The Vulnerable Foundations of India’s Urbanism

Gautam Bhan

This essay first appeared on Public Books on 19 December 2020.Crisis Cities is a public symposium on the 2020 crises and their impact on urban life, co-organized by Public Books and the NYU Cities Collaborative. Published essays will be collected here.

The dominant image of the COVID-19 pandemic in India is of thousands of people leaving cities for rural districts, despite lockdowns, forced to walk hundreds of kilometers along highways, because interstate transport was shut down. They were driven out of urban areas by a host of factors: uncertainty about the length of the lockdowns, sudden loss of income and employment, inability to bear the costs of urban life (especially rent), concern for families, or the possibility of using expanded benefits available only outside cities through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Cities that were meant to hold the promise of social and economic mobility seem, in this moment, to have failed.

We must, however, step further back. The story of the pandemic and its attendant lockdowns in India is not one of a singular crisis. It is, instead, a continuation of an everyday vulnerability that preceded this moment. Two snapshots paint a picture of this vulnerability. The first is in Delhi—a city of 17 million people—where the government announced temporary food relief during the first COVID-19 lockdowns: nearly 7.2 million of the city’s residents already qualified for food aid. Anticipating more need, the government sought to reach an additional 1 million people. Within weeks of the new program opening for applications online, however, 3.8 million applied.

The second is from a union of domestic workers in the northern Indian city of Jaipur. The union conducted a rapid survey of its members to understand the immediate impact of the lockdown. The findings were unsurprisingly severe, but two stand out. Even before COVID, most households had savings to cover only 20 days of household expenses without new income. The survey asked what concerned the domestic workers most on the day lockdowns were announced. Food came first, job security and income second, and health a distant third.

Responses to the pandemic did not anticipate how this vulnerability would shape the impact of the virus, or people’s ability to cope with it. Calls to stay at home, and work from home—rooted in imaginations of a northern urbanism where either of these are possible—misrecognized India’s urban conditions. Eight out of 10 Indian workers have jobs in the informal economy. Most of them work in public space—as street vendors, waste pickers, and construction workers—or in other people’s homes as domestic workers. This is not work that can be done “at home.” For most of them, COVID was a crisis of health and livelihood. It was less an epidemiological problem than one of a far broader urban vulnerability. When migrants started walking hundreds of kilometers, defying lockdown orders, they were not unaware of the risks they were taking. They were, in fact, doing what health professionals wanted them to do: avoiding death. For them, death could occur not just from COVID but equally from shocks to their livelihood, without the safety nets of social-protection systems.

The pandemic feels global. It is something happening everywhere, monumental in its scale and universal in its impact. Yet, the way it is experienced in different places is particular, different for New Delhi than for New York. For some time now, southern urban theorists have been insisting on the need to think from particular places, to listen to the particular questions they compel us to consider. One way to think from Indian cities at this moment is precisely to listen to the vulnerability that preceded this “crisis.” It is to ask questions about the efficacy of urban social protection regimes within a political economy dominated by informal employment and where, in the words of Edgar Pieterse and AbdouMaliq Simone, as they described the “South,” it is “the majority that holds social and economic vulnerability.”


The pandemic has showed us that the safety net in India’s cities is a patchwork, its threads worn and in need of repair. It has also showed us that even if mended, it would not be enough. As urban Indians, we knew this, even if we had collectively learned ways to look away from the everyday inequality that surrounds us. In this moment, at least, that evasion seems impossible. Yet, when we look straight at the problem, it is not immediately clear what repair looks like. How does one strengthen patchwork? Does one incrementally fill in, or expand the borders first? Do we layer, differently at each end, or try and standardize?

Social protection systems were designed in the context of industrial work, meaning that workers, workplaces, and employers all took on specific roles. Claims were based on a person’s identification as a worker; the employer became the delivery agent, and the workplace rooted the transactions in space. How does one reframe this relationship without the employment contract implicit in this imagination? How do we do so, when the work itself is hidden under categories of “unrecognized” and “informal” employment, or when the workplace is unrecognized, such as in the case of a vendor on a public street?

Disconnected from the particular nature of India’s urban employment, many state efforts to suddenly respond to the needs of workers failed. When the pandemic began, for example, every level of the Indian state issued directives to not retrench workers, or hold back wages. These were, for the most part, ineffective—utterances rather than mandates. The nature of informal employment meant that it was unclear to whom they were directed, or how they could possibly be enforced. The domestic workers whose story we began with, for instance, were each employed by a private household without a written contract. They saw wages fall by 93 percent between February and April, just as 25 percent lost work and an additional 28 percent were uncertain of their employment status.

This disconnect between policy mechanisms and realities of urban lives extended beyond conditions of work. Most workers in southern cities also live in forms of informal housing that mirror the precarity of their work status. Many that left cities at the start of the pandemic lived in homes that offered so little security that they could be left overnight, even after years of residence, with a single bag of possessions in hand. For those that stayed, their housing conditions exacerbated, rather than alleviated, their vulnerability. When domestic workers reported they were exiting the first lockdown with $150—a month’s income—in debt, three-fourths of that debt was rent. Similar to state directives on wages, moratoria on rent payments also found no mechanisms of enforcement within informal rental arrangements and with landlords that remained opaque to state systems.

While social protection programs have taken food, income, and health more seriously, rarely have they reached out to include housing. Yet, spatial and economic vulnerability are deeply intertwined, at every scale, and nowhere more so than in self-built cities where property is incrementally constructed and consolidated over time. When migrants left urban centers, it showed how vulnerability and absent social protection determines where workers settle as much as the more familiar economic logics of wage and income.

Reimagining Social Protection

Particular configurations of vulnerability—including their economic, social, and spatial dimensions—must shape both the determination of entitlements, as well as the mechanisms of delivery. When faced with the COVID crisis, the Indian state responded to the challenge of delivery in a number of ways. It first turned to existing methods. The most effective, by far, was within food. A system of entitlements was already in place, due to India’s National Food Security Act. Households held food cards that entitled them to subsidized grain and sugar through an already existing institutional structure of food-distribution shops. Both federal and state programs added quantities of rice, wheat, and other essentials to the preexisting rations. The contours of the system were in place. The pandemic tested whether that system could deliver twice the quantity of food and more often. Precisely because of the government’s pre-crisis investments, the system held. Its expansion is essential but, also, imaginable in its form.

The second set of challenges is more difficult. How does one build a set of entitlements based on work, as the history of social protection has done, but do so within the informal economy? Over the past decade, this is where innovations have come, led mostly by worker federations. In India, the strongest examples are of specific protections for construction workers (under the Building and Construction Workers Act 1996) and street vendors (under the Street Vendors Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending Act 2014). Here, specific recognition of forms of actually existing work became the basis of demanding not just entitlements and social protection but also rights to decent work, wage, and job security.

Yet, the pandemic showed us the difficulty of fulfilling the promises of these acts without having equivalent procedures of delivery that work for informal workers. For construction, to be recognized as a worker meant having to register with the state. Nationally, no more than half of all construction workers are registered, and even fewer of those registrations are current. In Delhi, this meant that only 10 percent or so of the city’s estimated 500,000 construction workers received promised cash transfers. The lack of registration is not a simple “implementation gap.” Worker unions have long argued that low enrollment is a result of procedural mechanisms of registration not designed to trust workers, or to fit into their lives.

Social protection for formal workers is not divided by sectors of employment, with labor rights and entitlements often standardized no matter where one works. Should new systems for informal employment also consolidate in this manner? While many implications of informal work are shared—the absence of meaningful recognition, the reliance on public rather than firm or enterprise-based infrastructure—conditions specific to different types of work impact how certain protections can be delivered. Minimum wages, for example, cannot be ensured the same way for domestic workers paid by and within private homes as they are for street vendors who earn their own income without a specific “employer.” Expanding the social safety net, then, is not just a question of increasing registration and multiplying schemes for innumerable categories of workers. It requires thinking both through a more universal set of claims and entitlements, as well as retaining specificity when it comes to modes of delivery.

Openings and Categories

One archive that is essential to look to, in order to imagine new possibilities, is relief itself. To respond to the pandemic, different arms of the Indian state had to innovate. Could these innovations offer more than just an exposure of the limitations of the current safety net? Could they also offer new practices to expand, strengthen, and repair it?

Realizing that existing databases and schemes would only reach a fraction of those who needed relief, government officials sought to expand their reach. Some states began to use one database to integrate and layer entitlements—giving food to all those holding construction-worker registrations, or cash to all those holding food cards. States sought to expand database enrollment through multiple drives—new surveys, helplines, online applications—greatly expanding the means through which citizens could ask for help. They renewed expired registrations and fast-tracked pending applications. All of these methods hold critical lessons for what could be done by a state seeking an equal urgency to universalize social protection and not just respond to a crisis. Indeed, relief, in a sense, offers a map of what everyday social protection must look like in a post-COVID world.

One innovation is particularly noteworthy. As governments sought to expand the categories of who could avail relief, a new language emerged. From a range of government orders, we find those “stranded or distressed,” “daily wager workers, migrant, casual or construction site workers, hawkers,” “migrants,” “contractual/casual/daily wage/outsourced staff,” and even “marginal sections of the society who have been deprived of their daily wages during the lockdown period.” For many of these new categories of claims and claimants that the state was willing to recognize, the procedures emphasized self-declaration rather than means-testing, without a demand of evidentiary proof of vulnerability. There was greater concern for genuine exclusion, rather than for false inclusion, a move away from the emphasis on registration, for example.

These new categories of work, need, and workers, as well as the expanded and temporary databases that relief has created, represent an opportunity. Many of them are precisely the overlap of spatial and sectoral identities, of work- and place-based identities, of subjectivities that straddle, and seek to integrate social and work status with spatial location. The language of these new categories is, in other words, one that emerges from the specificities of our urban conditions, offering new roots for reimagination.


Writing about Hurricane Katrina, the geographer Neil Smith once said that “there is no such thing as a natural disaster.” Crises, he argued, only reveal preexisting fault lines of inequality, along which new risks run, deepening and sedimenting them. COVID and its attendant lockdowns have made the inequities of India’s urbanization evident. They have not caused them. Insisting on this shift in diagnosis must be where we all begin.

This essay has spoken of relief, but the assessments it offers will apply equally to recovery and, moving forward, to any possibility of resilience. Thinking from Indian cities insists that we ask, anew, questions that specify, and detail the empirical configurations of vulnerability in our own cities, wherever they are. It insists on rooting these vulnerabilities in specific urban conditions, asking how urbanism has shaped them and is shaped by them in turn. It insists that we imagine frameworks of social protection that take rent to be as central to a dignified human life as wage; that acknowledge informal employment as decent, meaningful, and valued work; that invest in and expand public institutions like the food-distribution system; and that find new ways to deliver entitlements that fit into the lifeworlds of the majority of urban residents.

This is, above all, however, a moment of warning. No amount of social protection can alleviate the fallout of an urbanism that has entrenched social, economic, and spatial inequalities. India’s growth story has been a global narrative for nearly two decades. A lot, indeed, has changed. Yet, the foundations of this growth have, as this past year has shown us, been a patchwork. If paradigms of urban development do not recognize the vulnerabilities of their foundations, if we find new ways of forgetting and evasion, once again, then there will remain little to separate the crisis and the everyday.