Information gap and disillusion as barriers against public participation!

This article provides some reflective remarks on Orientation organized by PRIA with and for slum dwellers of Patna, as part of the program Strengthening Civil Society Voices on Urban Poverty

By: Hugo Ribadeau Dumas

Helping out the urban poor to seize the opportunities for urban development

After decades of intense focusing on rural areas, the Indian government is now slowly, but progressively, shifting the approach of its development policies towards the urban poor. In a context of rapid and sometimes brutal urbanization, the scale and the depth of the vulnerability of destitute urban communities has dramatically increased. It is in such background that the Rajiv Awas Yojna (RAY) was designed: launched in 2011, this ambitious national program aims at transforming in depth both the built and the legal environment of the most deprived neighbourhoods of Indian cities. Its ultimate bold objective is to generate a so-called “slum-free” India.

Even though the RAY has been relatively slow to take off, especially in terms of implementation on the ground, its long-term impact on the Indian urban poor could be genuine; some colonies could obtain a legal recognition, while others might instead face forced relocations. Since the livelihood of millions of inhabitants is likely to be massively affected by the program, it is therefore urgent to check if these targeted populations are ready for the challenges they will be facing soon.  In other words: are citizens aware of the harms and of the benefits that could be brought by the RAY? 

The orientation: Providing slum dwellers intellectual tools to take the best out of social security schemes and orient them towards better living conditions

In this context, PRIA recently organized in its Patna office an “orientation ”, whose goal was to inform slum dwellers about the stakes of the RAY, and more generally about the concept of social security. The idea was both to measure their level of knowledge on these questions, and also to provide answers to their worries and questionings. This workshop, which took place on the 07/01/2013, is part of a larger endeavour, namely the Project:  Strengthening Civil Society Voices on Urban Poverty. With the belief that “knowledge is power”, this program attempts to raise awareness among slum dwellers regarding their rights and their capacity to act.

Following this approach, PRIA invited 14 inhabitants from various slums of Patna to attend the workshop. The meeting lasted for about three hours. All the participants were members of Slum Improvement Committees. As often presented in Terra Urban, these participatory bodies were set up by PRIA through the assistance of local partners. Ajit Kumar, a representative of such partner, Hamrahi, also took part in this workshop. The discussion was led by Amitabh Bhushan and Abhishek Kumar Jha (PRIA, Patna office). 

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Lessons from this participatory experiment: information gap and disillusion as barriers against public participation

As compared to previous similar workshops organized by PRIA, it is worth to note that the audience was this time particularly reactive – participants did not hesitate to ask questions or clarifications. Similarly, the participants seemed relatively well-aware of numerous issues related to social security. For instance, they were familiar with a large number of the urban development schemes that were introduced to them during the workshop. Yet, despite these positive features, the panel of the orientation workshop was also characterized by an important deficit of knowledge. Typically, the slum-dwellers were completely unaware of the existence of the RAY.

An important moment of the workshop was thus to explain them the principles, the goals and the stakes of the RAY. It was striking to notice that most of the participants revealed being highly pessimistic about what was presented to them. One woman vehemently shared her concerns regarding the transparency of the survey campaign that would be necessary to implement the program; she notably referred to instances of corruption that occurred in previous surveys. Another participant shared with us his scepticism regarding such State initiative, especially concerning the risk of eviction, and expressed his frustration by mechanically challenging the provisions presented by PRIA’s staff. On the whole, the panel appeared highly suspicious and disillusioned concerning a possible interest that they could get in a government-led scheme such as the RAY.

Convincing slum-dwellers that they could actually benefit from the RAY appeared as the major challenge of this workshop. The panel seemed to grasp very quickly the possible risks of the schemes, but was much less prone to acknowledge its brighter aspects. Without awareness of possible gains from government schemes, vulnerable citizens will for sure be reluctant to back, or even to take interest, in such projects. The absence of awareness regarding the potential advantage of government schemes – and more generally the well-spread lack of credibility of State institutions within slum dwellers – seems to be crucial factor of lack of investments of citizens in such public debates.

Conclusive words: how to capitalize on the slum dwellers’ spirit of contestation?

This workshop underlined once again that appropriate knowledge is the key to public participation. A clear comprehension of the gains that can be derived from social security measures would surely improve the willingness of local population to be more active on the public sphere.  A mere 4-hour discussion, such as this workshop, will for sure be insufficient to transfer to slum dwellers the required intellectual tools to take the best out of the RAY and Social Security Schemes. But this experiment highlighted a genuine sense of inquisitiveness within the panel– most of the participants seemed eager to voice their concerns and, even more interestingly, to challenge the provisions under the government schemes. Therefore, the up-coming challenge will be to turn this reactive critical stand into a constructive long-term posture. 

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2 thoughts on “Information gap and disillusion as barriers against public participation!

  1. terraurban January 22, 2013 at 6:53 am Reply
  2. […] in previous blog posts Slum Dwellers Disenchanted With Government Schemes , One Step at a time, and Information gap and disillusion as barriers , PRIA is working with other grassroots NGOs to help organize slum dwellers in 2 cities of […]

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