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Stop Profiting from the Urban Slums

The Editorial Board

Cities remain in a narrative of development, where different actors try to grapple with their own agendas. At times when they interact, there is always a clear winner and a clear loser. In slums, the poor never wins.

Cities are intimately linked to dreams, desires, hopes – in short, a beautiful image of the future. Even the times of struggle can turn into beautiful melodies. When the present feels dreadful, there are always ways to persevere. Nevertheless, cities envelop tragedies strictly correlated with geography. Slums, urban spaces where a third of the urban population reside, are the forgotten lands, filled with the forgotten people, led by the forgetful leaders.

The ordeal of urban governments’ retreat from life in slums gives rise to bottom-up initiatives – the only recourse when the urban economic and political structures ban hopes from turning into reality. Civil society creates a range of initiatives to meet basic services or even for livelihood improvement. Some initially started out as a form of protest against State ignorance. Urban governments see this as the potential of collaboration – either in the form of knowledge sharing or a complete takeover of the duty of the State on service delivery by civil society.

India is experiencing a deficiency in water and sanitation services in urban slums. The slum dwellers do not have the right to construct private toilets. Nor are they provided with public toilets by the Government. In India, water and sanitation services in slums are being co-produced using a system that assigns neoliberal capitalism policies to the social agenda.

Fifty percent of Mumbai’s population resides in slums. The co-production of slum toilets in Khotwadi, an informal settlement in west Mumbai, India is a rather unusual case. It combines the delivery of fundamental rights of the urban poor with entrepreneurial activities by using the second floor of the toilet blocks for community activities and requiring citizens to pay for using the toilet. While the State retreats from its responsibility as the main provider of basic services, according to McFarlane (2012), the State does contribute to the construction of slum toilets by Community-based organisations (CBOs) through joint funding with the World Bank. So, the question becomes, why do urban governments prefer the delivery of services by non-State actors? The answer lies in the worth of slums in the eyes of profit-seeking organisations.

There has been a rebrand of slums. Previously, it can only be associated with poverty and misery. But now, it becomes a growth machine for economic players looking for a cheap labour force. Marx et al., (2013) argued that slums are considered as a transitory phenomenon in developing countries, which explains the lack of care of urban governments towards the densely populated urban spaces; slums were created to disappear. So, the reimage of slums is a part of the strategic agendas to eliminate slums through market forces and business activities. Particularly in Indian cities, entrepreneurialism is the “dominant logic of speculative urbanism” (Goldman, 2011) which attracted international financial institutions, business, and policy elites to bring entrepreneurship into poverty and urban service provision.

Economic Geographer David Harvey argued that the inequitable distribution of services and resources is the central theme of urban political conflict. Entrepreneurialism is, therefore, a consequence of the distribution problem. MacLeod and Jones (2011) listed three critical processes of urban entrepreneurialism, namely: i) aggressiveness towards capital investment, ii) the increased engagement of the private sector in urban policy, and iii) a clear favouring of business and entrepreneurs to ensure growth. Regardless of the fiscal capacity, entrepreneurialism has always been the main feature of capitalist regions because it encourages growth, regardless of whether it is equally distributed.

Community-Based Organisations and Poverty Entrepreneurship

Triratana Prerana Mandal (TPM) is a community-based organisation (CBO) that runs toilet blocks in Khotwadi, Mumbai. They stepped up to respond to the community's needs of sanitation. Their success in providing basic services to the slum dwellers won them awards from several organisations – some even came in the form of cash, which they used for maintenance and expansion of the ‘toilet business’. To use the toilet, the slum dwellers must pay Rs500 upfront and pay around Rs150-200 per year (McFarlane, 2012).

The fact that basic services are accessible to slum dwellers does not automatically remove all the hardships that slum dwellers experience. Slums are both places of residence and places of work. A large proportion of Mumbai’s economic growth comes from these abandoned urban spaces. Although slum dwellers are entrepreneurial, they are not the ones who get to participate in major decision-making on the arrangement of the highly-celebrated entrepreneurial co-production of slum toilets. For instance, the pay rate of the toilet is being decided arbitrarily by the local community organisation and its donors. As Harvey (1989) reminded us, “it is likewise important to specify who is being entrepreneurial and about what”.

The main actor of co-production here is the local CBOs. The informal communities are rarely consulted for their opinion about the construction of toilet blocks. Moreover, the cost of using the toilet is hardly negotiable, and it varies across Indian cities. Even though the CBOs represent the slum dwellers, they stick to the “pay-and-use” rule and thus excluded those unable to pay. It, therefore, makes co-production arrangements purely entrepreneurial, with clear favouring of a clientele relationship that values money over well-being. By limiting the slum dwellers’ participation in the discussion about the service delivery, the price of using what should have been their rights is unnegotiable.

CBOs are non-profit organisations. However, their prioritisation of payment over rights poses a serious question about their aim. If securing the rights of the slum dwellers is genuinely the purpose of toilet blocks, then there must be other ways to ensure the sustainability of the toilet blocks without excluding the extremely deprived members from using the facility.

Moreover, reviewing McFarlane (2012)’s case, it is a wonder why the donors’ money is used for community activities instead of, for example subsidising the cost that the slum dwellers have to pay. By reducing the monthly payment, or using the excess funds for allowing the extreme poor to use toilets for free can be a more just arrangement. But in the current model, co-production without the direct participation of the slum dwellers only reinforces the relationship between consumers and producers in a market economy. Instead of seeing sanitation as a state failure, it is seen as a market promoted by private sectors and international donors.

Co-production is never devoid of the greater power, and the slum dwellers’ rights will remain unguaranteed unless it seeks to conquer its power through a written legal and regulatory framework of co-production arrangements. The urban poor has to pursue a strategic aim in order to balance the power in cities. They must not satisfy with only pay-and-use basic services or even surrender to state neglect. Because, the only way for citizens to acquire real power is to establish a clear legal and regulatory framework to ensure the continuity of co-production arrangements and prevent abuse of power – either by the State or non-State actors.

This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 01 Issue 02 — September 2021


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