By Hugo Ribadeau Dumas and Abhishek Jha, PRIA
While the “city” of Bodhgaya might be characterized by a negligible demographic and geographic importance, its influence and prestige at the international scale is nevertheless undeniable. Officially labelled as a class-III town by the government, the nagar panchayat of Bodhgaya had a population of just 31,000 people according to the 2001 census. But it is at the same a major destination for tourists and pilgrims: hordes of visitors come here from all over the world come to visit the Mahabodhi Temple, famous for being the stage of the Enlightenment of the Buddha, and recognized as a World Heritage Monument by the UNESCO in 2002.
The international dimension of Bodhgaya, and consequently its economic potential and its brand value for both India and Bihar, is a strong parameter in the urban development of the city. It is indeed interesting to observe that, despite its limited size, Bodhgaya was selected among the 63 cities all over the country that would initially benefit from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM) and a City Development Plan was prepared under it in the year 2006.in 2011, the Government of Bihar (GOB) prepared again a new ambitious City Development Plan in order “to develop Bodhgaya as an international tourist destination by preserving its cultural heritage and by providing all basic infrastructure services to its citizens and tourists in an eco-friendly way” (CDP, 2011).
Yet, despite the peculiar attention that Bodhgaya managed to draw, improvements at the local level have been actually very limited. According to the mapping conducted by PRIA in 2012, the situation in the 19 slums of the city is still critical. Sewage systems are quasi-inexistent in most of the slums, and a great majority of the inhabitants still do not have access to private toilets. The government efforts have so far failed to address effectively these issues; very few urban poverty programs have been actually implemented by the Bihar Urban Development Agency (BUDA), and the funds channelled through the National Slum Development Program (NSDP) have been insufficient to generate any substantive impact (CDP, 2006).
In this context of global visibility associated with a permanence of poverty, one slum singularized itself and experienced an unprecedented model of development. Mastipur, as the neighbourhood is locally known, underwent what we could call an “incidental rehabilitation”, as it benefited directly from its international exposure. The neighbourhood belongs to the ward 17 and is located in the vicinity of the Mahabodhi temple complex. Populated by Musahars (Scheduled Caste and Mahadalit Community as per GOB), the locality is today surrounded by the Japanese Buddhist temple and various hotels and guesthouses. In the early 1990s, Mastipur received an unexpected international assistance. The Sri Lankan President of that time, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was himself a devout Buddhist, could not bear that the paramount pauperism of Mastipur could be sustained on such a holy land. To put an end to this situation, he decided to launch under his own patronage a Rs75-lakh in-situ up-gradation scheme with the funds of the Sri Lankan authorities.
The built environment of the neighbourhood was radically altered. 100 new concrete housing units were constructed – each featuring two rooms, one kitchen, and one bathroom. Each home got a taped connection to water supply, which is particularly rare in a city where only 10.5% of the inhabitants have access to such service (GOB, 2011). Proper roads and a community centre were also built at that time. On April 1993, the renovated neighbourhood was inaugurated by President Pramadasa himself, and officially renamed as “Buddhagayagama”, which means “The village of the re-awakened people” in Sanskrit.
However, the tale of Mastipur did not eventually end-up in a totally rosy-masti way. While the infrastructure of the neighbourhood is significantly better than most of Bodhgaya’s slums, its social situation is still highly problematic. The Sri Lankan project initially had genuine social ambitions. For instance, in order to address the livelihood issues, the Sri Lankan government provided thelas (pull carts), few cycle-rickshaws and training to make candles and incense sticks. The Government of Bihar issued licences to thela vendors for trading kerosene oil, but these licences soon became useless when a national law banned this activity. President Pramadasa also had in mind to develop a long-term network of exchange between slums dwellers of India and Sri Lanka. But in May 1993, only two months after the delivery of the new Mastipur, Pramadasa was killed during a terrorist attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Since this tragic death, the involvement of the Sri Lankan State faded away, to finally disappear.
Such initiatives were not always fruitful. A Sri Lanka’s newspaper, the Sunday Time, for instance highlighted in May 1998 that the very rickshaws that had been distributed were quickly sold to be used in the trading activities of alcoholic products (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/980628/plus9.html). Field observations by PRIA also revealed a non-appropriate use of some infrastructures; the school, which was not part of the rehabilitation scheme, seems for instance more prone to shelter cows rather than students (see photo attached). Twenty years after the rehabilitation of the neighbourhood, the question of maintenance is also a matter of concern. Without material assistance available, the sustainability of the built-environment is today seriously questionable, and this problem will tend to be reinforced by the demographic growth which is adding up even more pressure on the infrastructures.
Mastipur’s story highlights that slum up-gradation, whatever significant and well-intended it might be, must be compulsorily accompanied by a well-rooted follow-up, not only of the State but also of the local population. As compared to other slum areas in Bodhgaya, Mastipur was lucky enough to experience this “incidental rehabilitation” – however, the empowerment of its inhabitants was relatively not outstanding. During the whole process of rehabilitation, the participation of the community was feeble, and in the years afterwards the inhabitants did not collectively organize themselves to sustain and capitalize on the benefits of the programme, as mentioned above. One of the challenges now for Mastipur dwellers will therefore be to forge a platform upon which common issues could be discussed and rationalized at the scale of the neighbourhood. It is under this approach that PRIA has initiated in Mastipur a community-based organization called “Slum Improvement Committee”. In this committee, local problems will be debated on a regular basis and will thus be made more visible in the public sphere, so that local citizens can negotiate with the government and other agencies for their rights and entitlements.