Secure access to markets can bring many of the world’s informal workers out of poverty. Arbind Singh gives urban poor access to markets through large people-owned and managed institutions—large enough to influence policy and be legitimate competitors in a globalizing market. By initiating worker cooperatives like the National Alliance of Street Vendors, Arbind has created a bridge for the hitherto unorganized poor to access financial services and technology and solicit business.
Despite the need to bring this huge population within the fold of India’s economic and social growth, recent government interventions have worsened the problem leading to an increase in India’s informal workforce. In 2006, the Prime Minister launched the “urban reform agenda,” a program designed to attract private investment to 63 of India’s largest and most important cities and 28 of the smaller ones. The infusion of private capital has produced a decline in the formal workforce, as entering multinationals and factory-oriented corporations overpower smaller businesses.
As a result, today’s informal workforce remains disorganized and deeply segmented, having been long overlooked as potential contributors in the liberalized economy. Lacking access to financial services, workers in the informal sector have few opportunities to engage in sustainable business practices. Though microfinance is widely viewed as a panacea, microlending institutions often bypass the urban poor due in part to its transient nature. Traditional group-lending models, wherein friendship and community membership essentially substitute for collateral, are furthermore seen as at odds with the urban poor. As a result, the sector’s lack of financial resources, coupled with its lack of organization and political representation, has effectively denied its workers a voice in India’s political and economic emergence.
In order for the workers to capitalize on Nidan’s legal successes, Arbind has increasingly worked to bridge the chasm between the unorganized and organized sectors, arming them with the marketing and organizational skills needed to compete in the global economy. Nidan offers numerous capacity-building programs to each of its worker-based enterprises, including financial and other technical trainings. Examples include a program on the efficient management of waste and compost making for the waste pickers’ cooperative and further provisions to equip them with modern resources like garbage trucks and teach them how to bid for new contracts. Appropriate trainings, combined with consistent and factual information on markets, have served to enhance informal workers’ capacity to compete with new emerging markets. Arbind further arranged a partnership with Angana, a marketing enterprise that promotes cooperative products. Having teamed up with other cooperatives in different states, Angana now acts as a brand for workers’ products countrywide.
The success of these emerging enterprises is owed in large part to Nidan’s efforts to secure financial and social support for informal sector workers. By linking its 1,800 self-help groups to banks, Nidan has enhanced venders’ access to credit, enabling hawkers and other groups to buy goods in bulk. Nidan is in the process of setting up a separate microfinance company with 10,000 member-shareholders, and has already established multiple health insurance schemes, in which beneficiaries can access hospital services through personal identity cards. Other support services include loan schemes available for emergencies, funerals, and other purposes.
In 2004, the waste pickers’ company, Swacchdhara, successfully competed at market rates to secure a contract from the Bihar Municipal Corporation. Granting Swacchdhara the rights to implement its urban solid waste management project, it marked the first government contract of its kind, and paved the way for similar contracts between other government municipalities and the National Alliance for Street Vendors. Nidan’s activities continue to expand at relentless pace. Its current efforts include the creation of child-labor free zones; the launch of several public health campaigns; and the development of the wastepickers’ collectives along the lines of NASVI. Nidan now also issues user-friendly training manuals in a pictorial format, designed to serve a largely illiterate population.
Arbind’s main strategy for organized institution building has centered on creating an atmosphere of empathy, in which all workers in the sector are encouraged to view their issues as the same. To foster trust and participation in the movement, Arbind relies on word-of-mouth communication and community leadership to fuel growth in various fields.
The success of both the vendor association and the Dalit-dominated waste pickers’ contract, secured without a single bribe, has bolstered the public’s confidence in the power of transparency and collective action. Comprised of people from diverse religious and social groups, the cooperatives are also effectively breaking down caste barriers in a society long fragmented by fundamentalist beliefs. With eleven offices covering almost the whole of Bihar, Nidan is building its presence in five other large districts, and hopes to ultimately be active across the country.
After studying law post-graduation, he felt an innate responsibility to return to his local community, and to work to correct the wrongs he had grown-up watching. Upon returning to Bihar, Arbind discovered a severe lack of social services available for the urban poor, as most social service organizations found them too complex and politically unstable, preferring instead to focus on improving conditions in rural areas. Following an anti-encroachment drive targeting poor vendors by the Bihari government, Arbind launched Nidan as its own entity in 1996.
Arbind lives in Patna with his wife and two children.