Urban Livelihoods: Learning by Doing

If I were to choose one word to define my research, it would not be climate change or adaptation, it would actually be livelihoods. Livelihoods. How people earn a living; a process, a strategy that goes much beyond a \’job\’ or income source\’, a negotiation that people and families make to live, and meet their physical needs and, if you\’re lucky, aspirations as well.

\”Livelihoods are understood not only in terms of income earning but a much wider range of activities, such as gaining and retaining access to resources and opportunities, dealing with risk, negotiating social relationships within the household and managing social networks and institutions within communities and the city.\” Beall and Kanji (1999:1) 

Until a few years ago, I was working exclusively on rural livelihoods. How households deal with climatic risks (among other things) and what livelihood pathways they take. The rural development literature has had a relatively long engagement with the idea of livelihoods: from here comes the now-common lexicon of sustainable livelihoods and five livelihood capitals (Scoones, 1998; 2009), livelihood diversification and risk spreading (Ellis, 1998), and multiple discussions on methods to study livelihoods (Murray, 2001; McLean, 2015).

\”A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (including both material and social resources) and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base.\” Carney (1998:4).

More recently, when I began examining livelihoods spanning the rural-peri-urban-urban continuum, the literature has seemed less developed. Urban livelihoods differ from rural livelihoods in their nature, range of opportunities and earning possibilities, as well as entry criteria. Constructs common in rural research such as \’community\’, \’common pool resources\’, \’village leaders and elites\’, take on different meanings and forms in the urban. The slum leader may double up as labour contractor and (illegal) water provider. Lines of gender, caste and class remain but they take on different forms and confer different agency in the urban. Even defining a household becomes tricky (Beall and Kanji, 1999). Interrogating all of this from a livelihoods approach requires a lexicon that moves away from agriculture and allied sectors towards spaces such as factory floors and street vending, domestic work and call centres. That moves away from discussions around landholding sizes and livelihood portfolios towards encounters of choices and aspirations with globalisation and sharp class differences.  

And so, over the past year, I have been documenting urban livelihoods across India using the the hashtag #UrbanLivelihoods. So far I\’ve covered Delhi, Lucknow, Bangalore, and Mathura to create a photo repository of the diverse activities people undertake in our messy, hard-to-define, and ever-changing urban spaces. It is a tentative foray into the range of livelihoods one encounters in the urban. And so I have captured the fodder sellers of Vrindavan who are part of a tourism industry that feeds on the \’holy cow\’. The agarbatti rollers in Bangalore\’s pete area. The singhara seller in Lucknow, and the Nepali house maid in Delhi.

See all of them here.

\”We can do it sitting at home\”. Threading strings of mogra (jasmine). #UrbanLivelihoods in #Bangalore pic.twitter.com/i4FhH5SakQ

— Chandni Singh (@_chandnisingh) August 18, 2016

Published by Chandni

Environmental social scientist @iihsin Research climate change adaptation, livelihoods, development. Book hoarder, plant lover, doggo devotee.

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