Self-organized communities and development practices

Priyanka Jain, Delhi Community Manager
Delhi, 2 September 2014

Self-built houses and self-organized communities, termed as informal neighborhoods in India, are often conceived as outside the domain of established practitioners. Since providing services to these communities doesn't typically pay the bills, it's seen as a secondary aspect of practice, with the larger questions of equity and access to finance left in the hands of government agencies. Further, the rhetoric of political campaigns, and acute awareness of interdepartmental divisions of government agencies that hamstring efforts to work together, mislead us into thinking we have to choose between social and business — as if those are the only tools in the box. We don't. Today, I will focus on practices that chose to play a catalytic role in bringing together varied interests of low-income communities in Delhi.

Founded in 2009 by Rakhi Mehra and Marco Ferrario, micro Home Solutions (now mHS City Lab) worked in India for four years on the ground providing solutions to low-income housing issues for urban India. Among the major projects spearheaded by mHS was the Mangolpuri Project, where they realized the multiple benefits of catalyzing the self-construction market. "Moreover, as people are continuing to build regardless, we felt it was important to leverage the opportunity by helping communities build safer and helping them access finance," says mHS co-founder Mehra. "The pilot highlighted the need to build an entire support ecosystem in order to help self-built communities grow properly. Mangolpuri is a resettlement colony with a 99-year lease, which is sufficiently secure tenure for loans to be extended to homeowners. This enabled MFIs to finance constructions. Another important factor was to have a community organization to partner within Mangolpuri. The Baliga Trust partnered with us along with MFI BASIX. This changes the nature of intervention, allowing us to work with the people rather than for them." mHS is now working internationally on similar assignments and engaging with academic and research institutions on workshops and generating research on informal settlements.

In the outskirts of Delhi, Julia King, an architect and PhD candidate, did similar work in partnership with CURE in Savda Ghevra Colony. The focus of her effort is on decentralized sanitation systems for regularized low-cost settlements. According to her website, "The project strategy acts from two sides: intense on-the-ground research identified inhabitants' needs and expectations; and top-down, the municipal authorities were involved and urged to reconsider regulations that would be more practicable in poor neighborhoods. The outcome is a community cluster-based sanitation system that is additively applicable by installing simple elements such as rainwater collectors; individual basic toilet bowls; and shared black water collection." Julia King is currently involved in various sanitation initiatives, low-income neighborhoods, and housing projects in India.

The third case study, Hazrat Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative, is situated in the midst of the historical monuments and posh colonies of South Delhi. The initiative demonstrates culture as a significant tool for development. As AKTC project director Ratish Nanda says, "To be effective in India, it is essential that conservation is used as a tool for socio-economic development of the inhabitants within the conservation areas." Through a community-centered collaborative approach, conservation work has been coupled with major efforts in education including a revamp of MCD primary school, street improvement plans, and setting up a pathology laboratory, among others. In addition, two community toilets have now been built, providing a clean and safe facility, especially for women; separate bathing and washing areas; and child-friendly seats for the millions of annual pilgrims who visit the Dargah.

All three projects offer precedents for development practices in low-income neighborhoods of Delhi. Yet it is difficult to scale these community solutions. One of the major reasons is the lack of a necessary institutional mechanism at local level. To bolster these practices, the government needs to implement the 74th Amendment of the Constitution that will introduce Local Area Plans and provide necessary legitimacy to community participation such that these practices become mainstream in Delhi.

Photo: Savda Ghevra

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