Operationalising Social Protection: Reflections from Urban India

Gautam Bhan | 2023


A global pandemic has brought renewed attention to an old question: what do we owe each other? Calls to engage in thinking about a ‘new social contract’ have emerged rooted both in an intimate memory of crisis as well as in the possibilities rooted in relief work, mutual aid and stimulus packages. Scholars have sought to learn, for example, what relief measures could teach us about social protection in a ‘post-pandemic’ world, even while cautioning that socio-economic inequalities were only revealed rather than caused by the pandemic. Drawing on a set of empirical cases collectively produced by researchers (including this author) at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore, this article turns to a specific part of any social contract: the design and operation of social protection systems. Within this, it argues that operational modes of delivering social protection need specific attention within scholarly debates, especially in their complexities within the spatial and economic informality that marks cities of the global south. Put simply: how we deliver both existing and new entitlements is as important as deciding what entitlements urban residents should be entitled to. I offer four main operational concerns that mark the delivery of social protection to informal workers in urban India: (a) residence as an operational barrier; (b) workplaces as sites of delivery; (c) working with worker organisations as delivery infrastructures; and (d) building systems of recognition and registration of informal workers.