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To get more women in labour force, India must stop pushing industrial areas to city limits

It is essential for cities to recognise that urban neighbourhoods are not just residential areas, and develop amenities for both work and living.

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In India, the functioning city is often the informal city, with deep linkages with the ‘formal’ city. So, it is essential for Indian policymakers, urban local bodies and government agencies to move beyond dichotomies of formal and informal, planned and unplanned, and recognise the interconnections among these.

Informality in manufacturing includes informal workers in unregistered enterprises and in formal factories. It also involves, inter alia, registered workers in a registered factory, located in a ‘non-conforming’ area, where industry is disallowed. This brings into focus the tenuous relationship between manufacturing and planning in cities.

These enterprises constitute a significant source of urban employment, particularly for women, and call for policy attention.

Also read: Power to water: If India wants to fulfil economic goals, it needs better infrastructure

Industry and the city: The case of Delhi

Delhi’s industrial landscape is dotted with several small-scale industries. Industrialisation in Delhi has been marked by contestations over space, and the relocation of ‘hazardous and noxious industries’, ‘large and heavy industries’, and ‘non-conforming industries’ to peripheral estates in the city. This relocation was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1996, and resulted in unemployment for the urban poor and migrant workers who had come to depend on these industries for their livelihoods.

Currently, Delhi has industrial activity spread over 28 planned estates, 4 flatted factory complexes, and 22 industrial areas ‘notified for regularisation’. The areas ‘notified for regularisation’ or ‘non-conforming’ industrial areas are spaces of manufacturing activity that have emerged in residential areas, particularly around urban and rural villages in response to a range of market demands. The Master Plan for Delhi (MPD) 2021 states that unplanned industrial areas are eligible for regularisation if more than 70 per cent of the plots in the area are engaged in industrial activity and subject to fulfilment of other stipulated conditions. It lays down a set of guidelines for the redevelopment of these areas; these pertain to aspects like road widening, provision of services, adherence to pollution control norms, and development of open spaces and parking facilities. The redevelopment plan is required to be formulated by the local body or land-owning agency in consultation with a society of landowners in the industrial area, which should be mandatorily formed.

In practice, however, most non-conforming industries have been subject to sealing drives, and there has not been a push for their redevelopment. Industrial activity is seen as largely operating in violation of Master Plan provisions, as a source of pollution and therefore, as an aberration to a larger vision of the city.

In the push to create world-class, clean and green cities, the focus often seems to be on the knowledge economy – IT and IT-enabled services – with manufacturing activity relegated to the fringes of cities. The Delhi case, wherein the focus has been on industrial relocation rather than redevelopment of unplanned areas illustrates this starkly.

Also read: India’s urbanisation isn’t just happening in cities. Modi govt must tap these new areas

Planned and unplanned industrial areas: Co-located and inter-linked?

While the Delhi Master Plan 2021 and the Industrial Policy for Delhi 2010-2021 make the distinction between planned and unplanned industrial areas, accounts from the field stress the linkages between these two typologies of areas. In an industrial hub in northwest Delhi for instance, factory owners in both the planned as well as surrounding unplanned areas spoke about the flow of raw material and intermediate goods from the latter to the former. Owners in the planned areas also spoke of a ‘broken chain’ due to ongoing action in the city to close down the unplanned factories.

Labour circulation also connects these two areas. They draw upon the same pool of workers residing in nearby bastis, urban villages, resettlement colonies. Workers move between planned and unplanned areas based on availability of work, and typically access work through local networks of contractors and neighbours.

Women’s work and industrial areas

Unplanned industrial areas also provide relatively flexible work arrangements that women may prefer. In east Delhi for instance, some women preferred work in workshops on the periphery of an urban village on account of spatial proximity, and the ability to return home during breaks, particularly to attend to children.

A female worker who works on daily wages in an unplanned area and looks for work every day told us she preferred this arrangement over earning a meagre wage in the authorised industrial units, where they are often expected to work overtime.

The agglomeration of planned and unplanned industrial areas also creates home-based work opportunities for women. Home-based work enables women to manage housework and childcare responsibilities along with undertaking paid work from home. It is seen as a legitimate work choice for many women for whom going out to work in factories is accompanied by notions of stigma and shame.  In the areas across Delhi, we observe home-based workers being involved in a whole spectrum of work, such as putting threads into bookmarks, taping of speaker components, making decorative pieces, making buffs for machines polishing steel, making bindis, fixing insoles and upper parts for footwear, etc. Most of this work is outsourced from factories in planned as well as unplanned industrial areas. Women are remunerated at piece-rates. In the absence of designated workspaces, work is undertaken in groups using shared spaces.

Home-based work is localised and driven by spatial networks. Questions of trust and “jaan-pehchan” are important in sourcing work locally in neighbourhoods and ensuring that work is completed in time.

Also read: Don’t just blame patriarchy for fewer women in India’s job force. Blame our cities too

Key policy takeaways

Regulate and regularise existing industrial areas

Instead of pushing industries to city peripheries and industrial parks with little transport and connectivity, we need measures to regulate existing industrial areas in the city, while ensuring their conformity to environmental, safety and labour regulations.

It should also be noted that when it comes to regularisation/ redevelopment of unplanned industrial areas (such as in Delhi), the imperatives of unrealistic planning norms continue to dominate, and in several cases, render redevelopment infeasible. Industrial planning norms need to be modified to allow for some flexibility in redevelopment of unplanned areas. In this, planners can draw upon instances of successful regularisation of unplanned residential areas like unauthorised colonies in Delhi and gunthewaris in Maharashtra. This needs to become a part of the urban planning discourse in the country.

Redevelop and redesign neighbourhood amenities to encourage female labour force participation

A key benefit of regularising these industrial clusters is the retention of a number of female jobs. Redevelopment of industrial areas must be accompanied by interventions in the nearby residential settlements in a manner that encourages more women to participate in the labour market.

In the case of home-based workers, workspaces are intertwined with living spaces, creating constraints on space. It is essential for cities to recognise that urban neighbourhoods are beyond residential areas, and develop amenities from the perspective of both work and living. This would involve redesigning neighbourhood amenities like community halls for multiple uses including as common workspaces for home-based workers with amenities like toilets, lighting and ventilation. Urban local bodies should be empowered to do this.

More attention to informal manufacturing in our cities, and enabling its relationship to the formal segment will bear rich dividends for India’s economy. 

Partha Mukhopadhyay is a senior fellow at CPR. Eesha Kunduri is a Research Associate at CPR.

This is the twenty-eighth in a series of articles titled “Policy Challenges 2019-2024” under ThePrint-Centre for Policy Research (CPR) collaboration. A longer version of this piece is available on the CPR website at The full policy document on a range of issues addressed in this series is available on CPR’s website.

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  1. nonsense, and what about the increasing pollution if industries are in residential areas? Employers provide cheap, reliable, safe transport to women workers if the work place is far away. Its ridiculous to bring industries close to women homes just so we can boast about a high female participation in the work place.

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