Lives and Livelihood of City-Makers in Megacities post COVID-19 Pandemic

Balwant Singh Mehta, Arjun Kumar

‘Citymakers’ are the urban poor informal workers who reside in informal settlements and slums in cities. These informal workers represent a significant share of the total urban workforce and they contribute to the national economies in multiple ways.

Estimates show that the citymakers constitute a large share of total urban workforce, for instance, in India they comprise around 80% of the total urban workforce. In almost all the countries the citymakers have witnessed a huge economic shock due to COVID-19 and lockdown.

There is a rising concern over the lives and livelihood of these citymakers in India due to the pandemic and nationwide lockdown. Therefore, it is important to ascertain the impact of the crisis on the lives of these citymakers, especially in metro cities, knowing the big city bias or top-heavy urbanisation in India.  

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) survey report published in June, 2020 indicates the worsening scenario of employment and livelihood, and revealed that the unemployment rate in urban areas spiked to 26% by the end of May, 2020, which was just 8.7% in January, 2020.

This steep rise in unemployment rate indirectly point out the job losses of citymakers, they may have borne the major brunt of the lockdown. They have no job contracts, no regular work, are often employed casually and are without any social safety nets to support them and their families during exigencies.   

To understand the impact of the lockdown and plight of citymakers, Impact policy research institute (IMPRI), a Delhi based research group conducted a telephonic survey of 3,121 ‘city-makers’ across 50 cities of India in the month of May, 2020 (during lockdown 3.0), which includes four mega cities namely Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

In these mega cities the coronavirus infections are among the top in the country and this presents a grim picture of hope of returning to normalcy in the next few months. The job and wage losses in these cities especially for the informal segment is negating the meagre activities taking place in some select urban centres and industrial clusters.

This means that as the economies limp towards normalcy, it is the citymakers who will bear the major brunt. In this context, the survey findings show some of the important insights about lives of the city-makers during this difficult time.

Lives of City-Makers

A total 1194 respondents were interviewed in four mega cities: 762 in Delhi, 188 in Kolkata, 159 in Mumbai and 105 in Chennai. One out of two citymakers had below middle level school educational qualification, with highest in Delhi (52%), followed by Chennai (48%), Mumbai (47%), and least in Kolkata (41%). 

Every second (52%) citymaker surveyed were migrants, with the highest migrants in Mumbai (64%), followed by Delhi (54%), Chennai (47%), and Kolkata (37%). Around 44% of the citymakers stayed in rented accommodation with the highest in Mumbai (54%) followed by Delhi (46%), Chennai (43%), and Kolkata (32%). This is reflective of the vulnerable situation of migrants in these mega cities. 

Further, seven out of ten city-makers had a smartphone, with highest in Kolkata (74%), Delhi (72%), Mumbai (49%) and Chennai (47%). However, the opposite was true in case of internet connectivity among them, which was highest in Chennai (72%) followed by Mumbai (65%), Delhi (64%), and Kolkata (41%).

Additionally, the availability of smartphones is also not converted into work from home as only 14% of the citymakers surveyed were able to work from home with least in Mumbai (8%), followed by Delhi (11%), Kolkata (18%) and relatively more in Chennai (36%).  

Six out of ten families spent their personal or household savings for the health expenditure, which is almost similar in all the mega cities. In addition, children of seven out of ten city-makers attended government schools with maximum in Delhi (75%) and Kolkata (76%), and less in Chennai (50%) and Mumbai (47%).

This raises pertinent questions about the continuity of schooling of their children, who without any online educational facilities are likely to drop out from schooling and may join the labour market to assist their family to supplement their income.

Another challenge for city-makers is the maintenance of social-distancing, where the congestion level in the households is high. On an average 3 persons per room lived in all the megacities, which was more in Delhi (4 persons) and Mumbai (4 persons) than in Kolkata (3 persons) and Chennai (3 persons). 

Further, the loss of jobs had a spillover impact on the mental well-being of citymakers and education of children, as most citymakers send their children to government schools.

In the prevailing new norms of online teaching methods and reliance on digital modes of learning, education has become a distant dream for the children of informal poor city makers because they have no smart-phones for accessing such education, forget about computers.

Employment and Livelihood

The survey revealed that almost seven out of ten citymakers in mega cities were engaged in informal employment, i.e. daily wage work, petty trades/business and as temporary workers without any social security benefits. It is surprising that a large proportion of respondents were engaged in salaried jobs in Mumbai (58%) and Chennai (48%), while comparatively less in Kolkata (32%) and Delhi (29%).

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However, when we further examined the salaried workers, over half of them were either on contract or temporary employment, which was significantly high in Chennai and Mumbai, where the salaried workers were relatively more than other mega cities. This demonstrates the fact that the majority of citymakers engaged in salaried jobs were also vulnerable.  

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An important finding of the study was that six out of ten workers had lost their jobs or livelihood sources during the lockdown. Seven out of ten casual labourers lost their jobs while six out of ten self-employed could not pursue their economic activities due to the lockdown, and among regular workers, only four out of ten had lost their jobs.

Job losses were reported to be the highest in Delhi (62%), followed by Kolkata (55%), Mumbai (51%) and least in Chennai (29%). The reason for the low job losses in Chennai can be attributed to high proportion of self-employed and salaried workers and less of casual workers vis-à-vis other mega-cities. Essentially, the job loss was highest among the casual labourers and self-employed across the cities.

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When asked about their reasons for unemployment or loss of job/livelihood, three to four city-makers cited their inability to visit workplaces (31%) and closure of places of work (37%) as pressing reasons. One out of four city-makers in Mumbai and Chennai lost their temporary or contract jobs, while in Kolkata, a majority of them could not visit their workplaces because these were very far away from their places of residence.

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Work from home was coined and advertised as the new mantra to ensure adherence to social distancing. But, this economic privilege was unavailable to the poorer workers, who had no option but to remain confined within their houses without any work.

They could neither realistically practice social distancing, nor could they afford it. All these led to a massive shock to the livelihoods and wage earnings of these city-makers and their families. For example, the inability to earn during the lockdown translated into 53% of them being unable to pay rent for their rented accommodations.

More than half of the citymakers surveyed were in mental stress or not in a good state of mind due to loss of job and were anxious and apprehensive about how they would feed their families and pay bills/rent, if the current situation continued for a long period.

With 88% of the city-makers in the megacities depending on household income, savings, financial help from relatives and friends and so on, for meeting their health-related expenditure, this temporary job loss has added to their anxieties that any kind of health emergency, including COVID-19, would exacerbate their plight.

Eager to Return to Work

Quite understandably, over 94% of the city-makers in megacities wanted to return to work and almost three-fourth of them said that they would join the same job in which they were engaged prior to the lockdown, if possible.  Similar pattern was observed in three mega cities, i.e. Delhi (95%), Mumbai (96%) and Kolkata (94%) with little less in Chennai (83%).

This is due to high temporary salary jobs in Chennai, whereas self-employed can resume their work once the lockdown is lifted, which is not true in case of wage workers and the salaried. 

However, the resumption of normal economic activities or absorption of the citymakers in newer economic activities would significantly depend on the nature and type of policies to jumpstart cities’ economy by boosting local businesses, especially the small and micro-enterprises that are the hardest hit.

Similar to IMPRI findings, the CMIE survey also revealed that 21 million people have re-joined the employment or jobs in the month of May as the country started to ease the lockdown. The reversal of job loss has been achieved and is moving towards the pre-lockdown levels.

As of 23 June, 2020, the all India unemployment figures stand at 13.6%, which is 15.3% for urban areas and 12.8% for rural areas. Almost two-third of the jobs (14.4 million) added were of small traders and wage labourers.  After the gradual opening up the economy in various parts of the country, the citymakers are getting back to their business.

Since these are predominantly self-employed people, it is relatively easy for them to resume work when conditions permit. As the lockdown is further lifted in phases, the citymakers may join the labour market, which would further improve the employment or job numbers in the coming months.

Besides, it would take a long time to repair the damage to the livelihoods of a very large number of citymakers in these megacities who continue to suffer during the lockdown. 

Way Forward

The government has already initiated several steps for the improvement of livelihood and job creation for citymakers. But the pandemic has shown that citymakers are not treated well by most of the stakeholders such as local government, political parties, landlords, and employers.

As we have seen, many of them have left the city and have been compelled to return to their hometowns due to lack of resources, and those who stayed in the city are facing several difficulties due to their informal nature of work and livelihood sources. 

Therefore, there is an urgent need to prepare policies for the short-term as well as for the long-term for the livelihood security of the citymakers. At least they should be provided with basic income security at the time of such exigencies.

In light of the evidence from the IMPRI study, it becomes important that the stringent Aadhaar-requirements for accessing different schemes must be relaxed for at least the next six months. Another option could be a job assurance programme that would give needy households livelihood security during health crises.

Further, for everyone to be vigilant about the spread of COVID-19, digital literacy for children belonging to poor families, and money transfers through digital payment of welfare schemes, the poor households should be provided with an Android phone either for free or at a subsidised rate through PDS shops.

In addition, the private sector (under the CSR component) should come forward and provide free sim and data coupons to Below Poverty Line households. It is the most opportune time to ensure digital literacy among the people. In addition, there is an urgent need to prepare a dynamic data of citymakers to devise appropriate mitigating policies for them both before, during and any kind of emergency situations.

This article previously appeared in The Citizen: Lives and Livelihoods of Informalised Workers in 4 Indian Cities and Counterview: CityMakers amidst lockdown 3.0 and search for future Solutions on July 10, 2020.

About the Authors:

1578478711 Balwant Mehta

Balwant Singh Mehta is Research Director at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and Senior Fellow at Institute for Human Development, Delhi.

Dr Arjun Kumar pic IMPRI

Arjun Kumar is Director, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and China-India Visiting Scholar Fellow, Ashoka University.



    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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