By Janaki Kibe, AHI South Asia Associate
The power of community leadership was particularly evident during my recent visit to the Parivartan Slum Upgrading Project in Ahmedabad. The “Parivartan” or “transformation” project is a public-private-community partnership to bring basic services and infrastructure to slums. Each actor contributes 1/3 of the total on-site capital costs of services provided. While much has been written on public-private partnerships, community participation is often overlooked, despite being an essential piece of the slum upgrading puzzle.
As I entered the Vishwas Nagar slum in Ahmedabad, I was greeted by Meenaben, a local community organizer and member of the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT). As one of the earliest residents to Vishwas Nagar, Meenaben had lived there for over 20 years. She is a mother to one child, and her maternal instincts and ever ready smile made me immediately feel welcome. She was extremely easy to talk to and very knowledgeable, qualities that have helped her become a well respected community leader and MHT staff person.
It was easy to understand Meenaben’s initial skepticism towards MHT. Before MHT and Meenaben worked in Vishwas Nagar, it had dirt roads and no sewer or indoor water connections for individual houses. Many NGOs and MFIs had come to Vishwas Nagar before MHT. Most had failed to engender community support and deliver on their promises, and the lives of slumdwellers remained largely unchanged. But MHT was different.
Rather than talking down to community residents, it actively involved local residents. It worked to empower poor women through capacity building into leadership positions. MHT recognized the power that local residents had to mobilize community members, engender support for programs, and communicate residents’ demands, so MHT was persistent in its approach in Vishwas Nagar. Staff held multiple community meetings, explaining residents’ rights and ways to access different government services. In a final attempt to appease skeptical residents, MHT told residents, “If you really want things to improve, come with us and we’ll take you to the municipal corporation.” Despite hearing a lot about the municipal corporation none of the slumdwellers had actually been there. Meenaben was one the residents who took up MHT’s offer. Going to Municipal Corporation was a turning point for her: for the first time she felt empowered to change her surroundings.
Meenaben began to work closely with MHT, leveraging her role within Vishwas Nagar to mobilize community members and facilitate access to basic services and infrastructure. She went door-to-door, speaking with neighbors, collecting contributions for various government initiatives, and helping organize community meetings. Since Meenaben was from the community, it was easier for her to gain her neighbors’ trust and support than it would have been for an outsider. Today, Vishwas Nagar has paved roads, street lighting, a sewage system, individual toilets, and private water connections. There is also a health insurance scheme which helps slumdwellers pay for visits to the doctor.
Meenaben’s experience highlighted the following points:
(1) There is great value in selecting good community-based leaders. Meenaben was an integral player in the transformation of Vishwas Nagar. She was well-known, liked, and respected within her neighborhood. Most importantly, community members trusted her. Once Meenaben was convinced of MHT’s positive work she became a strong voice of support for MHT in the neighborhood. She also helped convey residents’ demands to MHT.
(2) The actions of local community leaders can spur neighborhood-wide support. Meenaben gave an example of a time when her actions helped spur community-wide action. In order to pave the road in Vishwas Nagar residents were instructed to demolish a few meters from their homes. No one wanted to be the first one to demolish their house in fear that they would be the lone acting agent and the road would never be paved. Meenaben decided to be the first person to demolish part of her house, which included a newly built toilet. Her action showed slum dwellers that they needed to work together for the greater good of the community. It also demonstrated her faith in MHT. Her action catalyzed other residents to follow suit, which allowed for eventual street paving. It’s not enough to simply tell others what to do, action can engender greater action.
(3) Selecting community leaders who are good communicators is important in achieving sustained community support. Meenaben was extremely knowledgable of the different government programs and schemes available to slumdwellers. She was able to distill complex programs into easy to understand ideas. Being able to answer questions (and even admitting “I don’t know the answer, but I will find out and tell you”) has helped her to maintain trust within her community.
Regardless of MHT’s good intentions, without making Meenaben and other women like her leaders and an integral part of the slum upgrading process this project would have failed. Working together, MHT and Meenaben were able to completely transform the landscape of Vishwas Nagar.