress as on December 2014.

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India on JnNURM (2012) states that ineligible beneficiaries were able to gain benefits of the BSUP. There were shortfalls in the identification of beneficiaries, even though the guidelines proposed household survey of slums including livelihood and occupation profiles before the submission of the Detailed Project Report along with an understanding of the willingness of beneficiaries to relocate.

In many cases, the dwelling units constructed were of poor quality and hence some of the units remained unoccupied whereas others were occupied by ineligible beneficiaries. There were significant delays in the construction work due to the non-availability of land. In many cases, BSUP units were constructed on the peripheries of cities, without considering the willingness of the slum dwellers to relocate outside the city.

The Rajiv Awas Yojana, launched in June 2013, was yet another scheme launched by the MoHUPA to further accelerate the provision of housing for the urban poor. RAY was an improvement over the BSUP and it learnt from many shortfalls of the BSUP.

Unlike the BSUP, the RAY pronounced in-situ development as the preferred strategy for slum development suggesting either upgradation by filling gaps in housing and infrastructure or re-development, which is an overhaul of the entire slum.

However, according to the data on RAY, as on March only two per cent of the total sanctioned units have been completed and occupied. Thirteen per cent are under progress while construction is yet to start for the remaining 85 per cent. Within the sanctioned dwelling units, there has been a high preference for in-situ development/re-development projects under RAY.

The Ministry’s response to the Standing Committee on Urban Development on the slow pace of progress of the RAY was that while “in-situ redevelopment of slum is the preferred choice… it is a time consuming process as beneficiaries have to be relocated and places to be handed over to contractor for work. In many cases beneficiaries are reluctant to move and ULBs find it difficult to temporarily relocate slum dwellers.”

The Government now  plans on investing large amounts of money to build affordable housing. Thus, rather than improving the settlements, the Government aimed to create entirely new homes for the urban poor.

There seems to be an absence of any policy that targets the improvement of the living standards of slum dwellers. BSUP, IHSDP and RAY clearly point to a focus on construction of houses, with only a few projects covering the up-gradation of infrastructure amenities. Although the approach of construction of houses hasn’t yielded the desired results as a considerable number of these houses are incomplete, many of the completed houses are lying vacant and many others are occupied by ineligible beneficiaries. This approach fails to understand the unwillingness of the slum dwellers to relocate to a new location or to be temporarily relocated for in-situ redevelopment.

It also neglects the importance of providing citizenship rights to the urban poor and including them in the formal economy of the city. Up-gradation of slum settlements like provision of safe drinking water, sanitation and solid waste management is an important policy measure that should not be disregarded as it will allow the slum dwellers to improve their standard of living and will also provide them with land tenure security.

Rashmi Sadana talks on the Delhi Metro: ‘We are visioning it’

Rashmi Sadana, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University, shared her research on the Delhi Metro with an interested audience at CPR on 28th April 2015. Her talk titled “We are visioning it”: Availing the Futures of the Delhi Metro presented a cross section of perspectives from bureaucrats, planners and users about this iconic infrastructure project in India’s capital city. 

Here is a storified record of the live tweets from the talk. Rashmi’s talk was the 63rd in the CSH CPR Urban Workshop Series that takes place on the last Tuesday of every month at CPR.

Failure in planning OR failure of planning? Reflections on the saga of Mumbai’s DP

The ambitious Mumbai Development Plan (DP) 2034, envisaged as a blueprint that specifies the land allocations, land use patterns, transportation networks and amenities for India’s largest metropolis, has been recently put on the shelf  for revisions following intense criticism on several fronts. It is to be revised and republished for public response within four months.

gateway of india
Iconic monument, Mumbai’s Gateway of India. Photo credits: Mukta Naik


The release of the plan into the public domain, itself a unique occurrence for Indian city planning, has facilitated an unprecedented amount of public debate and discussion. In the process, many hitherto unconcerned citizens have hopefully thought about the issues involved in deciding a future for their city. However, several burning questions remain. On the mechanics of planning a megacity like Mumbai. On the processes and institutions required. On responsibility. On why Indian cities are unable to plan. And on why they must learn to do so rapidly, or risk severe ecological and economic failure.

In this context, Poornima Dore’s crisp critique of planning in the context of the events unfolding around the Mumbai DP offers : Why India needs to invest in Planning. Poornima, who is associated with the Tata Trusts, is a Mumbaikar and a passionate advocate of responsible development. Her piece avoids theoretical musings and instead focuses on her thoughts on evolving a new, transparent and practical approach for planning our cities. This post was originally published on the SHRAM portal, the mouthpiece of the SHRAMIC in which Centre for Policy Research is an active partner.

As a teaser, here are some quotes that highlight her three main points:

Cities must be empowered to deliver

“It is critical to put in place systems, processes and people empowered to deliver, if cities are to act as engines of growth – without sputtering as we turn on the ignition.”

Governments must listen to credible professionals

“Mumbai and every city needs to be willing to invest in (and listen to) a credible team of urban planners, with tight deadlines and uncompromised deliverables.”

Standards are necessary, holding organisations and people up to them is critical

“Can we have more stringent norms for what is acceptable in the name of surveys and research, and can we blacklist agencies that have glaring mistakes in what they provide as data?”

Read her piece here

Of Manish Sisodia, transportation policy and Delhi’s smart city conundrum: A report from CONNECT Karo 2015

By Mukta Naik

The Stein Auditorium at India Habitat Centre is half empty and it’s the hour in which conference goers are eager for lunch to be served. We are attending the CONNECTKaro 2015, an annual and global event on sustainable transport and urban development organised by EMBARQ and WRI India. An esteemed Brazilian politician is speaking about his city’s sustainable transport strategies. The audience is politely bored. He finishes and there is some scattered applause and he leaves the stage.

At that moment, something changes in the air. The hall is full in a matter of minutes, lunch is forgotten and Amit Bhatt from EMBARQ is introducing Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia to speak on his vision for Delhi. Mr Sisodia addresses the audience in Hindi, picking up issues important for urban development (a portfolio he currently holds, among many) and specifically for transportation which is the theme of the event. But before he does that, he spends some time talking about the idea of the smart city and what it means for Delhi. He presents a scenario in which an employed citizen is able to access amenities and live a dignified life. “Can we call a city smart if it does not provide safety and decent and affordable education and healthcare?”, he quips.

This critique of the smart city, of being overly focused on technology at the cost of inclusion, has been widely expressed by a number of experts. But by positioning the smart city discussion within the context of connections and connectivity, Mr Sisodia succeeds in putting the spotlight on the one aspect that will make or mar AAP’s performance in Delhi’s governance saga. AAP has taken the bull by its horns by focusing on the issue of inter-agency cooperation that has plagued the city for decades. Specifically, Mr Sisodia points to the coordination challenges between the AAP Delhi government, Delhi Development authority (DDA), which comes under the Union government, and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which is controlled by the opposite political camp. Further, he went on to call Delhi an unplanned city and one that can never be planned unless the authorities work in tandem. “Consumer, citizen or human being? How do government agencies see people?,” he asks even as he accuses the DDA of having a developer’s mentality.!

Mr Sisodia’s enunciation of Delhi’s transportation woes and AAP’s proposed solutions, which include a freshly designed BRT system, a revamped public bus system, CCTV cameras and trained security marshals on buses for women’s safety and the licensing and streamlining of intermediate public transport like e-rickshaws, came under a fair amount of questioning and introspection the the Q&A session. Many experts objected to their scrapping of the existing BRT corridor, others pointed to the need for human and not merely technological solutions to issues like women’s safety, rash driving, improper parking, etc. There was a suggestion regarding the restoration of existing cycling lanes in the city, and several suggestions with regards to sustainable transport solutions from people around the world.

But the question that Mr Sisodia did not really answer was the one raised by an elderly gentleman who appeared genuine concerned: “It doesn’t seem from your statement, Mr Dy Chief Minister, that you are working towards making Delhi into a smart city? Will our aspiration to be a smart city remain just another dream?” Clearly, even without any clarity on what a smart city is, the unending possibilities unleashed by the aspirations of smartness and technological competence, are now deeply lodged in people’s minds. The smart city may well be a difficult promise to keep for the Modi-led government; for Delhi, it seems that priorities lie elsewhere and bijli, paani and women’s safety will be the mantras by which the governance game will be played for the months to come.

Water Governance in the Capital City – Initial Thoughts on AAP’s Whitepaper on Water Governance

By Amandeep Singh and Nikhil George

The young Aam Admi Party’s unprecedented electoral victory in the national capital had occupied prime space in the country’s opinion pages during the first half of February this year. After the government formation, the discussions and media attention should have moved onto policies and the new government’s efforts to follow them. But, the opinion space and reportage since then has largely been on the party’s internal rift and less on the policies of its government. An exception was the media interest to discuss a water tariff that made water, free for households consuming less than 20 KL a month.

Governance of water is a policy area where the AAP has a well-articulated vision – Jal Swaraj, The Aam Admi Party Whitepaper on Water. This is in all likelihood a first for a political party in India, discounting the few lines on water that appear in election manifestos. Our initial thoughts on the whitepaper is an attempt to broaden the discussion and hopefully attract more interest and attention to the subject.

Water a Need, a Right or an Economic Good?

The whitepaper in its six pages comprises i) a rapid assessment of the water scenario of the city ii) the party’s normative vision of water governance, iii) policy targets that arise from this vision and iv) policy steps that could help achieve these targets. The normative position of AAP is that every household should have a right to water and a certain quantity to sustain comfortable living should be made available for free. The whitepaper also asserts the commitment of the party to reviving the Yamuna, and envisions a more direct role for citizens in water governance referred to as ‘Jal Swaraj’.

Is the AAP’s vision for water governance in Delhi consistent with the National Water Policy (NWP) 2012? At first glance there appear to be two inconsistencies. The whitepaper explicitly and repeatedly mentions a right to water[i] to the citizens of Delhi, whereas the National Water Policy does not mention a right to water. It only goes as far as saying that ‘principle of equity and social justice must inform use and allocation of water’.  The NWP states that water has economic value and pricing of water should meet (along with equity) economic principles. The AAP white paper however explicitly states that water is not an economic good and therefore economic principles should not apply to pricing of water. Conceptualising water as an economic good vs a basic human right has been a continuing dichotomy in the debates on the subject for sometime now. The two normative formulations are each supported by a large body of theoretical and policy literature and separate groups of actors and institutions both nationally and internationally. The AAP whitepaper leaves little doubt that their approach is rooted in the latter camp.

We hope that the Aam Admi Party which has often described itself as ‘pragmatic and problem solving’ has not articulated a dogmatic stand on the use of economic principles when it comes to water. While taking decisions on water, the government in Delhi has advantages that few other state governments have; a) In Delhi, the one major use of water is domestic consumption. The city currently has enough water to satisfy this demand. With no pressure from major competing uses like irrigation, the Delhi government is seldom pressed to use economic analysis in justifying decisions of allocating a scarce resource. b) As a financially strong city state, Delhi need not approach development finance institutions for financing water sector projects — who are strong advocates of policies that treat water as an economic good.

Although there may not be immediate pressure, can a government who is serious about enhancing sustainability and improving water security ignore insights from economics? How would they address questions like the following — how to motivate households to harvest rainwater when they are guaranteed piped water? Should Yamuna revival be funded through a sewerage cess or from general tax revenue? Would property owners facing baolis and ponds be willing to contribute more to their revival? What approach would yield best results in preventing over exploitation of ground water? When faced with these questions the AAP would do well to complement their human rights approach with empirical research.

 Bridging Inequities in Water Access

 According to the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) website, the current water production from their nine water treatment plants amounts to 833 million gallons per day (MGD). With the 2011 Census population of the National Capital Territory pegged at 16.75 million, the per capita potable water availability is 188 litres per capita per day (LPCD), well above the stipulated minimum amount by international and national agencies. Add to this water extracted by private users via bore wells. But, aggregate availability of water does not mean it is available at every home. Aside from the losses due to leakages, the remaining amount is inequitably distributed spatially. We could not find any recent reports that capture the stark inequity in access to water in Delhi. A Delhi Urban Environment and Infrastructure Project report of 1999 shows that water supply for areas within New Delhi Municipal Corporation and Cantonment Board was above 450 LPCD, while settlements in areas such as Mehrauli and Narela received 29 and 31 LPCD respectively. AAP’s white paper promises piped water connection for all households and reduced bills. But both these won’t matter if water is not available in the pipes. How does the AAP plan to address this inequity? Would it require realigning the distribution network – by laying new pipes to bring water to water scarce areas? The whitepaper does not answer these questions.


 1 Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images A woman fills water containers from a tanker, New Delhi June 16, 2012

 2 Swimming Pool at a New Delhi hotel, undated

Delhi’s wastewater predicament

Geographers describe the global hydrological cycle as a closed system. There are no inputs and outputs, so the total amount of water is constant. River systems and groundwater reservoirs, on the other hand are open systems – susceptible to gain and loss in material from input and output flows. Delhi draws its water needs from the Yamuna, Ganga and Indus basins as well as subsurface water from tube wells. Potable water then is a diminishable commodity – a litre of water consumed by one person leaves a litre less for the rest. Unless treated, a substantial component of the consumed water is returned to the river basins as wastewater – the single most significant contributor to the pollution load in rivers.

Often cited estimates of wastewater produced in Delhi excludes wastewater generated from sources that depend on private bore wells and tankers. Hence, the quantum of water entering the river systems is not only of inferior quality but may also exceed the amount initially withdrawn.

Add to this the treatment capacity woes. Despite Delhi Jal Board (DJB) having a capacity to treat 543.3 million gallons per day (MGD) of sewage, only 53 % of the 680 MGD of reported sewage generation is currently treated. Without adequate treatment prior to disposal, the generated wastewater ends up in surface water bodies. The challenge for the AAP government would be in balancing the need to augment water supply and sewerage connectivity without sacrificing treatment capacity.

With respect to wastewater, the whitepaper indicates more continuity than change. Expanding the sewerage system and increasing the capacity of treatment facilities. Let us take a glimpse at the present initiatives. The recently inaugurated 59 kilometre long interceptor sewers, aim to reduce the amount of raw sewage flowing into the Yamuna by tapping drains and nullahs that pass by settlements not connected to city sewers. Apart from being capital and time intensive, such measures tend to lag demand – remember, the 1,950 crore worth project was initiated in 2007. The draft ‘Sewerage Master Plan 2031’, proposes 9,807 km of lines and 75 new treatment plants at 38 locations.  The whitepaper’s plan of increasing the capacities of the sewerage system as the only way to address the pollution from domestic water use needs a more pragmatic rethink. Without this, its well-intentioned efforts in providing increased access to piped water would lead to more untreated waste water in the Yamuna[ii].

Delhi’s new water tariff; Sustainable Subsidy or Careless Populism?

The AAP government has taken a decision to supply free water up to 20 KL per month per household connection. Among the policy targets listed in the whitepaper, this is an item that has attracted considerable attention of the commentariat. Can the utility afford to provide the subsidy? The AAP estimates this subsidy amount to be close to 250 crores for 2015-2016. For the three years shown in the chart 1 below, this amount is between 25 and 17 per cent of the revenue earned from sale of services. In chart 2, if the reader selects items new construction and purchase of goods and services, she will notice that for the three years shown, there has been an outlay of over 2000 crore. If the AAP led utility can bring down the costs by 10-12 per centage through preventing corrupt practices and improving efficiency it will offset the subsidy. So, in the short term AAP can find the room to provide this subsidy.

Chart 1

Chart 2

What about medium to long term? Let us assume the water distribution system in Delhi develops much like how the AAP desires it to. Almost all households would have legal piped water connection, water loss is minimized and the connected houses consume within 20KL per month that is freely available.  In this scenario the share of revenue earned by supplying water (and collecting sewerage) for domestic use would become minimal. The result could be that the Delhi Jal Board which was carved out of the Municipal Body in the late 90s in an effort to help it attain functional and financial autonomy, would now increasingly become dependent on the state government. The new tariff has the potential to change the rules of the game with respect to water supply in Delhi, but would the tariff motivate households who are not connected to connect to the network?

Final remarks

 There are a few important issues that do not feature in the whitepaper – the groundwater pollution in Delhi, managing the peak demand during summer months, mechanisms for more inclusive water governance etc. (We would discuss these in another post). But, the more interesting and important aspect of the AAP whitepaper also does not feature within its pages—it is the story of how the whitepaper was drafted. During this exercise, party members reportedly spent considerable time and held extensive consultations to understand issues on water from different perspectives. Why is this important? The rules and regulations that the government introduces only enable change, but to actually effect change on ground require tremendous energies; like pushing a large water utility to reorient its focus, reaching out to every water tanker and tube-well operator etc. Leaders who understand the importance and necessity of this change are likely to be more committed to drive this difficult process. The whitepaper clearly indicates the party’s commitment to taking this difficult path. At this point we would offer a small unsolicited advice to the AAP.  They should think about undertaking the exercise of producing a whitepaper on water governance annually. This would not only help to broaden the range of issues and generate more interest but also be an assessment of the performance of their government. Meanwhile, in this space we would keep a close and eager watch.


[i] The WP does not articulate what constitutes the ‘right to water’, but the AAP may do so with relative ease going forward as they have plenty of external references (including the UN Factsheet 35) to draw from that are consistent with their vision of providing piped water supply to every household at affordable rates.

[ii] According to the 2013 Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, almost 82% of the population served by the Nangloi WTP had a per capita supply of less than 100 litres per day. Increased access to piped water would bring with it a greater sense of water security and incentives to use water-intensive appliances such as the cistern flush-toilet. With more waste water produced at each household and no arrangements for treatment, it is more waste water flowing into the river – an undesired consequence of a well intentioned policy.