Shared by Eric, Deepika (PRIA, Raipur)
According to the 74th Amendment to the constitution, the Indian government has tried to establish strong “Urban Local Bodies” (ULBs) and has assigned 18 responsibilities to them to provide proper services to urban citizens. But, even though this devolution was meant to more firmly institutionalize people’s participation in their own governance and service provision, it has almost universally excluded the urban poor living in slums. Thus, while the government claims to be empowering people, in practice, they have not promoted the conditions or capacities to make this a reality. People have become so dependent on the government that they cannot imagine raising their voice against it.
As part of PRIA’s Strengthening Civil Society Voices on Urban Poverty project, a team visited Pavarti Nagar, a slum along a section of railway track, to discuss the possibility of organizing a slum improvement committee for participating in government schemes such as RAY. The meeting took place during the days of Durga Puja, and the community had constructed a beautiful Durga display. Bhajan worship music played over massive speakers as people washed and socialized after a day’s work. This was obviously a community capable of working together.
The first people who met us as we gathered for a community meeting were women who had organized themselves into a women’s committee. We asked about life in the slum, and she shared that they had just received eviction notices from the government. She said that the women’s committee wanted to do something for the slum dwellers, but they couldn’t figure out what to do. She was eager to hear what we had to say about creating a more powerful slum improvement committee.
The slum dwellers understand that they are living in hazardous conditions by the rail lines. They are willing to go if they are evicted, but this raises many troubling questions: Where will they be sent? What kind of housing complex will it be? How far away from the city will it be? Will there be any opportunities for livelihoods there? To what extent can they be agents in finding answers to these questions?
So we gathered on blankets around the Durga and began to talk about opportunities for organizing a Slum Improvement Committee to raise their voice. Suddenly, a man stood up and asked:
“Why should we fight against the government? Because government is the one who is giving us everything. If government wants to evict us and dump us in the place outside the city, I’m ok with their decision. At least they are giving us houses to live in. If we oppose them, we will not even get this.”
This sparked a disagreement among the people, and the crowd grew more restless. We struggled to get them to settle down and speak in an orderly fashion. Some, like the women in the women’s committee, were convinced that action should be taken to organize. Others, like the man, were afraid of the possible repercussions.
What would make this man stand up and say so adamantly that he doesn’t want to oppose the government? Has the government won his loyalty through steadfast support? Or has the precarity inherent in slum life made him too afraid to step out of line? The man is right to be wary of the consequences of action. The women are also right to be wary of the consequences of inaction. The process of organizing in this community will mean holding these two impulses in tension. By wrestling with various courses of action, the community will work out who they are and where they want to go together.
If they ultimately decide to take the risk of raising their voice, PRIA will be there to help them understand clearly the political challenges and opportunities available through government schemes. We will help them connect with other people in other slums also wrestling with the same issues. We will help them connect with other organizations with resources and influence.
The practice of organizing requires pragmatism. The community may, in fact, not choose to see the government as the enemy at all. It is clear that at least some parts of the government sincerely want what is best for the urban poor and want their voices to be part of decision-making processes. It is only a strong community, however, that is capable of more than simple rage or resignation. Only once organized can a community claim the right to hold government accountable while also offering to be a partner in the task of governance and service provision. This power is born in slum-level organizing and is consolidated through strong relationships with other civil society groups at all levels.