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That thing called Community Participation

October 1, 2013 by

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!

One thought on “That thing called Community Participation

  1. The distrust by communities is indeed a challenge that cannot get resolved until they see some positive outcomes. The questions that you raise are valid – the state needs to define ‘participation’; but if the community was never involved in framing the process, how can the state really expect them to buy into it?
    But I’m extremely happy to read that this process has started! Keep up the good work Priti and Aishwarya!