Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Sep 17, 2018
CBOs and SHGs consultancy – a model to combat urban poverty in India

Urban poverty is a big problem in India. World Bank 2014 figures indicate that around 24 percent of the urban population of the country live in slums. In mega-cities like Mumbai and Delhi, that figure jumps to over 50 percent, making it the country with the second biggest slum population, only after its neighbour China. Slum settlements, originally planned to be temporary in nature for migrant workers, are home to millions of people across urban India. Most of these people lack the most basic services of housing, sanitation, access to clean and safe drinking water, security, health, education, and employment opportunities. While traditionally it has been the role of the government to deal with the issue of urban poverty, its efforts are not enough to tackle the issue. With poverty reduction schemes do not cater fully to the needs of the poor, civil society emerges to fill some of the gaps.

Community Based Organisations (CBOs), Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Self-Help Groups (SHGs) are people-led grassroots organisations that work in the realms of micro finance, community engagement, business and trade, service provision and advocacy. They are led, represented, and conformed by and for members of their communities, including many, if not most, urban slums. While a census on CBOs and SHGs in India has yet to be carried out, many of them are led by women. They are instrumental in combatting urban poverty, as many of these organisations are managed by slum-dwellers themselves. As such, they carry the experiences and aspirations of their constituencies, along with their history and knowledge of the issues that they face. Thus, they are valuable resources when implementing urban development schemes as their lives are directly affected by their own efforts and interventions.

Such was the case of the 2002 Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP), aimed at improving rail and road transport services in Mumbai, which required over 100,000 people to be resettled. The World Bank takes resettlement for their projects very seriously to provide funding, and thus the project did not only provide formal housing for the people resettled regardless of whether they had legal rights to their former residences, but also provided appropriate services such as schools, nurseries and women centres for the resettled to carry on their livelihoods. This was largely due to the advocacy and community organisation that grassroots establishments performed, and to ensure their constituencies had a say on what was ultimately going to be shaping their lives.

This has been well noted by the Indian Government and other multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, which have recognised their activism and the importance of including them in their own schemes. Initially through fighting forced eviction, these organisations managed to forge partnerships with municipal corporations and other government agencies to make them the beneficiaries of urban poverty alleviation schemes. An example of this are the Community Based Organisations formed under the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai’s World Bank-initiated Slum Sanitation Programme (SSP), in which the municipal corporation agreed to build toilets under the condition that CBOs manage and administer them. Today, around 700-plus CBOs are playing a critical role in provision of sanitation services in slums across the city through the shared community-toilets. Another example is the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana – National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM), in which SHGs are entitled to government loans to set up businesses.

While these programmes provide world-acclaimed models for sustainable community-managed projects, they are not without their shortcomings. These initiatives rely almost entirely in the CBOs’ and SHGs’ capacities to manage the projects once established. In the sanitation scheme, once the toilets are built the CBOs and SHGs are responsible for their maintenance, which they might not have the capacity to do. Furthermore, as the organizations were not involved until the final stage of the process in where the “final product” was delivered, through the maintenance of it, some CBOs were created and exist for the sole purpose of ripping the monetary benefits that the MCGM provides through the schemes and not to serve the community they represent.

Towards a better model

To create a better model in which CBOs and SHGs act as powerful forces to combat urban poverty, they need to be involved since the initial stages of these projects as consultants. These organisations work with the communities targeted by the urban poverty alleviation schemes the most, and as such they know that their most pressing needs are. With this knowledge in mind, urban planners would have a better perspective on what the issues and viable solutions are that would serve everyone involved.

Moreover, if the communities are involved since the beginning in the project that will be introduced in their community, they will have a sense of ownership of the product itself. This will serve as an incentive to maintain and protect the product, and to further spread the benefits of it to the neighbouring communities. Products such as community toilets, affordable houses and livelihood schemes would greatly benefit from this approach. Further incentive would be to provide a monetary investment from the community itself, that would link their money to the product they are receiving.  This has been attempted before in the SSP, but it proved to be unsustainable. Therefore, this quantity could be symbolic and adjusted to consider the financial situations and what the community can contribute without making it unaffordable.

An example of this model has been applied in affordable housing. The SHG Mahila Milan has won architecture awards through better adapting free housing to the needs of its tenants. Their role as consultants since the initial stages of the project was very important as they made sure that the housing provided by the MCGM is adequate for the slum dweller’s necessities, ensuring the success of such projects. These include proximities to schools and health centers, as well as livelihood opportunities. This ensures that the resettled people stay in the places they’ve been relocated to, instead of having the necessity to move to other slums that are closer to their living needs, as well as speeding up the process as they counted with the community’s support.

To further enhance their value and contributions in urban development projects there needs to be a more centralised system between these organisations, something which could be achieved through digitalisation. The activities and services provided by these organizations might overlap, and there is not a comprehensive registry of their achievements, nor are there reports or evaluations from them. Digitalisation would provide these organisations a platform to provide those and share common practices with each other. For this to happen, they need to be provided with the necessary technology and internet access and thus be included in how things work in the 21st century. By keeping a comprehensive record of their activities, organizations can prove that they are a good fit to undertake poverty alleviation schemes. Furthermore, if these evaluations show a lack of capacity in a certain sector or area, appropriate support can be provided to the organizations.

There is a tendency in public policy to look for solutions that can be scaled up, as public funds need to reach as many people as possible. However, CBOs and SHGs provide a more local, community-based approach to urban poor development. Therefore, instead of trying to use them as tools to implement poverty alleviation and urban development schemes, they should be considered as essential consultants to these projects and ensure that they are appropriate skilled and supported through the process. Solutions and initiatives are out there, but there needs to be the political will to take them to the level in which everyone can enjoy a safe and healthy standard of living.

The writer is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. She is an economics student at Wellesley College, Boston, USA

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