Is there a human view of urban informality?

Urban informality is very personal to me; I grew up Bombay, where the informal is normal, and worked in Delhi, where informality was not exclusively a low-income activity. As a researcher, however, I began to encounter atypical informal settlements (read: not slums), which did not easily respond to existing solutions for formalisation of such activities and settlements. My particular fascination is with people at the centre of urban informality because they live in informal settlements, work informally, and save and spend informally. Academia has traditionally broken this group up into its constituent characteristics – livelihoods, economy, and settlements. I am interested in individuals at the centre of this confluence – Is informality something you helplessly fall into or is it a measured choice? And in my search for people who live in informal settlements that are not slums, I encountered two urban villages one in Accra, Ghana and one in Kochi, India. The residents are people whose histories are essential to the history of the city they now live in, their settlements being the founding settlements, but which planning and policy sees as informal because of the lack of basic services, and the pervasive issue of urban poverty.

I am also interested in the experiences of women at the centre of informality. From my professional experience, I observe that whether or not women are the heads of families, most families that live informally are dependent on women. It falls to women to evolve strategies for mitigation – poverty, inclement weather, and even short-term health shocks to family income. In both field sites, women are organised into thrift and savings groups or self-help groups (SHGs). In Ghana these are known as susu groups. In Kochi (Kerala, India), which is what this summer’s project focused on, the Government of Kerala has, since the early 1990s run a programme called Kudumbashree (meaning ‘prosperity of the family’). At its base, the Kudumbashree program has targeted membership of women into its SHGs, and federated these SHGs at the area and city (or village) levels. What this has effectively done, is ensured a base of women from poor families, which the government has direct access to. And they have used this access to target these women and their families for various poverty alleviation strategies.

This federated network of SHGs is a two-way street; the women have unprecedented access to government in a way that I have not seen with other programs. They serve on local government committees and are intimately familiar with government processes and functionaries. One of my respondents informed me that over nearly 20 years of its existence, the Kudumbashree network has resulted in 65% of its members becoming elected representatives! Imagine poor women at the centre of government. Another respondent (head of a City Development Society) informed me that she had a list of members (and families) whose homes needed electricity connections, and that was next on her to-do list: “You know how tedious it is, even when we know the people at the top, we still have to fill in the forms!”

My research focuses on what impact has this kind of intimacy with the state had on the lived experience of informality? What impact has this had on their livelihood, residence, and daily economic experiences? Do they have access to basic services?How has their economic status improved (if at all)? What kind of spatial choices are they now making for both, livelihoods and settlements, given this intimacy with the state?

The CASI 2019 Travel Funds Award has enabled me to spend three months in India, mostly in Kochi conducting fieldwork on the island of Fort Kochi. The purpose of the study was to validate my proposed research questions, methodology, and determine whether I could justify a comparison with my other field site in Accra, Ghana for my dissertation. In short, will I be able to evolve a theory of urban informality based on people’s negotiations of space (both, physical space in the city, and relationship with the state) at the intersection of informality – livelihood, economy, and settlements?

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About Kimberly M. Noronha