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Rethinking Cities: Listening to People’s Voices — Towards Equitable Decision Making

By December 11, 2020December 21st, 2023No Comments

The webinar ‘Rethinking cities — Listening to people’s voices towards equitable decision-making’ in collaboration with INHAF — Habitat Forum, highlighted some of the most pressing issues in the context of housing in cities today.

The speakers represented a diverse spectrum from different cities like Nagpur, Mumbai, Bhopal, Guwahati, and the discussion was moderated by Marina Joseph, the Associate Director of YUVA.

This blog presents a summary of the highlights of the webinar.

Vimal Bulbule, Social Activist, Nagpur

Vimal Tai is a social activist from Nagpur and is also the Convenor of Sakkardhara Sudhar Samiti, Advisor to Savitribai Phule Mahila Naagri Sahkari Path Sanstha Maryadit and General Secretary of Kashtkari Ghar Kamgaar Sanghatna, Nagpur. She started her journey with YUVA and has over 25 years of experience working with various groups including domestic workers.

Her suggestion to make cities more inclusive was to take all the components of the society together and encourage collective action. Whether it is domestic workers, construction workers, labourers, rickshaw pullers, etc. they must have a say in decision making. Activating mohalla sabhas under the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act with representatives from bastis will ensure that decisions are taken with a bottom-up approach, she said.

Asma Ansari, Youth Leader, Mumbai

Asma Ansari is a young leader from Ambujwadi, an informal settlement in Malad, Mumbai. Since 2013, Asma has played a pivotal role in advancing youth engagement initiatives. She encourages young people everywhere to speak up for their community and build their own knowledge of their social, economic and political rights.

Talking about the pandemic, Asma elaborated on youth efforts. Realising the seriousness of the situation, the youth in the community led the ‘Fight against Hunger’ campaign for three months. There were financial hurdles that the youth faced, but by reaching out to personal contacts, local political leaders, youth leaders, civil society organisations, they successfully arranged for resources and provided some support to the people. Being a part of Malvani Yuva Parishad (MYP), a 5-year youth collective in the community, Asma and other youth like her have led change efforts from the front, being changemakers themselves.

Putting forth her recommendations, Asma emphasised on the provision of affordable and quality education and access to employment opportunities for the youth. Further, she stated the importance of participation and inclusion in policy and decision-making, saying that stakeholder engagement should be given a priority while making laws and policies.

Udit Narayan, Youth Leader, Bhopal

Udit Narayan is a youth leader belonging to the Pardhi Community which is a Denotified Tribe. Having completed his Bachelor in Arts, he is currently working with Majal Pardhi Youth Sangathan of Muskaan in Bhopal.

Udit stated that even after more than a century and a half, the stigmatisation of people in the community as criminals continues. People in the community have traditionally been hunters and gatherers, now engaged largely in waste picking. They have been chased away from their original lands and now they are forced to live in informal settlements in cities like Ehsan Nagar in Bhopal. Udit completed his graduation while facing all these prejudices and discrimination and now is a youth leader from his community, advocating for a life of dignity and rights for the people.

Udit recalls how he was stopped from distribution of relief kits provided by civil society organisations as he was identified to be from the Pardhi community. The community also faces issues in accessing identity documents as they are not issued any on their present address and do not have access to caste certificates because of legal provisions.

Maruti Dharvesh, Informal Worker, Navi Mumbai

Maruti Dharvesh lives in Nerul, Navi Mumbai. He has been a painter for 25 years and sources work from the Nerul labour naka and refers to himself as a naka kamgar. He lives with his mother, wife and 3 children. He is the only earning member of his family.

Being a naka kamgar, he receives 10–12 days of work in a month. The lockdown has just increased sufferings, he added. As a painter he is eligible to be registered as a Building and Other Construction Worker (BOCW) in the Maharashtra State BOCW Welfare Board. This will give him access to government social security. He had been trying to register for 6 years and was finally able to. The reason it took so long is because he could not produce a certificate from a single employer saying he has worked for 90-days — a document needed to be able to register with the welfare board and then receive social security benefits.

The pandemic has only made their situation worse. It has been 4 months without work. Naka kamgars wait at nakas to get work. He says, ‘We naka kamgars build people’s homes, but we don’t have a home ourselves.’

He demands social security through the Maharashtra BOCW Welfare Board. Along with that, reducing the 90-day work certificate, just the way mathadi workers have, would help receive benefits from their welfare board, he says.

Usha Ashok Dhaware, Informal Worker, Navi Mumbai

Usha Ashok Dhaware lives in Belapur, Navi Mumbai. Prior to the lockdown she was a domestic worker. She is the Chairman of a National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM) registered self help group, which was started post lockdown when she and others around her were out of work. Their group has started a business of selling fruits on the street. She is also President of a worker’s union — Kamgar Ekta Union.

Usha says, what’s the point of this loan if they are evicted and their fruits are taken away — it’s a loss of the loan and they can’t buy fruits to sell the next day. She says unless they have a space that they can call their own where they can sell, how can they begin to earn regularly. She demands social security like pension facilities from the government as post 60 years of age it is difficult to continue work physically. She points to the fact that what is given as ration is inadequate, families need more than wheat and rice, they need pulses, oil and other basics to eat proper meals. She also raises the inadequacy of the INR 500 direct cash transfer through the PM Jan Dhan Yojana. She says some women got INR 500, but many have not. She says they were promised subsidies on gas cylinders (PM Ujjwala Gas Yojana) but she is still paying INR 700 for a cylinder.

She has been working continuously even during the lockdown trying to support other women. She tried to help whoever she could in whatever way possible. Even if that meant sharing rations with those who didn’t have any.

Sumit Verma, Informal Worker, Delhi

Sumit Verma is a street vendor selling books at the historic Daryaganj Weekly Book Market. He is currently leading the struggle of re-establishing the Daryaganj Book Market at its original site, which was evicted by municipal authorities in July 2019. An avid book reader himself, he is also an activist working for the rights of street vendors in Delhi as a member of a Town Vending Committee, nominated by the Delhi Government.

The Street Vendors Act was enacted in 2014 and the Government of Delhi notified rules in 2017, but the implementation of the act in the form of survey of street vendors and distribution of certificates of vending has still not been done in Delhi. Ironically, there have been numerous cases of eviction of street vendors from their sites of vending in Delhi since 2014. One of these is the historical Daryaganj Weekly Book Market located near Delhi Gate in Old Delhi.

After the huge protests by street vendors, municipal authorities decided to shift the market to nearby Mahila Haat but more than 80 street vendors decided not to shift there before they were surveyed at their original site. Their demand has still not been met.

With lockdown announced, street vendors were not allowed to put up their shops and weekly markets were the first to be closed down and still have not been opened. Along with this, there has been a huge livelihood crisis for street vendors in the city, especially for those who were evicted before the spread of COVID-19. Sumit continues to fight for effective implementation of the Street Vendors Act and raise his voice against forced evictions.

Bindu Singh, Youth Leader, Guwahati

Bindu Singh lives in Babu Basti (a non-notified basti located on railway land), Guwahati. She is a youth leader and by profession a domestic worker.

She and her family used to live in a rented space prior to living in Babu Basti. Her father, who was an informal worker, built a house at Babu Basti so that the family of six could continue living without having to pay monthly rent. She describes her area to be three-four decades old with above 150 households who are mostly dependent on informal forms of livelihood.

The lockdown has deeply affected them, with their source of income and livelihoods hit. Since she began living in the area, she has seen no development, they are living without electricity for years. They have submitted their documents various times to the electricity department but the documents were rejected on the basis that they are living illegally. She questions that if they are illegal residents then why were they not evicted the day a house or two started to build up in the area. She also explains how lockdown affected her community and they survived on ration distributed by voluntary organisations. Apart from that, the floods caused further hardship. All the houses got flooded in the recent rains, and the people were forced to build temporary shelters near the railway tracks close to their house. The people lived under tarpaulin shelters along with their cattle.

In these situations, it is difficult to follow the precautionary measures as well. Bindu demanded the government to look at their issues, provide them with adequate housing and livelihood facilities.

Maya More, Health Worker, Nallasopara

Maya More lives in Nallasopara, in the city of Virar. She is an ASHA worker in the Health Centre and also a member of a women’s group — Panchsheel Mahila Mandal.

Bhim Nagar, the area she lives in is located on land that belongs to the Forest Department. As a result, their access to services is limited. People of all religious groups live together. Most residents are daily wage earners — they make khakhras, work as labourers, domestic workers, security guards etc.

The settlement is around 30–35 years old. Earlier there were just 50–70 houses but now there are almost 800 houses. Roads have been built over the years and electricity supply is available, both of which were not present earlier. Water is still a concern because of the land ownership. They had to get it from far, now they get water from nearby but have to pay for it. It costs around INR 40 per drum and INR 10 per bucket of drinking water. Maya mentioned how they use water sparingly. Because of the lockdown, people don’t have work so they can’t pay for water like they used to earlier.

Many people around her have lost work. Those making and selling khakhra are being able to make a little money. Those who are earning, do so every alternate day. They earn INR 50–100 per day selling khakhra. Security guards she knows haven’t been paid. Women have taken to street vending. Fear of the virus has increased because they don’t have money. Whatever little they are now able to earn is used to purchase water and food.

Access to rations and water continues to remain challenging. On television, everyone has heard that the people without a ration card can access ration based on their Aadhaar card. People reach out to her for help. But they don’t always get ration from the ration shop based on this.

She says children’s education has become a severe problem as no mobile means no education, they are idle at home — parents are worried that this is a lost year. She demands rations for everyone from ration shops irrespective of owning a ration card; access to toilets so that people don’t have to defecate in the open and free water as well.

Babita Bhankar, Informal Worker, Mumbai

Babita Bhankar is a domestic worker who lives on the footpath with her family, near Ruia College in Mumbai. She has been staying here since childhood.

Her children go to school, which is situated far away from the locality. She struggles everyday to support her family, there are days when she begs on the streets to feed her family. She has no access to basic services and is met with critical challenges on an everyday basis. She has to pay for water and also to use the washroom (INR 1-2 per use). She finds it difficult to cook on the streets, if she gets caught by the municipality officials — they are going to evict her and then where will she go!

There are times when the municipality vehicle forcibly takes her belongings away, they have taken her identity documents, papers, belongings of children, etc. She and her family deal with the threat of eviction on a regular basis. She and her homeless neighbours are living in extreme conditions and the government has not ensured any safety or protection for them. The pandemic has only worsened the condition for them as challenges have doubled and now it is becoming even more difficult for her to secure everyday ration and being homeless has exposed her and her family directly to COVID-19.

Kajal Poddar, Informal Worker, Mumbai

Kajal Poddar lives in a rehabilitation and resettlement Colony at Vashi Naka, Mumbai. She moved to the city 14 years ago from Kolkata. By profession she is a construction worker, currently out of work due to the pandemic. She belongs to the transgender community and is involved in community work.

She has been out of work due to the pandemic. Many people like her are left with no work, they are not able to secure ration, pay bills or rent. Access to water is challenging as they are unable to pay the maintenance charges. Few of them were evicted because they couldn’t pay their rent during the lockdown. She questions the government’s responsibility as, according to her, they have not extended any support. Although she lives in a building, she has no ration at home.

Her recommendation to the government is to provide shelters for people who are evicted or homeless and support people who are jobless. She says, ‘When the government is claiming they will support people why don’t they actually keep their promise!’ She and her neighbours have received some dry ration from local NGOs but nothing from the government.

She says, ‘I am not allowed into any house, I have to stay on rent. If I go to buy something at a shop, they don’t give me things. Nobody has come forward to help us, no government official, no political leader! People do not have work because of the pandemic. When I go looking for work, nobody gives anything. I demand support from the government, not just for me but for everyone!’

Rajkumar Vanjari, Community Leader, Nagpur

Rajkumar Vanjari lives in Svatantra Nagar, Nandanvan in the city of Nagpur, one of the biggest settlements in Vidarbha which is a notified settlement with land tenure rights. He works with the Health Department of Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC). He is also the Convenor of Shehar Vikas Manch (SVM), a people’s collective facilitated by YUVA in Nagpur and President of Stri Bhushan Ramai Ambedkar Sanstha.

Detailing his struggle as part of SVM, he spoke of conducting mohalla sabhas and awareness sessions for people to understand the importance of holding land tenure rights. Persistently, visiting communities, trying to conduct dialogues with people has been a struggle but SVM continued to work for their land rights. Finally, in 2017, the government announced the delivery of land tenure through proper registrations. COVID-19 has affected this delivery and distribution process as it has stopped completely now but people are still hopeful of their turn to get registered and receive land tenure security.

Kailash Tandel, PhD Scholar, Mumbai

Kailash Tandel is a PhD scholar at IIT B Monash Research Academy. He lives in the Colaba Koliwada (fishing village) in Mumbai and his thesis focuses on exploring the challenges of the Koli community in the context of urban development.

In the backdrop of development of a coastal city like Mumbai, Kailash explored the relationship between land and sea, people and environment specifically in the context of the Koli community. The city has changed constantly in its physical form but has also affected the adaptability of the people. But the original inhabitants of Mumbai, the Koli community, have still not received their land deed and ownership. The development projects on the coast has thus affected their livelihood greatly.

Due to reclamation of land, their access to water sources have shrunk. He says, ‘The government looks at us like a well-to-do community, quite unified among themselves. They are seen as a politically organised community as well. But that is not true!’ During COVID-19, because of this perspective of a well-to-do community, they have not received any support from organisations and the government.

‘Social distancing’ has affected the Koli community as well. With respect to issues of land, water, urban space, this concept of social distancing is used to further discrimination and division among the populations.

Being physically disabled and a part of the Koli community, he spoke about the hindrances in access to services due to non-implementation of universal design and the need for equality and oneness at that. He emphasised the need for development that is based on equality, participation and inclusion where the public purpose, defined by the public themselves, is fulfilled by increasing overall access to services.

In the context of caste politics in society, he emphasised on the fact that systemic distancing is being done intentionally. Stating a strong need for land rights for Kolis, Kailash spoke of the land politics in the city done in the name of reclamation, development, and urbanisation.

Mr. Keerti Shah from INHAF summarised the entire discussion. He said, ‘The poor are not a minority…they are definitely a large number, they are in majority. These are the people who are our city-makers. They are the ones who run our cities, and manage various supply chains. For their contribution, we aren’t giving them any facilities. The demands that they are making are very basic- ‘give us water, give us some land, give us a house’.

He questioned that when politicians are projecting the growth of our country, of GDP growth by 7–8 per cent, and 3 trillion economy, what services were they giving to the poor? He stated, ‘We cannot go ahead without solving the problems of these people. We need political will, compassion, and politics that looks at these people. If change needs to take place, it needs to take place through us. We all need to rethink about our cities and for our poor.’

He ended by saying that the speakers in the webinar have shared their plight and hopefully whatever the speakers have gone through, their children shouldn’t.

The webinar was a rich one as it gave an in-depth view of the housing problems of a cross-section of the population who are economically disadvantaged and are struggling with adjusting to the reality of living in a post-COVID world where their problems have become acute and urgent.

Marina Joseph reiterated that all the demands that have come out through the webinar — of adequate housing, equipments/mobile phones for children to study, adequate water and electricity, specific housing issues and their solutions will be presented to the relevant authorities and there will be an effort to spotlight the lived realities of the most ignored urban poor in our country.

To watch the full webinar, click here.

Blog drafted by Chaitra Yadavar, Fellow, ATE Chandra Foundation

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