ANSHUL RAI SHARMA
Hagiographies of local action have become commonplace in post-COVID mobilization studies (Laochankham, 2021). They focus on how the local actors can serve the needs of people, more importantly, the needs of the crisis moment in places where the welfare services of the State are ineffective or absent. These have failed in two ways: in their inability to account for numerous distinctive ways in which local intervention is possible and their lack of understanding of the current forms of interventions on the ground. This article focuses on the latter, a case study of current possibilities that will serve as an expansive tool for urban study’s conception of local action. This is written in the background of Client Led Project that I undertook in an urban slum of Bengaluru. Insights from the field have been articulated here, as per the demands of the project, tied with my own interests in urban poverty studies. I worked for Swabhimaan NGO, which is embedded in urban slum of Rajendra Nagar. My role was part of the formalisation of education vertical of the NGO, along with facilitating its routine functioning. The following are reflections about the space that this organisation constitutes in the policy realm.
Urban Slums of Bengaluru
The slums of Bengaluru, independent of the pandemic and in synchronicity with most slums in other global cities, have suffered two distinct modes of problem. These can be briefly summarized as the problem of the slums and problems inslums. The former view adopts programs that encourage slum-free cities (CIVIC Bangalore, 2010). The latter view is grounded in the issues that plague the urban slums. The State’s perception of the slum has largely adopted the former view. These have translated into various implicit and explicit forms of slum clearing. Implicit forms are visible in the lack of basic amenities that mark the lives of the people while explicit forms can be seen in the evictions and sealings (Fields of View, 2017)
Rajendra Nagar is a slum in Bangalore Urban, adjacent to affluent neighbourhoods of Koramangala and National Games Village. Most of its working population earn their livelihood as daily wage labourers, selling vegetables and other household items on pull-carts. Some of them are rickshaw drivers and only a few of them have regular jobs with stable salaries. A significant number of men have taken up jobs in delivery platforms of Swiggy and Zomato, while women work as domestic maidservants in nearby houses of Koramangala. COVID had an enormous impact on this space. Women have lost their jobs, children have stopped going to school, and the already precarious economic conditions of the community have further deteriorated (Roychowdhury, 2021). The rent economy of the urban poor, an under-researched and inadequately understood arena, is another major issue that the community is grappling with. Based on my interaction with the residents in several localities of the slum, it seems that high rents for compact spaces has led to a significant reduction in purchasing power of the people. In such spaces and under these conditions, it is the local community-led programs that have provided a remedy to the residents.
Swabhimaan: Community-Led Mobilization
Multiple ethnographic studies have emphasized the need to undo the category of ‘urban poor’. Such perceptiveness will yield a generative view of the people that abstains from viewing them as disempowered and passive (Belmonte, 2005). This distinction is crucial in the case of organizations like Swabhimaan. Started in 2000, it has worked relentlessly in empowering the community through verticals of Healthcare, Education and Subsistence. In this context, Swabhimaan is ideally placed as a facilitator in times of crises as understood by urbanists (Kedogo et al, 2010). Its intervention is organic, personal and effective. In this sense, the focus shifts to problems in the slums and the solutions prescribed are participatory. Through interactions with the organization’s volunteers, one gets a sense of pride and contentment in serving their people. Such examples overturn the usual dictum of last-mile delivery in policy analysis. An aphorism that is grounded in the cynicism of public welfare delivery, Swabhimaan serves as a reminder of rootedness that is crucial in the emergence of community-based organizations and organized communities.
Sustainability and Deliverance: Notes from the field
In my month-long engagement with the organisation, I had the chance to interact with the diverse set of volunteers who work day-in and day-out in the field. Community-led interventions of Swabhimaan have garnered legitimacy due to their responsiveness and grounded knowledge of issues fostered by the lived experiences of Swabhimaan’s volunteer network. One major issue that has been highlighted in such interventions is the informal nature of such organizations that translate into questions of sustainability (Krishna, 2011). Questions of legitimacy are answered but anxieties of sustainability remain. Simply put, the question that is posed to such intermediaries is: Who will take care of the people when you leave?
A refined look at this and similar questions will yield certain assumptions that field-based experience in this community aligns against. These questions of sustainability assume an impoverished view of such organizations and undermine the informal. The sustainability of the organization is handled by an emphasis on youth-led action programmes at Swabhimaan. In fact, all the major verticals mentioned above are led by young workers who are embedded in the space and are aware of the cause they are working towards. Indeed, it is the youth that constitute the core of all programs that Swabhimaan runs, inspiring sustainability and care practices.
The informality of the processes is another way of thinking about the participatory nature of the organization. Advocates of formal systems have inadvertently failed to capture the agency of these ‘informal’ organizations. They see them as bodies that fill the gap left by formal institutions, as opposed to being creative spaces that make prudent use of scarce resources (Graeber, 2015). Swabhimaan’s improvisation is generative rather than loose organization, fulfilling the long understood but rarely practised organizational wisdom that is seldom practised in bureaucratic structures (Graeber, 2015).
Another question of sustainability concerns ideological roots in the intermediaries. The prevalent claim is that these organizations will generally get absorbed in mainstream politics under the banner of political parties (Krishna, 2011). In sharp contrast to this, Swabhimaan’s method might be close to politics of patience which involves negotiation with all stakeholders and avoidance of any formal political alliance (Satterthwaite, 2008). By not yielding to one or the other party, the space has remained neutral and accessible to others.
Future for self-organizing communities
The final word on Swabhimaan’s impact deals with its relationship with other players in the space. In this regard, a mixed reaction emerges. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has been a key partner to them along with other NGOs like Saahas on issues such as waste management in the area. However, a different relationship exists in the education sphere. Several neighbouring schools have interpreted Swabhimaan’s education support interventions as rivalrous rather than collaborative, thus complicating the role of the student who is at the centre of this tense relationship. Alongside, the limited support for the urban poor from the state is seen in irregular and differential forms of patron-client relationships. In between election cycles and local political rivalries, spaces like Swabhimaan hold potential for collective action (Walton, 1998). This form of action is empowering and generative of news forms of welfarism. Studies on urban slums must account for the multiplicity of ways in which such interventions take place. This is likely to happen with on-ground research and narrative analysis of the people’s lives. It untangles the knots that constitute the beneficiary and benefactors, thereby creating an opportunity for solidarity. Such an understanding is key to looking at urban slums from a rights-based perspective, and thinking of inequalities of cities as produced (and reproduced) by current forms of developmentalism. This article has looked at the minimal view of slums from the State’s perceptive. It seeks to describe the potentialities of community mobilization in such spaces and how a better relationship with State might benefit both stakeholders. Such potentialities only reveal themselves through a multiplicity of methodologies. Policy evaluation and recommendations can enable substantive change only through such hybridity of perceptions. This will open the scope for a grounded theory that is independent of codified norms and constantly reinvents its hypothesis based on ground realities(Bryman & Bell, 2016). Some developments, such as drafting of the Slum development Bill, capture these realities and aim at substantive form of welfarism. Such documents show the possibilities of incorporating lived realities into policy and legal documents. This seems to be an urgent need and also the foundational democratic-value that every decision-making process must adhere to. It must be remembered that ‘Right to the city’ is embedded in the fundamental right to life. Urban crisis of the slums has direct constitutional ramifications that must be probed to articulate the differential nature of urban citizenship.
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