The author of this article, Hugo Ribadeau Dumas, is a master student in urban governance (from Sciences Po, Paris). He is currently interning with PRIA in Patna, Bihar.
Photo: Slum dwellers during an “orientation meeting” organized by PRIA in Chhapra (Bihar), in February 2013
“Han ji”(Yes sir). These two words could sum up very well the spirit of slum dwellers when interrogated about participatory processes they are involved in. Did you find today’s discussion fruitful? “Han ji”. Did you understand everything from yesterday’s training session? “Han ji”. Do you agree with the next steps we are suggesting you for the slum improvement committee? “Han ji”.
Whatever dry or disorganized meetings might be, the reaction of the inhabitants will almost invariably fit this “han ji framework”. Social workers familiar with the field will probably agree with this point: the tendency to acquiesce without questioning too often characterizes interactions with the most destitute citizens. The roots of this relative apathy are numerous: lack of skills (to speak in public, for instance), lack of confidence (“Won’t sahab be upset if I tell him I did not like his meeting?”) or simply lack of interest (“What difference does it really make if I did not understand?”).
But, more generally speaking, putting aside the reasons for this lack of critical reactivity, the “han ji syndrome” shows us that participation does not necessarily imply empowerment. Giving poorer communities the opportunity to raise their voice is for sure a decisive step in this direction. But it might be insufficient. What we can see on the field is that a great share of citizens involved in participatory institutions (such as the Slum Improvement Committees, set up by PRIA in various cities of Bihar, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh) actually follow instructions without integrating them: they accept to attend meetings, they accept the rules of the participatory programmes, but to which extent are they aware of their meaning and ultimate objectives? They often “participate” without truly grasping what it could potentially imply in terms of autonomization and community strengthening.
In other words, they do not necessarily see participatory processes as “theirs”, but rather as something ”higher than them” brought by outsiders. It is revealing that, when asked about the reason of their participation in a meeting, slum dwellers often answer “because somebody asked us to come”, without referring to their personal expectations. In the same vein, when interrogated about the agenda of Slum Improvement Committee’s regular meetings, it is not rare that inhabitants simply answer “whatever you want to talk about, Sir”. Such observations do not mean that slum dwellers do not care about the meetings; they are on the contrary usually extremely attentive to what is being said to them. But it shows that their participation remain largely passive, not active. Which explains the prevalence of the “han ji syndrome”.
The role of organizations such as PRIA, whose goal is to offer the urban poor the tools to combat their own fights, is surely to destroy this “han ji reflex”. A major challenge is to generate instead what we could call a “nahin posture” (a “no posture”). In order to genuinely appropriate participatory arenas, citizens should be ready to say “nahin”: nahin, I did not understand what you told me; nahin, I do not agree with you; nahin, I think what you are proposing us for the future will not work out. Such critical stand would prove that inhabitants have integrated the challenges implied by the participatory process, and that they truly feel part of it.
It is our responsibility to help local communities to pass from “han ji” to “nahin”. By multiplying meetings, by spreading knowledge within the neighbourhoods, by encouraging debates, a certain culture of contradiction, contestation and protestation might emerge from these populations. It obviously requires time and a strong involvement at the grass-root level, not only of the inhabitants but also of supporting-NGOs. For promoters of community participation, like PRIA, it also implies encouraging inhabitants to be critical about the whole participatory process and therefore accept amendments from inside.
Contrary to what one might counter-intuitively think, the success of participatory approaches should not be measured by the number of “han ji” pronounced by the participants, but rather by the frequency of the “nahin”. This objective should always be in the horizon of empowerment projects
“Hai ki nahin?”
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For criticisms or to share some ideas on how to generate a “nahin posture” among the inhabitants, the author of this article can be contacted here: firstname.lastname@example.org
The second part of this paper, which will include proposals on how to struggle against the “han ji syndrom”, will soon be published on Terra Urban.