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Communities in India, Fighting for Rights, Solve a First Problem: Proving They Exist

BY Lisa Goldman | Wednesday, January 9 2013

Chennai women demonstrating for land tenure (courtesy: Transparent Chennai)

In the southern India city of Chennai, approximately 1 million people, or 20 percent of the population, live in slums that are deprived of basic infrastructure, including sanitary facilities. Houses in these slums commonly lack amenities like running water and toilets.

Nithya V. Raman, founder of Transparent Chennai, described, in a talk she gave at the Ford Foundation’s Wired For Change conference, how the lives of women slum dwellers were affected by the lack of sanitation facilities.

“One thing that kept on coming up in our conversations with these women was the issue of public toilets,” she recounted. “They wanted more of them. They wanted them near their houses, they wanted them near their places of work. They wanted them on their commutes. But they didn’t seem to have any information about them and neither did we. We wanted to know how many there were, where they were located, who was planning them, who was maintaining them, who was budgeting for them.”

So Transparent Chennai approached the local authorities for detailed information about the city’s public toilets.

“We called up a city office and asked if we could get a list of toilets and a map from them,” she continued. “They said they didn’t even keep that information at the central office, and that we would have to approach each of the [10] zonal offices separately.”

Ultimately, after overcoming significant bureaucratic hurdles that involved official requests for information and dozens of visits to various offices, Transparent Chennai was able to obtain meager, incomplete data that accounted for about 750 public toilets — to serve a total urban population of about 4.7 million. Volunteers used the information to go out to the communities, inspect the toilets and map them. Often, the facilities listed on the official document were unusable or did not exist at all. In most cases, they were not located where they were needed — near slum areas, open markets and public transportation hubs.

Transparent Chennai's mission is to empower city residents by providing them with information that they can use to advocate with local authorities that are supposed to provide the services and infrastructure for their needs. This includes official government data obtained by the research institution, digitized when necessary and uploaded to the site; external research documents and information that is collected by staffers. Visitors to the site can use the search option to create informative visualizations of data — particularly vivid, interactive maps.

As Raman explained, the dreadful living standards of Chennai’s slum dwellers are exacerbated by government policy. Local authorities have not recognized any new slums in the city since 1985, even as waves of migrant laborers continue to arrive from all over the country, seeking work. Given their poverty and non-existent public or affordable housing, the migrants settle down in ad hoc dwellings built in informal communities, or slums. If a slum is not recognized, that means it does not receive any basic municipal services — like buses, roads, electricity, sewers and schools. And yet, they are home to hundreds of thousands of people.

According to the research and data acquired by Transparent Chennai, the slum dwelling population of Chennai is at least 70 percent higher than official planning numbers. As Raman explains, the municipality is unlikely to change its policies, because once a slum is recognized, its residents have legal rights — like financial compensation in cases of eviction, for example.

Human rights workers trying to organize slum dwellers are hobbled by the lack of data, Raman told techPresident in an interview conducted via Skype. While the government is required by law to respond to information petitions from citizens, it is not always forthcoming. But often it simply has not done the work of acquiring the data.

“Transparent Chennai came about because I realized there was a lacuna of information about services, infrastructure and programs for the poor that was common across urban cities,” she said. “There is a new language of urban governance that really emphasizes data and collection of data. But people working with the urban poor are at a disadvantage because they do not have the data to back them up.”

“The urban poor are trying to catch up with the idea that urban information is available,” explained Raman. “We are trying to create a demand for things like community mapping and take advantage of the legal right to obtain information from the government. This right has been established, but not implemented. “

Raman, a Harvard graduate with a Master’s in urban planning from MIT, founded Transparent Chennai as a research project in 2009, under the auspices of Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR). The project's mission, she said, is to provide “a nodal point for maps, data and research for and about the urban poor.”

By positioning itself as a research group, rather than organizers, Transparent Chennai supplies the information base to bolster the efforts of advocates, making them more pointed and effective. Armed with data, community organizers and human rights workers who work with the urban poor are better able to press the government to give them their basic rights.

The data is collected from several sources, including government archives and independent researchers in the private and academic sectors. Transparent Chennai staffers and volunteers also go out and collect data from people who live in the communities, sitting with local organizers to pinpoint locations. They aggregate and post their findings, digitizing government document, mapping amenities from toilets to roads and explaining why they are important; and mapping unrecognized slums so that no one can deny they exist and are severely underserved by the authorities.

Much of this information is aggregated and posted so that users can create their own interactive maps. Someone who wants to create a visualization of Chennai’s public transportation system, for example, can choose from a detailed list of categories that includes accident hot spots, suburban and intra-urban metro lines, CCTV locations, bus routes in planning and bus routes already in existence, and come up with a visualization showing that existing communities are simply “off the grid” in terms of municipal transportation options.

But while Raman agreed that mapping is a “media hook” and a “good way to get general attention from abroad,” she emphasized that the actual work is accomplished on the ground, and it involves direct, face-to-face community engagement — not the Internet.

“At community meetings we often don't even show the maps,” she said. “With the slum dwellers it’s about dialogue. A slum dweller doesn’t need to be convinced about his problems — he is living them. So in a sense the map is not for the slum dweller, but for a different audience — officials, the media. Outsiders.”

Internet and smart phone penetration, said Raman, had not made India a more transparent place. But corruption was not the only obstacle to improving the situation on the ground. With or without the Internet, she explained, community organizers faced “the same old problems when trying to put together a network” — like personality clashes and internally divided communities that fail to voice their demands collectively.

“Often,” she said, “It seems that a lot of these pushes for e-governance and computerization tend to be solutions looking for a problem rather than actually solving a problem. I am not actually that bothered by corruption as long as people get what they need. Just as in the west, we tolerate a certain amount of corruption because the system works enough for us to get what we need out of it.”

Corrections: In a previous version of this article, Transparent Chennai was described as an NGO. In fact it is a research project at an academic institution. Ms. Raman was also quoted as saying that Transparent Chennai "never" uses maps at local community meetings. In fact she said they "seldom" use maps at local meetings. The text has been changed to reflect these corrections.

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