India long has been known for its Permit Raj, also known as the Licensing Raj, which makes it difficult to establish a legal business and pushes many people into the informal economy. Indeed, more than 90 percent of Indians, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the nation’s GDP, work outside of the law. Street vendors play a significant economic role. In Rajasthan, for instance, even the 2 percent of people involved in street vending amounts to 10 million people. Only 4 percent of them possessed legal licenses.
Entrepreneurs are made vulnerable by the lack of property rights and legal protections. Government development plans do little to accommodate the employment needs of migrants who pour into the city as urbanization continues. Vendors often are abused, and corruption thrives as officials demand bribes.
The Centre for Civil Society (CCS) is working to solve these problems. CCS is a New Delhi-based public policy think tank founded in 1997 by Parth Shah, who taught economics at the University of Michigan before returning to India to promote more classical liberal and market-based policies. He sought to spur what he called a “Second Freedom Movement.”
The organization’s efforts to achieve social change emphasize four parts: research, community mobilization, stakeholder engagement, and legal action.
“We fight for the economic freedom and property rights of the informal sector — street vendors, cycle rickshaw pullers, micro entrepreneurs — that make up 90 percent of India’s workforce,” said Shah.
The Jeevika Livelihood Campaign seeks to better the lives of entrepreneurs among the poor and those they serve, through direct action. CCS focused on lowering entry barriers for a range of occupations, including artisans, cycle rickshaw pullers, small shop owners, and street hawkers. The organization pushed to legalize their status, create legal recognition for property rights to structures and equipment, and expand access to the financial system. A related objective is to improve the capabilities of local governments to oversee informal economic activities, manage public spaces, and accommodate street vendors. The objective is to enable more people to engage in more activities while reducing their vulnerability to harassment and extortion.
CCS holds that the ability to earn a living is a basic factor in people’s quality of life. Moreover, it maintains that poor people have as much right to economic liberty as those of greater means, and often a greater need for that liberty. Expanding freedom of choice disproportionately benefits those who are in worse financial positions. Increased entrepreneurial opportunity also is an important tool for combating poverty. CCS emphasizes the role of informal entrepreneurs in meeting important consumer needs.
CCS has developed a strong international reputation. In 2016, for instance, it was the third highest rated among think tanks in India and 81st in the world. CCS has also received several Templeton Freedom Awards, and earlier this year it received the Asia Liberty Award.
An Atlas Network partner and recipient of the Leveraging Indices for Free Enterprise Policy Reform grant, CCS emphasizes several policy areas, including good governance, economic liberty, globalization/free trade, environmental protection via property rights, and education. To advance its broad agenda the organization studies issues, analyzes legislation, promotes documentaries, offers seminars, and organizes issue campaigns. It also created CCS Academy to manage training programs for government officials, journalists, businessmen, and young leaders.
Operating in the world’s largest democracy, CCS faces a unique and daunting set of challenges. In just a few short years, however, it has had a marked impact on two of the most serious problems facing the poor, not only in India but throughout the developing world: employment and education. CCS initiatives have directly benefited the lives of those in greatest need, a proud accomplishment. Many poor Indians are living better, and their children are likely to do better still, because of the efforts of CCS and its dedicated staff.
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Atlas Network maintains that some of the best lessons for achieving impact are taught by sharing success stories of similar organizations. The case study highlighted here features the work of the Centre for Civil Society, the winner of the 2017 Asia Liberty Award. If you would like more in-depth inquiry, guidance, and discussion, be sure to participate in Atlas Leadership Academy’s Think Tank Impact online course, which includes case studies about other award-winning projects. This course, run quarterly throughout the year, allows participants to learn, share, and address organizational challenges along with others from the worldwide freedom movement. New case studies are being published regularly, so keep an eye out for future publications and recommend this course to your colleagues.