Data Gaps in Urban Informality

This study aims to bridge gaps in data on the urban poor and informal sector workers in Chennai.

This study makes a case for more complete documentation of the dynamic interface between city spaces and informal sector workers, primarily made up of the urban poor, and maps some of these patterns for the city of Chennai. There is currently little documentation on how the urban poor in the city of Chennai make use of the city as spaces to live and work in. This is in part due to the static way in which urban policy debates have been framed: data that is currently collected about the informal sector focuses either on people (with debates centring around the definition of informality and the size of the informal labor force relative to formal) or on places (with debates and policies focusing on informal settlements or slums).
The lack of documentation of the intersection between people and places impedes policy-makers’ ability to design holistic city plans that consider the realities of a substantial section of urban populations – the informal workforce. By way of addressing this critical gap, this study uses primary data generated through interviews with membership-based organizations of the working poor and NGOs in order to explore some dimensions of the relationships between informal sector workers and the urban spaces they inhabit.


This study, although small scale in scope, demonstrates that such data can have important implications for urban policymaking, particularly in policies relating to urban poverty, transportation, housing, governance and design of city spaces. This study was presented at the Thinkers and Writers Forum of the Skoch Foundation conference on Financial Inclusion, held in Mumbai in July, 2009.

Thematic Area

Institutions and Society

Project Leads

Nithya V. Raman