Arbind Singh

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2007


This profile was prepared when Arbind Singh was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.
The New Idea
As India’s informal sector continues to grow, Arbind’s organization, Nidan (the Hindi word for ‘solution’) works to capitalize on the sector’s strength in numbers, using large people-owned and managed institutions to influence policy and market dynamics. Long overlooked by the government and with few prospects of improving their basic living conditions, informal workers are now securing economic and social inclusion, and emerging as legitimate competitors in India’s market economy. By introducing multi-tiered worker cooperatives, Arbind has created a bridge for the hitherto unorganized poor to solicit business and to negotiate services and roles in the mainstream economy.
Nidan now promotes sixteen cooperatives in all, including the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), a member-based organization now active in twenty states, as well as enterprises of ragpickers, jute pickers, craftspersons, home-based workers, rice growers, and the like. Its other cooperatives range from those geared exclusively for traditional midwives and other women’s groups, to large-scale housing cooperatives, designed to attract builders’ interests. The workers own and sell shares in the cooperatives, and remain at the forefront of all negotiations and decision-making.
Realizing that the poor need access to services in order to sell their products, Arbind has additionally negotiated partnerships with a popular marketing company and various service providers, including a nationalized insurance company whose tailor-made package of health and asset insurance now reaches more than 10,000 urban workers.
While companies were initially hesitant to service the poor, Arbind has convinced them that negotiating with large volumes of workers can indeed be a sound business decision. Today, his worker-led programs for collective enterprises among the urban poor have expanded the sector’s access to credit, housing, and social security benefits, and led to the formation of 1,800 self-help groups, affecting more than 50,000 families country-wide. Arbind is proving the transformative power of collective action, encouraging workers from a variety of social and religious backgrounds to come together as strategic competitors in today’s modern markets.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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