Expression to movements: the power of social innovation

By Stuti Sareen

Labour movements in India have been unsuccessful at ‘organising’ in terms of representing workers’ needs and building solidarity between its participants to achieve common goals. This can be attributed to the lack of a common identity among its participants – including workers in the formal and informal sectors. Even where labour movements have taken organised forms such as the Naxal movement, they have been seen as violent forces. Others like the trade unions of Mumbai and Kolkata have declined over time after becoming politicised, instead of functioning to reduce the gap between workers needs and norm setting institutions.

In the 1990s, civil society organisations (CSOs) began to replace movements to work on reducing such gaps but have rarely been able to exert pressure on the existing norms. Why is this the case and what can CSOs do to understand and represent workers needs more effectively than labor movements of the past and present?

Migrant women workers journey back home during the nationwide lockdown in India, May 2020. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Labour movements in India

The fact that the British took 100 years to have a proper code of labour legislation is no argument that we should also in India take 100 years. History is not always an example. More often it is a warning.” – BR Ambedkar, Indian jurist and social reformer, 1945

History has shown us that at critical points in time, India and many countries around the world have revived with new but unfair world orders. At these times, changes have occurred in the everyday lives of individuals and practices, usually as a result of dominant power relations determining lives and livelihoods.  The case of social movements indicates the difficulties they face in influencing wider regimes of power:

May 1967, Naxalbari village – Santhal returns to his village, bruised after being lathi (baton) charged for leading labor protests on unfair land allocations. His community is left marginalised despite being promised land by the constitution.  

May 1995, Mumbai – Suresh, a daily wage labourer at one of Mumbai’s largest factories comes home frustrated after getting lesser pay than promised. He decides to join a union but is refused on the basis of not having any proof of employment.

July 2020, Mirzapur – Mahesh, a migrant labourer reached home after a long journey on foot from Bangalore during the recent nation-wide lockdown due to coronavirus – a rash decision that left thousands like him jobless and without support. It’s been a month and he still hasn’t found a job. The few factories that have started operations in Uttar Pradesh are paying even less than his previous job. With the  recent ban on labour laws in his home state, Mahesh is planning on migrating to his previous low paying job at the state-owned factory in Bangalore. He has decided to stop hoping for a brighter future for his children.

Listening before assuming

As designers and implementers of solutions for unemployment, CSOs can help by understanding the context of the people they work with to uncover their needs, opportunities and constraints. They need to adopt aspects of behaviour science in practice, with empathy and creativity as core principles instead of implementing prescribed solutions based on assumptions that may not always hold true.

There is a general tendency to perceive rural communities as helpless, dependent and backward. A perception formed as observers not members, and possibly blurred by our myths and assumptions. Deep listening can uncover values and strengths of communities that can challenge these perceptions. A moment captured during a field visit to Madhya Pradesh marking the beginning of a dance that brought the conflicted community of village Poha Khas together. When asked what the favourite thing about their homeland was, they said ‘we fight but can’t live without one another’. Photo credit: Stuti Sareen.

For example, monetary transfers by the government have not been able to reach informal workers in rural communities during the pandemic in India mostly because they were not delivered through accessible channels. Even those who managed to receive a couple of hundred rupees, ran out of savings in less than a month. In rural communities of Madhya Pradesh, a micro credit facility managed by local women has customised its credit products to match the needs of the people and local entrepreneurs, especially for those providing essential services such as groceries and transportation to their communities.

Facilitating Networks of Cooperation

The rate of unemployment in India continues to increase with over 90% of workers employed in the informal sector. This can be attributed to the linear nature of development initiatives in terms of working without collaborating. Initiatives need to work on reducing barriers to collective action and identify existing opportunities and strengths they can build on.

Work 4 Progress is one such initiative in the Global South that functions as an open innovation platform to facilitate convergence between its members – workers in the informal sector, implementers of solutions and policy makers. It functions on the premise that both internal and external resources and ideas are important for advancing development solutions. The platform aims to build a shared identity amongst its members and work towards the common goal of creating dignified livelihoods.  It is creating a culture of collaborating at local levels in India and is also informing solutions for job creation in Peru and Mozambique by giving value to the collective voices of informal workers.

Development initiatives need be connected with the socio-economic and cultural realities of the communities they work with. Only then will they become effective forces in ensuring the voices of community members are heard and included in decision-making practices.

Stuti works for a social enterprise on applying design thinking for creating decent jobs in rural India. She has a Masters in International Political Economy from King’s College London and has worked with the UN on policy reviews.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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