By Aravindan Srinivasan, Associate Director, Urban Sanitation
The COVID-19 pandemic has reiterated the importance of decentralised and localised action to be able to impact lives, especially of those pushed to further marginalisation.
It has also thrown light on how community-level collectives such as Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in urban areas are emerging as key cogs in the wheel to ensure that problems of vulnerable populations are kept at the centre.
Many have even stepped up their work to meet the growing demands of masks and running community kitchens, across the country. This opens up a great opportunity to scale up practices that support efforts to involve communities.
While local governments are mandated to play a pivotal role in delivering services such as safe sanitation, communities and their platforms are crucial to help identify gaps in service delivery at the local level. These platforms act as local institutions to give voices to the urban poor and create spaces for collectively negotiating demands of basic urban services with Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). At the same time, they provide a continuum to many initiatives, so that they can be sustained even after the exit of the initial catalyst.
Involvement of community members in various ways boosts confidence and ensures the dignity of the community members, who can emerge as local champions to spearhead implementation activities.
There have been successful examples of community engagement in health and livelihoods. SNEHA’s Mahila Arogya Samiti program fosters the formation of women’s groups in urban slums to improve Universal Health Coverage.
This greatly expands the scope of community interface in local governance since the functioning of the program is tied up to the health services of the local government.
Industree Foundation empowers local communities by leveraging their traditional, artisanal skills and integrating them into the formal industries sector.
The Foundation assesses the traditional skill base of communities, organise them into production units, and help them develop products that appeal to modern markets.
Both initiatives showcase how collective empowerment tackle multiple dimensions of development; providing stepping stones towards communities acquiring a voice and individuals gaining greater financial security.
Such demonstrations are, however, limited when it comes to urban sanitation. Stakeholders working towards improving complex systems of urban sanitation can draw inspirations from the health and livelihoods sectors, where community platforms have been mobilised, trained and bolstered as leaders to enhance the lives of communities.
However, there are pockets in the country where community platforms have played a huge role in creating awareness around safe sanitation practices. An example of that can be seen in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, where community platforms like Sanitation and Hygiene Education (SHE) teams have helped create awareness in the slums, discussed sanitation requirements with city officials and are in charge of managing the financial sustainability of a network of public toilets across the city.
Community platforms allow for direct two-way dialogue between municipalities / ULBs and urban poor/low-income populations. Such platforms are important to provide information on sanitation services, deliver them and drive behaviours for utilization of toilets and uptake of Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) practices. The municipalities’ active engagement with urban poor communities is critical to ensure compliance, and sustained use of safe sanitation.
Enabling community-based platforms holds great potential to achieve multiple wins around improving livelihoods, addressing hyperlocal sanitation needs and creating a platform for inclusive development.
Urban Local Body (ULB) officials and community platforms have often demonstrated integrated approaches to create community engagement models in urban sanitation. These are good examples of how community platforms are key to address the challenge of urban sanitation and governance, not just as beneficiaries of schemes but as key stakeholders and partners in the implementation.
Fostering community platforms to scale their impact requires support from stakeholders that can collectivise, educate and build relevant capacities. An interesting point to note that most of the community platforms mentioned above have been formed with the help of NGOs and civil society organisations. Often, challenges that community platforms face are around aligning with government’s scheme delivery protocols and the community’s capacity to access those protocols.
NGOs, thus, can play a great role in simplifying the process and convergence across schemes. Additionally, for cities across India to replicate and scale up the solutions similar to those mentioned above, an enabling policy environment is required. Local governments must recognise these community platforms as critical partners and provide for adequate financial support. Creating an institutional framework on jobs and skills for community platforms, with a focus on the sanitation and waste management sectors will go a long way to secure livelihoods and ensuring inclusivity.