Year founded: 1997
Geographic reach: India; headquarters in Patna, Bihar
Annual budget: INR 148 million (Indian rupees) (2016 budget)
Number of employees: 530 (2016)
Nidan incubates organizations that mobilize and strengthen the collective action of informal workers. These organizations are registered as non-profit and for-profit companies and cooperatives, all sharing the philosophy of including informal workers in board and leadership positions, and as shareholders. Nidan identifies common needs across informal worker groups, develops sustainable business models and trains emerging leaders so that organizations can advocate for protective legislation and create sustainable markets for informal worker services and products. Once the organizations are functioning from an operational perspective, Nidan provides supportive services to each of them, including financial reporting and audits, training and development for board governance, and ongoing access to its broader network. To date, Nidan has initiated and established 22 independent, self-sustaining organizations that have brought together and empowered more than 700,000 workers and their families across nine states in India.
Self-employed and casual workers make up over 90% of India’s workforce, representing nearly 500 million workers1 and generating more than 50% of the national income.2 Informal workers are a valuable and visible part of many economies, yet are frequently exploited due to a lack of formal protection and benefits. These workers receive irregular and insecure income, are unable to access standard labour protections, such as social security, and are vulnerable to exploitation by employers. Self-employed informal workers have similar issues, combined with lower access to finance and to market and government incentives for micro- and small businesses.
In 1996, Arbind Singh returned to his hometown of Patna in the Indian state of Bihar. After studying sociology and law in Delhi and becoming actively involved with relief work during his studies, Singh felt a responsibility to return to Bihar to try to rectify some of the injustices he had witnessed in his youth. During this time, the plight of street vendors in India was reaching a crisis point, with many experiencing widespread exploitation and harassment from the police and government authorities. Encouraged by his mentor, Singh founded Nidan with the aim of assisting street vendors to improve their situation through mass mobilization of the sector.
After extensively surveying the street vendors in Patna and similar efforts by other organizations in states across India, Nidan founded the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI). With his support, this network of street vendor organizations successfully advocated for the National Street Vendors Act, which passed in 2014 as the first comprehensive legislation for street vendors in the world. Following from the experience of building NASVI, Nidan has applied the process of organizing to numerous informal workers’ groups, including for construction workers, waste pickers (garbage and refuse collectors), domestic workers, rickshaw pullers and agricultural workers.
How Nidan works
Nidan supports communities by working at each stage of the organizing process:
- Data gathering: The first stage is gathering data and understanding the current situation for a category of informal workers. Data gathering has important benefits beyond analysis of the situation. Through this process, Nidan works closely with groups of informal workers to identify pressing issues and demonstrate the importance of collective action. Data gathering is also an important step in identifying people to lead each institution in a sustainable way.
- Community organizing: Singh believes that numbers of people constitute power, particularly in the face of well-resourced, entrenched forces. As he explains, “The core of everything is organizing from the households on up; even children, we organize. This is important because we take on very hard forces and we have to be strong. Even when we fear the mafias the most, this is when we have to organize the most decisively.” Once organized, groups of informal workers begin to identify ways of helping each other, and begin to be recognized as a collective voice by employers, industry associations, and local and national government leaders.
- Business model development: Nidan identifies and tests sustainable business models for each organization to ensure financial and operational sustainability. Business models are diverse and include for-profit strategies, donor funding, membership dues and government subsidies.
- Cultivating leadership: All the organizations incubated by Nidan have informal workers in positions of management, governance and leadership. Nidan invests heavily in identifying these workers and training them so they can step into such positions. It meticulously trains emerging leaders in the tools of leadership, including democratic process, agenda setting, transparency and community engagement. While this process is time-consuming and costly, Singh believes it is the only way to sustainably provide for informal workers’ futures.
Nidan initiates, establishes and consolidates “people’s institutions” that enable poor and marginalized communities to take collective action. From the start, Singh realized that organizations come and go, and he was worried about what would happen if Nidan were to close its doors. He wanted to find a model that went beyond sustainability, creating support in perpetuity for the poor and marginalized. In his work with street vendors, Singh become conscious that informal workers were best served by creating independent entities governed and operated by the people they were designed to protect. While many organizations aspire to a build-operate-transfer model, Nidan’s goes deeper: it works from the inside out, building structures of leadership, operations and governance alongside the core activities of advocacy and service delivery. Figure 3 shows an overview of the Nidan operational model.
Figure 3: Nidan Operational Model
Note: LRC = Learning Resource Center; SHG = Self-Help Group; CBSG = Community Based Savings Group; SMC = School Management Committee
Source: Nidan Annual Report 2015-16
Organizations initiated by Nidan use different business models and legal entities; they include non-profits, cooperatives and for-profit companies. In each of the organizations, informal workers take on leadership positions, such as in management and board membership, and are groomed to assume increasing levels of responsibility for operations and governance. Ultimately, Nidan aims for each of its offshoots to become self-sustaining, either through revenue generation, membership fees or grant funding. Nidan supports them with its broader network, providing advocacy support and initiating collective action when it believes broader organizing is necessary.
Finally, Nidan also provides the offshoots with back-end support (technical assistance for financial reporting, monitoring and evaluation, and legal needs). Institutions must submit regular management and financial reports to Nidan, which then submits the annual financial reporting, audit management and donor reporting requirements.
Communities can self-organize to change a powerful status quo
Self-organization occurs when individual choices of behaviour emerge to form patterns and community norms. However, disempowerment and lack of access to information can distort individual decision-making. These issues are exacerbated when individuals and families struggle to maintain their livelihoods. Social entrepreneurs can stimulate self-organizing by helping communities identify their common issues and overcome barriers to social justice. In addition, social entrepreneurs can ensure their products and services do not create dependencies that lead to further exploitation.
Organizing starts with learning
Margaret Wheatley, the writer and systems theorist, writes: “Because identity is the sense-making capacity of the organization, every organizing effort – whether it be the start-up of a team, a community project, or a nation – needs to begin by exploring and clarifying the intention and desires of its members.”3 Nidan’s initial work with groups of informal workers is to fully understand the issues they face through extensive surveying, and then to educate them about their rights and the opportunity to organize. Once workers are organized, Nidan supports the group to identify activities they will undertake to overcome issues and unfair practices.
Questions for social entrepreneurs
- What steps can you and your organization take to learn about the issues facing your clients and beneficiaries?
- What issues prevent your clients or beneficiaries from organizing and assuming power?
- How can your organization identify and develop leadership from within the communities you serve? Do community members sit on your board of directors and/or act as shareholders?
“Smart growth and development can only be achieved if citizens are given a chance to participate. When you are in the speed of things, you don’t always bring people along. It is important to bring people along.”
Arbind Singh, Founder and Executive Director, Nidan