Citizenship of marginals


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MINE is a simple story, a narrative and an appeal. It asks for a different kind of democracy, one that goes beyond elections and parties and thinks of the citizenship of marginals, that cares for ecology, survival and sustainability. Let me begin with my community, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

Community: They are workers, producers, entrepreneurs, self employed, who have started a business, who manage their money and live on their surplus. They take risks – borrow from moneylenders, brave the policemen, and if they fail, invariably pay with hunger and destitution. If they succeed, they can employ others in their family to carry on the trade.

This entrepreneurship comes out of a need for survival. A woman who has no money will set herself up as a rag picker. She can pick the kind of trash that can be turned to cash at the end of the day and feed the family. The day she does not work, she does not feed her family. The equation is simple. She may have money today, but, if it rains, may have none tomorrow. Her economic cycle is a daily one. The savings are miniscule and they can be wiped out in an instant. When one lives on the margin, anything can happen. Picking garbage dumps is risky business. The sharp pieces of metal and glass can injure, and the chance of catching disease is high. Illness is a constant companion to the poor. Their vulnerability does not allow them to get ahead.

Yet, these women earn money to support their families. In fact, 94 per cent of India’s women are thus self-employed. The question to ask is: What makes a woman self-employed? What makes her an entrepreneur? It is her assets. In order to understand the correlation between work, money and entrepreneurship, let us see what a poor woman views as her assets.

Assets: Of the tangible assets, there may be some money – perhaps some cash savings, or silver jewellery. She may have a roof over her head, which can then be turned into a workplace. She may have a cow or a buffalo, or she may own a weaving loom given to her by the family. She may have a basket to sell wares in, or a pushcart or a sewing machine. Even a food ration card is an asset because it allows her to buy or borrow food at a fair price from a government shop. In fact, any identity card is an asset, because it certifies that she exists.

The list of intangible assets is long, but quite noteworthy. Education is an asset that few possess, but even basic literacy can be turned to good advantage. Children are an enormous asset, because the more hands that work, the more income the family has. Husbands can be assets or liabilities. A husband that does not have a drinking problem is an asset. In-laws that allow her to work outside the house are an asset. The goodwill of one’s caste is an asset.

So women look at their lives and find those assets they can turn into capital. A woman with few skills and no money still has her body for an asset. She sells her labour, pulling carts, carrying loads, working at construction sites. Women with traditional skills like basket-making or junksmithy make wares at home and sell them in the market. Some are traditional vendors like the vegetable vendors. Among Muslim women, where cultural norms may not allow for working outside the home, they turn to sewing garments and block-printing and tie-dyeing. Some make bidis at home, depending on the contractor for both work and the price they will get for it.

But money is an elusive resource. Turning their savings into capital seems almost impossible, given the realities of their lives. Saving, therefore, takes many forms.

When Gauriben, a wastepaper picker, complained to a friend that since she had no money whatsoever to begin with, there is no question of savings, her friend gave her this piece of advice: every time you knead dough to make roti, take two fistfuls of flour and put it aside. If you do it for six days in a row, on the seventh day you will have enough flour to cook that day’s roti without reaching for new flour! That’s how you save money without having any money! If you remember to cook your vegetables with lots of gravy, you need less vegetables! And if you make them very spicy, you eat a lot less of it!


Food is thus the first thing that women economize on. The other victim of their economizing is their sleep, so that they can increase their work hours. The few assets they have at their command, like food and water and sleep, are all treated like scarce capital. Frugality is a lesson in financial discipline that every poor woman understands.

Women know savings as a form of suffering, for without making-do and going-without, and constant self-denial, one cannot save. They believe that to ensure a better future, suffering is a given. The greater the capacity for suffering, the better the chances of survival. As a SEWA member put it, ‘One thing I know to be true – there is no money without work, but of course, there is plenty of work without money.’

What do the poor need? The major lesson that we learnt gradually is that poor women need capital formation at the household level. With access to financial services like savings, credit, insurance, they can build up and create assets of their own. They can buy land, build a house, a workshed, buy equipment or cattle to increase productivity. Or, they just want cash in the bank. Asset ownership is the best weapon to fight the vulnerability of poverty. Second, poor women need to build their capacity to stand firm in a competitive market. They need access to market infrastructure, to technology, information, education, knowledge and skills like accountancy, management know-how, planning, designing, marketing.

Third, they need social security – basic healthcare, childcare, shelter and relief, to combat the chronic risks they face with their families. And last, they need collective, organized strength to be able to actively participate at various levels in the planning, implementation and monitoring processes of the economic, social and political affairs of the nation. It is important that all the four components are in place simultaneously, and in the combination that the women think is viable and manageable by them. One input without the other does not yield any results, while one after the other comes too late.


Collective: SEWA straddles the realms of both union and cooperative. The union mobilizes and organizes the women to come together around their work issues. The women then form trade cooperatives in an effort to become owners of their labour. SEWA has nearly a hundred different cooperatives – rural and urban – some built around products, others around services. There are vendors’ cooperatives as well as midwives’ cooperatives, rag pickers’ cooperatives as well as weavers’ cooperatives. There are as many trades as there are facets to a country’s economy, and self-employed women can be found in every one of them.

The Registrar of Cooperatives would not, initially, register SEWA Bank because its members were illiterate women. Even though these women could earn an income, run their own businesses, save, borrow and repay, they could not form their own banking cooperative because they could not sign their names. Literacy, evidently, was more important to the registrar than the women’s dynamic economic productivity. I’ve often felt that the real illiterates are on the other side of the table.


Similarly, we had trouble registering service cooperatives. Our rag pickers’ cooperative was suspect because it did not manufacture any products; the midwives’ cooperative was asked why delivering babies should be considered an economic activity; the video producers’ cooperative was denied registration because the directors, the producers, and the sound and camera technicians were illiterate – the officials had no concept of how much more powerful a visual medium is in the hands of those not enslaved by the written word. When vegetable vendors and producers wanted to form a joint cooperative, they were told that though both belonged to one common industry, they fell under separate category lists and therefore could not formally collaborate. Taxonomies can be life-denying because classifications can exclude.

Other problems result from such classification and categorizing. Since the income of poor women from any one type of work is usually not enough to make ends meet, they must have several income-earning occupations. In fact, 80 per cent of SEWA members are engaged in multiple types of work. Vegetable sellers also make kites at home. Should they be covered by a social security fund for home-based workers or are they entitled to a hawker’s license from the municipal authorities? Let me give you a common example.


A small farmer works on her own farm. In tough times, she also works on other farms as a labourer. When the agriculture season is over, she goes to the forest to collect gum and other forest produce. Year round, she produces embroidered items, either at a piece rate for a contractor or for sale to a trader who comes to her village to buy goods. Now, how should her trade be categorized? Does she belong to the agricultural sector, the factory sector, or the home-based work sector? Should she be categorized as a farmer or a farm worker? Is she self-employed or a piece-rate worker? Because her situation cannot be defined and neatly contained in a box, she has no work status and her right to representation in a union is unrealized. She is denied access to financial services or training to upgrade her skills. The tyranny of having to belong to a well-defined ‘category’ has condemned her to having no identity.

When asked what the most difficult part of SEWA’s journey has been, I can answer without hesitation: removing conceptual blocks. Some of our biggest battles have been over contesting preset ideas and attitudes of officials, bureaucrats, experts, and academics. Definitions are part of that battle. The Registrar of Trade Unions would not consider us ‘workers’; hence, we could not register as a ‘trade union’. The hard-working chindi workers, embroiderers, cart pullers, rag pickers, midwives, and forest-produce gatherers can contribute to the nation’s gross domestic product, but heaven forbid that they be acknowledged as workers. Without an employer, you cannot be classified as a worker, and since you are not a worker, you cannot form a trade union. Our struggle to be recognized as a national trade union continued until we succeeded in 2007.

Because they fall through this web of terminology, the livelihoods of millions of people are not perceived as work and, therefore, remain uncounted, unrecorded, unprotected, and unaddressed by the nation. They remain conveniently ‘invisible’ to policy-makers, statisticians and theoreticians. Dividing the economy into formal and informal sectors is artificial – it may make analysis easier, or facilitate administration, but ultimately it perpetuates poverty. Until the International Labour Organization (ILO) was forced to acknowledge the growing numbers of home-based workers, even international trade unions did not wish to recognize them as workers; instead, they considered them a threat to the organized labour movement. My point is this: When you are not classifiable, you are officially unidentifiable. When you cannot be identified you can be ignored. As an invisible, you are no longer subject to policy. You cease being a citizen in many ways. If you ever exist, it is only as an obstacle.


Today, SEWA with a membership of one million women spread in nine states of India, is a family of organizations, similar in structure to a banyan tree that spreads its branches. The working poor need to have their own organizations that generate collective strength. Once, at a SEWA Bank meeting, I asked our board members if money was power. Some women categorically agreed. One woman said that money gave strength and that was power. But when asked who was the most powerful person in the room, the women pointed to the managing director of SEWA Bank. They felt she had the money power of the bank. Her power also came from the fact that she was educated, was efficient at her work and had the strong support of the women she worked for.

I argued that since the money of the bank came from the women, why is it that they themselves did not feel the most powerful? They explained that while individual savings and capital give a sense of power to the self, it is only the collective strength of hundred of thousands of women that really gave one ‘big power’. In short, money is power, but collective strength is bigger power.


Security: In SEWA’s experience, shelter is the number one priority in life. A roof and a toilet is a base of citizenship. A roof over their head makes the family complete. Physically and mentally, it creates a a feeling of being protected against the wrath of nature and violent forces of the society.

We see with our own eyes that the home is also the workplace. In city slums, people work under their roof and earn their livelihood stitching garments, making kites, producing food items, assembling machine parts, running shops, holding tuition classes or using a corner as storage. For them, houses are their assets, their own wealth. The house is where the next generation is raised and reared.

Above all, secure shelter gives citizenship rights to urban residents. For a large majority of the urban poor who live in slums, there is a problem of who one is. Unless you have a house, a house address, you do not exist. The house you live in is illegal, so you cannot have a power or water connection, nor a ration card. If the residence is illegal, how does one establish one’s legal citizenship. As poor and a woman you work in the informal sector and contribute to the city economy. But because your home which is your workplace is non-existent or ‘illegal’, you cannot improve your living conditions nor increase your productivity or income by working for longer hours. Your right to citizenship is denied, your right to making a living is denied. This is not swaraj!

It is absurd to apply the rule of land ownership or land tenure to the provision of basic primary human needs of water and sanitation. A minimum level of safe water and sanitation, irrespective of identity proof or status of migration, should be extended to every city dweller, in their own right. That is freedom, swaraj.


It is puzzling why the poor are not encouraged to make investments in their own existing housing! Why is tenure security required for the purpose? In fact, we should encourage the poor to invest in their living place. How long do we go on stating this issue? Despite being on the agenda since the First Habitat Conference in 1976 at Vancouver, there has been little progress on this front. It does appear that cities and city governments do not want to give land access to the urban poor!

It seems there is no land left in the city! No wonder the slum dwellers have to combat anti-social forces to hold on to the minimum shelter they already have. And then what about the newcomers to the cities; do they have any options? Cities routinely invite investment but only those investments which generate profit. It seems that labour is welcome but not the labourer.

We also have to recognize the fact that in some rural areas, the adverse forces are so powerful that despite great reluctance to leave their homelands, the rural poor head for the city in search of work. This kind of migration is painful and traumatic. But there are greener pastures to be found, certainly not in the city. The first thing they need is a place to sleep, not an easy feat in cities where even side-walks are spoken for. Public places are constantly patrolled by the police, less for public safety and more for fees to look the other way.

The city municipal systems hardly touch this vast population; with their numbers growing, their issues are overwhelming. Actually, their instability and illegality are of advantage to the city. The city wants to prosper on this cheap, docile and easily available labour. By keeping their homes and work unauthorized, a vast urban workforce is denied identity and their due economic return. Their children are everywhere, visible, working in streets, in factories, in markets, at home but not in schools. Schools are far from their homes. The constant feeling of being unwanted does not generate civic mindedness or loyalty to a city where they live and work for long years. Thus, alienation deepens and opens a breeding ground for violence.

My point is this: for urbanization to be a success the urban poor too must be welcome in the cities and we need to find them spaces to live in the cities in the form of asset ownership as citizens.


Capital: Access to capital summons the usual stereotypes – big corporates, investors, and markets. All these, I fear, I do not understand enough. For me, as a grassroots organizer of women, the poor and self-employed, capital on one hand is abstract, impersonal, while on the other, it is a strong social force. More often, however, capital excludes and denies access to people in subsistence economy. I would like to move away from both kinds of stereotypes and create a space of freedom where we can look at capital in a fresh, creative way.

Based on my experience with SEWA and the Women’s World Banking, capital is what is denied to marginals in a society because conventionally capital is a relation established by law that links money with citizenship in a formal economy. Citizens who have access to capital carry different kinds of certificates including a tax form number. Such capital excludes the marginal, the subsistence economy of squatters, hawkers, scavengers with whom I work, particularly the poor self-employed women. They do not have a registered house number, rent receipt, license number, identity card or social security number. They struggle through the courts and sometimes street protests against fines and penalties or through demanding a supportive state policy enabling them to stand firm in the competitive market. In fact, for merely acquiring legitimacy, a lot of their own capital goes into corruption, in shelling out cash. Corruption and bribes are one form of capital which no one talks about.


Let me reformulate the idea of capital. It is not an abstraction. Capital expresses itself in many forms. For a woman, nature is a model and an ecology for capital. Nature works and creates wealth, a wealth which is often not immediately measurable. Once we recognize that nature is capital, we move to culture and society and realize that classifications are the expressions of power. Both the formal and the official disempower the informal by denying it access to capital.

The constitution must emphasize not merely the right to property, but to capital. Capital is not only a right, it is a part of the structure of current life. It is life giving and life building. It allows citizenship to be creative. It provides access to society and turns citizenship from a passive to an active agency while emphasizing prudence, care and simplicity. For a subsistence economy to move creatively we need an understanding of nature, the informal sector and gender.

Gender often connects the above two to create networks of community. Gender helps one move from a capitalism based on individualism to a capitalism based on community. To scarcity, gender adds hospitality. It broadens work into livelihood. Responsibility in a subsistence economy is most often gender based for it is women who most often work with forest, farm, water and food.

This demands a further distinction between innovation and improvisation. Innovation today involves state policy, big science and corporate investment and advertising. Improvisation settles for what there is, making do, muddling through. It is a world of adjustment, compromise and substitution. It is odd that women as citizens are always improvising, but the history of invention has little place for them. Let us consider a successful innovation.


Microfinance is today successful, in fact so successful that large banks and corporates see it as the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. But the recent successful microfinance legitimized by the establishment lacks the spirit of the original innovation which is based on rationality, profit, stability. What it lacks is the spirit of survival, the adventure of risk and trust that everyday survival entails. That is the microfinance seeded by marginal women seeking to create a network of livelihoods. These livelihood systems are embedded in a community just as certain skills and culture are embedded in community. How do we ensure that the new capital does not destroy existing skills and livelihoods without making available better alternatives? How do we ensure that the new capital will preserve nature and local culture and invention and improvisation.


I believe that the private sector should be invited in, not as an overwhelming force but as part of a vision where livelihood meets capital markets, as equals. Second, the language of stock markets must meet the ideas of stakeholders in the widest sense, while making space for nature as a key stakeholder.

Let me also emphasize two other issues. Just as skill is embedded in the family, and knowledge in culture, the capital that I talk about is embedded in community. I see the hawker, the scavenger as capitalists. But these are capitalists who seek small forms of surplus (profit) which enable survival. I think it is the difference between the idea of work and of livelihood. Livelihood seeks to preserve nature and community, while capital expressed in terms of economic choices might tend to destroy both.

There is also a political aspect. Capital has to be seen as a political right. One cannot sustain right to life and property without a guarantee or entitlement to capital, especially when capital is necessary to sustain life and livelihood. Unfortunately biases operate here. The hawker is legally treated as anti-social; a migrant though badly wanted, is treated as illegal by banks and city authorities. But if they had access to capital, as our SEWA Cooperative Bank experience shows, they would create a different notion of capital, create citizenship for themselves and in turn, be treated as citizens. Because, without capital, it is not just entrepreneurship that becomes difficult, it is citizenship itself that is threatened.

My approach to capital goes beyond suffixes and prefixes like ‘green capital’ and microfinance. Capital for all its innovation, needs to escape its stereotypes. New ways of conceptualization of capital are needed to create a fair world of rights, livelihood and stable peace. The keywords of globalization need a new meaning that allow for possibilities beyond the official, and particularly the officially ‘economic’.


Citizenship: I think Gandhi was an inventor and what he kept reinventing was citizenship, the sense of the community. What I want to stress is the old Gandhian idea of community. To do so, I employ the slogan of ‘100 miles’.

Citizenship is both a membership in a community and membership of a nation state. The second kind is clearly defined by territoriality, passports, by other forms of certification and symbolism like the flag. It guarantees a certain membership to equality, uniformity, a central homogeneity of access. But democracy needs both forms of citizenship and minimally two kinds of the social. The social space defined by citizenship in a nation state is inadequate. Without membership in a community, the nation state alone can be alienating and coercive, providing liberty without freedom.

The community I am talking about is beyond the identity of caste, village or ethnicity. My sense of community centres around work, but work defined not as an occupation, a job, a career, but as livelihood. A livelihood is a chain of being. It connects work to ecology, to a sense of community with nature. Livelihood has implicit in it two forms of access: access to nature as a commons as also to the means of production, consumption, distri-bution and renewal. Renewability involves all three processes: production, consumption and distribution. In recycling livelihoods, you recycle both nature and community. Thus we sustain both over time.

Livelihood is a demanding term. It makes greater demands on citizenship. A citizenship based only on paying tax, following traffic rules and voting is not enough. It demands more active involvement. It demands that you invent and sustain the community. Here rights and duties are not separate registers but forms of reciprocity, of complementarity. Caring demands both rights and duties and without caring and access, it is difficult to sustain a community.


Such a community does not need a territory, a boundary as spatial lines; it needs boundary conditions, a sense of the threshold, of the limits and possibilities of freedom. 100 miles, as an idea, is a boundary definition, a threshold. It is defined not as stock or as territory but through a flow of pro-cesses. A community is three flows in time and space. It is a life cycle, a livelihood cycle and a cosmic cycle. Life cycles emphasize biography of birth, marriage and death. Livelihood cycles involve consumption, production and distribution. Cosmic cycles move from seasons to global climatic change.

It begins simply. Take food. Is it grown and cooked locally? How many energy miles has it consumed? Unless food is grown locally, you cannot sustain diversity. For that, food has to be grown locally, made locally. Just think of what happened to local fruits, local foods like barley, and local staples like cotton. But when food is produced locally and exported, the locality loses access to its own labour, to its produce. We end-up producing milk and vege-tables for the city and survive on less. Freedom is the right to your labour, your produce. Such a freedom needs a community. A community is autonomous when it controls food, clothing and shelter.

The old cliché of roti, kapada, makaan has to be within a hundred miles radius. The minute you extend the production cycle you lose control. Comparative advantage might be good economics but let us leave well intentioned economics outside communities. Otherwise, instead of freedom, we face obsolescence. When food is exported, when technology is centralized, when shelter depends on some remote housing policy, we lose our freedom as a community. 100 miles is a guarantee that citizens retain control, inventiveness, diversity. We could grow 50,000 varieties of rice, in part because we intuitively followed the 100 miles principle.

The diversity of our agriculture should serve as a basis for our models of health care, education and capital. To say that a large percentage does not have access to health and education is obscene. We need to realize that access to health is access to the diversity of medical systems. A right to health involves a right to the variety of healing.

We must also realize that knowledge cannot be a deskilling process. Science cannot put other forms of knowledge above subsistence in a museum. 100 miles allows for the conversation of knowledges which makes alternatives life giving. The dialogue of our medical systems is a model that has to be built upon.


Finally, capital in this sense becomes part of the new commons. It is a resou-rce, a right like any other resource, like fuel or water. It is an entitlement, not property, a commons not an oligopoly. The poor do need capital simply as capital. They also need capital based on this new philosophy.


Like all ideas, 100 miles can be conceived of badly or creatively. This is implicit in Gandhi’s distinction bet-ween swadeshi and swaraj. Swadeshi can be parochial, territorial; swaraj needs the idea of oceanic circles. You don’t have the dualism of local and global. They enmesh each other. I care, therefore I am. I care for the community but my community as a set of flows encompasses the globe. The neighbourhood implicates the cosmos. Basically, my 100 miles principle is an attempt to revive citizenship which has become too passive.

My plea to all those in the banking sector is for a gentler economy, a caring economy. I hope you will agree with me. To repeat, we must build economies that encourage self-reliance and self-development of sustainable communities. We must help conserve, preserve, and restore a balance of formal and informal systems. We must create power and resources that are decentralized and inclusive. We must recycle our flow of food, water, energy, naturals, wastes. We must maintain our structures and systems as autonomous and interdependent so that they enrich each other and everybody. Most importantly, we must create and recreate productive work that enhances human dignity.

This is thus both an appeal and a challenge. It is an invitation to a conversation where two forms of institution building and community building talk to each other and not past each other. The urgency is clear. How we define economics will determine how we will live out our democracy. At another level, the question is stark: Can the informal economy bank on you or will it battle alone? It is a reciprocity of obligations I seek to emphasize. Prayer and democracy share this much.


* Based on the Third R.K. Talwar Memorial Lecture delivered at the Indian Institute of Banking and Finance, Mumbai, 23 July 2009.