A video ethnography to explore the informal economy of Mumbai and understand the intricate interactions that form and support the informal economy of Mumbai.

A large part of the Indian economy is an informal one (93% vs 7% of the ‘formal economy’).

Our daily lives are supported to a large extent by actors functioning within this ‘informal’ economy which functions almost as an invisible network. The 93% was a project in order to understand how this informal economy works, and present that understanding to fellow solution creators in a rich, easy to understand & actionable form.

While following the waste collectors story, we ended up doing research on the entire solid waste management system of Mumbai, which culminated into a project – Wasteland 

About the Project

Whether it be the bhaji wala that brings food to your table, or the kachra wala that takes trash out of your house, despite providing most essential services to the millions of people living in this city, very little is known about their lives and how they conduct business. A majority of people who work in this sector, also happen to be from low-income communities, and the problems they face in working are closely tied in to their socio-economic standing in our society.

As formally educated, formally employed, upper-middle class citizens of Mumbai – our primary hypothesis based on personal experience and general perception is, that our economy is supported by various kinds of invisible networks that are not obviously visible to us as solution designers. By exploring/ uncovering the lives of regular people who live within these communities and are affiliated with different kinds of industries, we hope to understand more about the role that these networks play and how they can be supercharged with impactful contextual intervention.


Secondary Research & Planning

We spent 2 weeks planning the field visits – who to interview, scoping out locations, field testing our equipment, etc. To understand the context of the ‘informal economy’ we read government reports, newspaper articles, etc. We did an initial round of test interviews with people from the informal economy, who we had direct access to ( our bhajiwalas, kachrawalas etc)

  • stabilizer
    We made a stabilizer rig to shoot videos while in motion. Stabilizer rigs are expensive to buy, and our team figured that it would be more fun to build one.
  • planning1


Field work

Over three weeks we conducted video interviews with people falling in these three categories of the informal economy – fresh produce, solid waste & small scale businesses ( vada pav wala, corner store, tapri).

The interviews were conducted in the person’s place of work, so as to capture a glimpse of their work life in context of their stories. Questions covered their personal life, their history in the city, their work and challenges they face everyday. We wanted to understand their interaction with the rest of the city, whether it be the government, or the people they service through their work. The interviews were quite informal and open-ended, as the goal was exploration and serendipity.

  • Satish, sweeper
  • Narayan, bhaajiwala
  • Suresh, paanwala
  • Tiwari ji, raddiwala


Synthesis & development

Now that we had all these videos, we had to figure out the best way to share it in a meaningful way. We identified two use cases

  1. for researchers – rich, qualitative data about the informal economy, that could cut down their prep time when planning a field visit in India to explore any aspect of the informal economy.
  2. for mass consumption – as interesting media, that would serve to create connections between consumers and the people that provide them with such valuable services. This was in part a hypothesis to address the issue of increasing gaps between people living so close to each other but in totally different socio-cultural settings.
  • Personas of users we wanted to interact with
  • The plan for a web based platform


The project was part of my startup Ycenter. I was joined in this research by Namita Mohandas, an information designer from Mumbai.