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That thing called Community Participation

The recent housing policy Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) envisions slum free cities by 2020. The policy requires that all the slums in a city be surveyed and mapped, before plans are made for the development of these slums. Enough has been written on this blog about how, despite the emphasis on community participation in the guidelines of the RAY, surveying is nearly complete in Chennai slums with no involvement from the people whatsoever. For instance, see here and here. Guidelines also state that people can create plans for their own slums and submit these to the government for implementation. Every time we urge people at our outreach meetings to seize this opportunity to improve their neighbourhoods, they in turn ask us how they could possibly make plans, and whether we could help them create one.

This is how we came up with the idea of a slum community mapping manual, using which people can map their own slums and represent themselves to the government to demand services under the RAY. With the help of interns Nidhi Subramanyam and Anna Alberts, we have come up with a toolkit that is simple and intuitive without relying on technology. The end product of this toolkit would be a set of hand drawn maps created through participatory processes that are up to scale, meeting all of RAY’s requirements. (Watch this space for more blogposts on how the manual was actually created). The toolkit would also enable residents to have structured and informed conversations about what local resources are required and where they could be located.

Recently we conducted a pilot of the toolkit at a slum in Nungambakkam. This slum is now facing the threat of eviction because part of the slum sits on a defunct storm water drain that the Corporation of Chennai now wants to revive. At an opportunity we got to talk about RAY and its emphasis on in situ development of slums, we pitched the idea of the mapping exercise. Both the people at the meeting and our partner organisation that works in the area were very enthusiastic about the possibility, and recognised that the maps could be a useful tool to fight against evictions.

After a meeting with the organisation to discuss the various steps of the meeting, and two more meetings with the community at the end of which the consent of the residents was sought, mapping work commenced. Things were initially very smooth, with people patiently answering all our questions and enthusiastically participating in the participatory processes… until the nearly-final stage of creating the various layers of basic facilities in the slum.

Image 1: Community mapping in progress

Chaos ensued as some of the attendees did not want to participate in an exercise whose outputs will ultimately go to the government. Distrust of the government is understandable, especially after all these years of eviction threats and government hostility in general. But what was surprising was that this objection came up so late into the process – after three outreach meetings and at least 30 people signing their consent for the mapping process! One of the residents even thought we were going to be giving away pattas (land title documents) and Rs. 1.5 lakh to every house as part of the initiative! If only we could!

Although we tried to convince the people that the maps will only be a tool to strengthen demands for in situ development of the slum by the government, it was in vain. Ultimately it was only when a member of our partner community organisation, who also resides in the slum, suddenly appeared on the scene and explained the objectives that peace – and hopefully, faith in the process – was restored. We were lucky to get most of our work done before chaos broke out, but all things considered, that meeting had definitely been derailed.

The pilot taught us a number of things. Firstly, that no matter how many outreach meetings one held before beginning the process, it is important to reiterate the objectives – and the limitations – of the exercise to people at each interaction. Second, it was underscored that we could not take on the task of mobilising the community, because no city resident is going to trust someone who has been working in their neighbourhood for only a week. It is absolutely essential to have a member of the NGO/CBO present during every step of the mapping process. Most of all, the meeting reminded us that all public meetings are volatile spaces where despite our best intentions, things may not go as planned.

This also raised larger questions about the role of NGOs and CBOs in slum areas, and about community participation in general. What, in the eyes of the government, constitutes community participation, and who is to make this happen at the individual slum level? What is the right way to obtain consent from a community, and how much consent is enough consent? What does the government expect from NGOs and CBOs? What results can they achieve, and can they all achieve similar results?

“Community participation” is a complicated affair in practice. It cannot be achieved simply by throwing a process, a CBO, and the community together. We are now working on hosting the final meeting in the slum to discuss the final maps, and starting the mapping process in a new neighbourhood soon. Meanwhile, we are also trying to recruit a student corps to take the work forward. More updates soon!

Ward 57 (Kalyanapuram) monthly meeting update

Transparent Chennai conducted a Ward Accountability Experiment (WAE) in Ward 57. This involves mapping the provision and conditions of essential services and public infrastructure. This data was used to initiate a transparent process where the elected officials and the community can engage in a constructive dialogue to improve their neighbourhood. Citizens are now raising grievances in a monthly community meeting with the councillor to demand improvements. For a brief history on the beginnings and objectives of WAE in Ward 57, read this.

Our entry into the Kalyanapuram slum on July 29 for our fourth monthly meeting made one of our team members exclaim in delight about the new roof that had been installed over the wash area, and the bathroom that was undergoing a makeover with new tiles. These developments were a result of the issues raised by the community during our earlier meetings. We decided to use this as an example of the positive outcomes from community participation to persuade more people to attend, and collectively raise issues.

The turnout at the meeting was significant. One of our team members introduced and explained the purpose of the meeting, and ran through the checklist of resolutions made in the past meeting so that community members could monitor the progress made by the councillor. One lady, who had committed to be the caretaker of a toilet, complained that she had not yet received the keys. The councillor responded that she would be given charge once the refurbishment was complete. Work for clearing out the debris from the roads was ongoing at the time of the meeting.

The members were then invited to raise issues one by one. Since some of the people were first time attendees, they raised several issues without paying heed to the work that had happened so far; nor did they acknowledge that ongoing work would take some time to be completed. At this point, the noise levels in the room peaked as people started conferring amongst themselves without paying attention to the issues raised by their neighbours. The room was soon divided into groups based on their prioritising of issues, and each group refused to listen to the other. People started approaching the councillor with individual grievances. Any attempt at trying to pacify the groups and getting everyone to participate in the true spirit of a community meeting, seemed to fail. This caused half the attendees to leave in frustration.

At this point, the councillor stepped in, and asked the remaining people to respect others’ complaints and cooperate. He tried explaining to them that these meetings were a space for the community to raise slum-level problems that he could solve in his capacity as the elected representative. With some coaxing, a few people stayed back and started voicing their issues. On the issue of garbage disposal, the councillor replied that a dumpster had been provided at the entrance to the slum, but people continued to dump waste on the street. He urged people to take responsibility for the maintenance of facilities once provided. As far as clearing the drains in the washing area were concerned, he said it could be done if people refrained from using the washing area for a day during which the works would be taken up. Other issues included the repair of the faulty public tap near the temple, and renovation of the toilet block close to the canal. However, by this time, the residents’ enthusiasm had dwindled and they continued to reiterate issues that had already been raised in previous meetings, and which were already being attended to.

While we had hoped that the results of previous meetings (visible improvements in the neighbourhood) would encourage residents to participate with more enthusiasm, we were disappointed to find the community divided on issues, unwilling to listen to each other, and unwilling to allow sufficient time for changes to materialise. For future meetings, we have planned to display some progress charts with pictures to facilitate an informed participation of first-time attendees. We are confident that the councillor keeps up his efforts and community members spread the word so that people continue to participate.

Written by Nidhi Subramanyam, intern, Transparent Chennai

Food for Thought

After an afternoon of kindly requesting officials at the Corporation of Chennai for data on basic municipal services, we stumbled upon the Herbal canteen at Ripon building. The food was absolutely delicious. While we had planned to sample only one plate of vadai, we found ourselves devouring two plates each. The canteen also seemed to be managed well, looked clean and hygienic and was very affordable. If the standard of the Herbal canteen is anything to go by, Amma canteens (comparable in terms of menu and price) are probably just as fabulous.

Enough has been said about the phenomenon that is the Amma Canteen. For instance, sample this, this, and this. The Corporation of Chennai is opening new canteens at breakneck speed. This programme, launched in February 2013 with 15 canteens, now has about 200 canteens in the city with one in every ward. [1] With a double-digit food inflation rate making essential food items unaffordable for many, these Amma canteens are a welcome alternative, especially for the urban poor. The food is healthy and nutritious: on the menu are items like herbal tea, sambar with assorted vegetables and ragi puttu. But what really are the hidden costs of Amma canteens?

Our field work at Transparent Chennai has unintentionally proven revelatory about what these canteens mean to the existing municipal infrastructure of the city. For instance, when we were mapping and surveying night shelters for the city’s homeless, a regular user of the Nandanam shelter on Chamiers Road told us that the Corporation was seriously considering converting that shelter to a canteen before they identified an alternate location. At another Corporation shelter for the homeless on Third Line Beach road we learnt that one dormitory had been converted into a canteen. In another instance, a typically devoted AIADMK councillor casually mentioned the pressure he was facing to open a canteen in his ward. We also noticed that a conservancy office in Alwarpet has recently been converted into a canteen. There was also an article about a public toilet in Thirumangalam that was renovated and converted into an Amma Canteen. The report states that the Corporation was in a hurry to open a canteen as soon as possible and this led to an allegedly unused public toilet being converted.

Spurred by the tremendous response the canteens have received from the public, there are reports that the government is considering opening them all over the state. This level of efficiency in the implementation of a government initiative is unprecedented and raises questions about why we do not see a similar drive and efficiency in other development programmes.

Another matter of concern is one raised by the renovation of existing public facilities to adapt them for a use other than their original purpose. This entails a significant cost, not just the actual costs of renovation but also the loss of important public buildings, such as libraries and even the Tamil Nadu Secretariat. Public infrastructure must be planned according to the need and demand for them by people who need them most. The possible difficulties involved in identifying and acquiring land in every ward for a canteen and the pressure on existing Corporation infrastructure may be very real. Yet allowing transient political priorities to supersede planning processes involve real costs too, costs that must be made a part of the cost-benefit calculation of any infrastructure and service initiatives.


Written by Priti Narayan and Vinaya Padmanabhan with inputs from Harsha Anantharaman, researchers, Transparent Chennai