Free Societies

Social change through public policy in India: global policy perspectives with Bhakti Patil

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India’s poorest people labor under regulations that keep them from creating opportunity for themselves—and their plight often goes unnoticed. But change is possible for this enormous and politically diverse nation, and promoting social change through public policy provides a path for reform that will impact millions.

At last night’s Global Policy Perspectives event in New York City, which attracted 70 Atlas Network friends, allies, and media, Bhakti Patil of India’s Centre for Civil Society (CCS) laid out a bleak picture of the problems that more than 700 million Indians face every day.

"The project of liberalisation in India has been both unfinished and incomplete, and deeply fissured,” said Patil, who is Atlas Network’s current Smith Fellow. “It is the poorest of her people who have remained without the opportunities that it has brought others. It is the poorest of her people who continue to be the worst victims of our draconian regulatory regime, who lumber under our intractable bureaucracy and excesses of government—condemned to a life of illegality and indignity."

Patil spotlighted CCS’s efforts to protect street vendors as proof that public policy reform can make a difference. The story of Dinesh Kumar Dixit, a New Delhi bangle seller who was profiled in Atlas Network’s Doing Development Differently video series, illustrates how CCS’ Jeevika Livelihood campaign has liberated India’s “micro-entrepreneurs” from systemic fees, fines, bribes, and confiscations.

Before CCS was involved, the law disallowed street vendors from joining the formal economy and thus this exposed them and all others in the informal economy—which makes up over 90 percent of India’s GDP—to systemic fines, extortion, and a denial of basic human dignity.

"Street vendors are so much a part of our everyday,” continued Patil. “And yet, it is every day that we bear witness to their humiliation and abuse, and to their toil for a livelihood, despite the indignities that we afford them. For over a decade now, we have been working to end their abuse, to bring them a life of dignity through a legal guarantee of their rights, to enable them to lift themselves out of poverty."

An especially moving story that encapsulates the situation many street vendors experience came when Patil discussed what inspired CCS to get involved in this policy area.

"It was what we saw happening each day, right outside of our office window, that drove us to launch our campaign back in 2009,” Patil said. “An old woman would lay out a piece of cloth each morning, arrange her vends of vegetables and wait for passers-by to buy some, doing good business on some days.” Patil shared how the woman’s routine never varied and her business never grew, despite her daily hard work. The reason why was stunning: “’When the police come in to raid my vends,’ she said, ‘I can very quickly wrap the cloth and run. Anything more would mean a confiscation of my vends. I would never be able to get them back, and lose my livelihood.’” Patil told the audience that the woman’s plight was what drove CCS to action—the realization that the absence of legal protection meant that she would always be condemned to a life of poverty. Said Patil, “The extent of her business, in some sense, was limited to the breadth of her arms.”

For years street vendors knew no other way of doing business, always needing a watchful eye on corrupt authorities who might abuse their power. CCS’ years of sustained advocacy on behalf of those working in the informal sector culminated in the passage of several reforms—one of which was the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act. The law secures the rights of street vendors to have a livelihood and ply their trade without harassment or eviction from the local authorities, while also providing street vendors like Dinesh with a voice in the system through Town Vending Committees (TVCs) that look into matters affecting street vendors.

"For Dinesh, and for the 10 million street vendors like him, the passing of the Act means dignity, and it means empowerment,” concluded Patil. “The dignity to pursue a livelihood of one's choice, the dignity to make a living, even if it be on the streets. It means empowerment—not only through legal protection against harassment and abuse—but by enabling them to sit across the table and confer with the same government officials who once raided their vends, as rightful and equal partners in their own governance."

CCS is one of six partners that have partnered with Atlas Network this year on Doing Development Differently’s visual storytelling project which features the downstream beneficiaries of our partners’ work. CCS is empowering some the least well-off in India—people who do not seek special favors, but merely the right to make a life for themselves and their families.

Made possible by the Achelis & Bodman Foundation and the Smith Family Foundation, Atlas Network’s Global Policy Perspectives series brings think tank leaders to Manhattan for talks on timely and topical policy issues affecting their countries and how their work fits into those landscapes. Future events are online at www.AtlasNetwork/events.