Friday, 7 August 2015

How Community Mobilization Influences the Political Environment: Reflections on Pune

Yerwada was an in-situ upgrading project aiming to build permanent ground, ground floor +1 and ground floor+2 houses. The cost of each constructed house was Rs 300,000 rupees, with 90% of the costs funded by the different branches of government (local, state and national). The remaining 10%, Rs 30,000, was provided by each household. In total, the project built 1125 houses in 8 different wards.

Mahila Milan in Pune
There are a few elements that made the Yerwada project a success. First, the involvement of the community in all the stages of the project, from design to implementation, guaranteed that the needs and expectations of the households were satisfied. What particularly characterises this case is the key role played by groups of women, who assumed the leadership positions throughout the whole process. Second, by upgrading households and services in-situ rather than relocating them, the government managed to maintain the cohesiveness of the community and improve their conditions faster, as in-situ upgrading is generally deemed to be the most socially and economically desirable strategy for low-income housing. Third, this project created job opportunities for the local community throughout its implementation phase, thus fostering a true sense of community participation in the project and sense of ownership of the households.

Nevertheless, the element that captured our attention the most was how crucial of a role the political environment actually played in allowing the development of this project. The political environment is key in order to enable communities to influence the process of agenda setting. The policy process is a complex interaction of problems, proposals (solutions) and politics (political environment). In order to move a cause higher in the hierarchy of the political agenda, these elements need to come together. When this happens, we are in the presence of a “window of opportunity”. For advocates of a cause, the success of their proposals is determined by how well they can influence, create and identify this window. This means that if the political environment is not ready to focus on a particular problem or to receive a particular solution, the window will be closed for the champions of the cause, and their proposal would not make it to the “short list”. This is why developing a proposal is not enough in the policy game, and advocating, coalition-building and policy-learning are all necessary to influence the conditions that will prepare the political environment to implement any solution.

In the case of Yerwada, SPARC, Mahila Milan and NSDF had been gradually creating the conditions to engage with authority for decades through their enumerations, precedent setting, exhibitions, and other successful projects in line with the general SDI model. These activities slowly built linkages of trust and camaraderie between different members while simultaneously strengthening them as a community. As such, it is important to understand the process by which the women of Mahila Milan empowered themselves politically in their formative stages to truly grasp why the subsequent Yerwada project was a success. 

In Pune, when the women of Mahila Milan first assembled themselves in 1993-1995, their initial socioeconomic surveys identified sanitation to be the most pressing issue. After doing so, with the help of NSDF, they set up various meetings with local politicians that resulted in improved sanitation, not only for the slums but also for the entire city. One important thing to note about this project is that a proposal put forward by the women of Mahila Milan Pune, when received in an enabling political environment, turned into a full-fledged project involving 8 organizations working in over 500 neighborhoods.
Confident by the launch of their sanitation project in 1999, they moved on to secure land for relocation of slum neighborhoods that they had surveyed and that were affected by the recurrence of floods in 1997. Although they had identified a specific piece of land in Hadapsar for their members, a road widening project that was happening simultaneously in Patil Estate led them to alter their plans. 98 houses were to be demolished, and those residents sought the support of Mahila Milan to convince city officials to relocate them rather than face eviction. Mahila Milan chose to offer the land in Hadapsar to the former Patil Estate residents instead of the original members that MM sought to relocate. This project was crucial in legitimizing the actions of Mahila Milan in the eyes of local government because they approached government with an alternate solution to eviction that was feasible and easy to implement. Once again, the political environment along with their community efforts converged into the perfect opportunity window to advance their needs and materialize them, with the commissioner incorporating additional neighborhoods to their plans. The negotiations that were partaken by Mahila Milan turned into a bigger project with three NGOS contracted to contribute on a fixed price basis. In doing so, they emerged as equal partners with the local government in the planning, design, and implementation of these projects. 

Upgraded lane in Yerwada
Around 2008, when JNNURM was launched, Mahila Milan tried to work on upgrading in two slums: Ram Tekdi and Yerwada. Yet, after facing opposition in the former, they requested from the Municipal commissioner that additional subsidies be allocated to the in-situ upgrading project in Yerwada. Their first efforts to upgrade this site consisted of pressing the government for cluster housing for people with less than 100 square feet per household. Cluster housing grouped people together to form groups of land that met the 270 sq. foot requirement to take advantage of the BSUP program. They included more floors in their design to increase the space per household, but grouped households together horizontally so that they met the requirement. Their other task was convincing the residents that BSUP was in their interest. As Savita recalled, when BSUP was to be implemented in Pune, people were skeptical at first due to the failure of earlier government programs and it took them almost 2 years to convince the community to be on board. Mahila Milan finally achieved community agreement and participation with a spatial demonstration of model homes using bamboo and cloth to showcase to the local population that such projects would indeed improve their livelihoods. With the political clout that they had garnered from their previous projects, they were also able to pressure local government to be more transparent with the people. They also had lower-ranked politicians accompany them to better inform residents about their work and convince them that it was in their favor. 

It is interesting to draw a contrast between these successful projects and the experience of Mahila Milan in Ram Tekdi where the political environment obstructed their progress in that area. Even though they tried to implement the same strategy, they did not receive the support of local politicians. Instead, the local politicians initiated a campaign to convince the community that they shouldn’t respond to SPARC surveys and that an alternate SRA project conducted by a private builder was in their best interest. As a result, the population demanded the SRA project over the SPARC one-house-per-household proposition as they thought they could get more than one unit per household. Since SPARC and MM act based on the interests of the community, they pulled out of that area and failed to move past the negotiation phase.

The work of Mahila Milan Pune showcases the need to have a groundswell of organized people utilizing local assets and resources for collective and participatory problem solving, yet what ultimately determined their success was the existence of an enabling political environment that reverberated their requests on a wider scale and implemented them at a broader urban level. As such, the contrasting experiences of Mahila Milan Pune highlight the importance of the policy environment in materializing their projects. In Ram Tekdi, MM implemented the same strategies, yet the difference in the receptivity and endorsement of the local politicians obstructed their progress. In Yerwada, problems, proposals and politics came together and proved that when all the parts are involved and their interests align, solutions are easier to implement and their impacts are deeper and longer lasting.

Jehane Akiki and Dafne Regenhardt,
The New School, Graduate Program in International Affairs

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