India's slums: how change happens and the challenge of urban programming

November 1, 2012

     By Duncan Green     

Behind the Beautiful Forevers – wonderful book)

I know they’re grim to live in, but I have to confess to really enjoying visits to urban ‘informal settlements’, especially at dusk, with that particular sense of intimacy as cooking smells and firesmoke drift through the air and domestic workers, rickshaw pullers and street vendors return at the end of another hardscrabble day to grab an hour or two to socialize and relax.

But today, we’re encroaching on that precious leisure time, chatting to an animated group of slum leaders, mainly women, on the edge of Lucknow. Here, an Oxfam partner, the Vigyan Foundation, is promoting community organization to demand identity papers, water and sanitation, and access to health and education.

Vigyan moved from rural to urban work in 2005, after running a slum mapping exercise by Oxfam in Lucknow & Allahabad. The work highlighted the importance of identity and visibility in Indian politics. Simply by showing the location and population of Lucknow’s many informal settlements, (the previous census had simply denied their existence), they were able to win numerous victories on access to state funding and services.

Beyond the specifics of the slum dwellers’ demands, Vigyan is working on slum dwellers’ sense of ‘power within’, when it comes to their rights and identity itself. Organizers describe it as moving from ‘we are on government land, we shouldn’t be here’ to ‘we are building the city, we have rights, we are not ‘encroaching’’.

The foundation also wants to counter anti-slum prejudice among Lucknow’s better-off residents by highlighting the extent to which the slum actually subsidises the city (eg by supplying cut-price domestics and street vendors, paying sales taxes, rubbish recycling). Anybody know of research on this in India or elsewhere?

Talking to local activists, as well as Vigyan’s staff, I am struck by how little we/they work with the many sources of social capital in informal settlements. They seem to think there is no savings activity taking place other than formal microfinance schemes (Portfolios of the Poor suggests there are numerous more indigenous ways of saving among poor urban people); anxious to maintain their secular impartiality, they largely avoid religious groups and leaders, despite their enormous presence and importance in the slums; they don’t seem very curious about networks based on place of origin (eg waste pickers from Assam), or moneylenders or the role of local teachers.

Yet all these are part of an ecosystem of power and relationships that plays a huge role in how people in slums interact. If well-intentioned activists go into a slum and start organizing as if on a blank canvass, they are at best going to miss opportunities. At worst, they are more likely to fail.

We talked about how the slum interacts with the external world of state officials and elected officials. Government-recognized ‘notified slums’ are ‘politically empowered’, so the first hurdle as slum dwellers start to organize is to get their slum notified, so it appears on the political and fiscal map.

Their least worst allies in this are the lowest tier of elected officials, the ‘corporators’ (what a great word). After notification, they distribute voting cards and see the slum as a ‘vote bank’, but at least that means the residents have a degree of leverage. Political parties have been visiting for years – lots of slum dwellers get voter cards long before they get formal i/d papers.

Seen from the bottom up, the corporators are the most engaged, but the least powerful links to the political world. Above them, few members of the higher tier state assembly (MLAs) are interested. Officials largely ignore city politicians anyway, as they answer to the state government. ‘The officials are worse, especially the low level ones – they ignore us or demand bribes. At least corporators listen, even if they don’t do anything.’

I ask the women why they get organized in this way: “Because we’ve got confidence, the people at the top listen to us now. When we had a water crisis, we approached the water department and got hand pumps. We used to work alone in our employers’ houses, but now we know how to talk. We want our children to assert themselves, not be like us.

Why vote? “We’re positive if our candidate wins, they will provide basic services. When it doesn’t happen, we’re disappointed, we wait five years and vote for someone else – what else can we do?

Why do so many women become leaders?: “The men are away earning money, so women have more time. And anyway, we suffer more: when there is no water, women are hit hardest. Women care about the kids, whereas our husbands just drink. If I have a problem (eg domestic violence) the other women help – that’s what an organization means. We’re illiterate (the attendance sheet has as many thumbprints as signatures), and we’d never gone outside before, so meeting and interacting like this feels good.”

The women and Vigyan organizers are inspiring, the sense of energy and personal and political progress palpable. In contrast, conversations in rural villages often seem more static, with a few organizers, usually men, hogging the airtime. But if the urban world is so much more promising (and its population rising so much faster than in rural areas), why is it proving so hard for international NGOs to overcome their rural bias and develop a greater level of urban work? Is it the greater difficulty of establishing attribution in the chaos of the slums, in our logframe-dominated world? Or do we prefer the ceremonies of rural work (the songs, garlands and even ribbon cutting) to the gritty urban reality of minding where you step and dealing with drunks?

Your thoughts, as ever, appreciated.

November 1, 2012
Duncan Green