• Write the author
  • Urban poverty
  • Flushing out apathy
    Rasika Dhavse profiles Shelter Associates, and the organization's efforts at city planning that keep the poor in mind.
    Mail this page to a friend
    December 2002: "We work with organisations of poor men and women as partners", says Pratima Joshi, director, Shelter Associates, a Pune-based NGO, comprising architects, planners, and social workers. Its prime area of activity is amongst the urban poor, particularly women, in informal settlements, to facilitate and provide technical support to slum rehabilitation and infrastructure projects. Its close partner on all its projects are collectives of men and women called Baandhani (which means 'building together' in Marathi). These people hail from slums and other informal settlements in cities of Maharashtra, and they have agreed to and been trained to work as partners of SA.

    The core staff of SA and Baandhani numbers 14 people, headed by Pratima Joshi, an architect from Chennai who completed her post-graduation in Building Designs for Developing Countries from Bartlett University. She is assisted by Sriananda Sen, an architect from Mumbai, with a post-graduate degree in Development Planning from Pune. The two lead a team of social workers and other associates.

    "Our belief is that housing and infrastructure solutions worked out by the poor work best for them."

    Which is why SA believes in taking along with it the very community that houses the project they are working on. It is strictly believed that all planning for the poor must have them as the largest participant in plan design, implementation and management or it fails as a sustainable and replicable project. Moreover, it gives them a feeling of belonging and involvement in the project and inculcates a sense of responsibility in them toward the maintenance of the newly built infrastructure.

    "Statistics revealed a dismal urban sanitation scenario, with toilet to people ratio in some slums of Pune being as appalling as 1:2,500." This revelation put one of SA's major projects - community toilet building - into top gear. SA has been involved in researching the basic amenities available to the dwellers of the 500 slum settlements in Pune for quite some time. Among the 400 they surveyed, it was revealed that 41 slums had no toilet facilities whatsoever. In the others where toilets existed, the facilities were dilapidated, run-down, and entirely unusable. There existed no system of community involvement in the maintenance of toilet blocks, and the Pune Municipal Corporation did little in that respect. Basically, the situation needed to be remedied urgently.

    "237 toilet blocks with over 3,000 units was the Municipal Corporation's target." In 1999, the then Municipal Commissioner of Pune, Ratnakar Gaikwad realised the severity of the sanitation problem. The PMC's traditional method of employing contractors to build had proved to be a failure. In his previous tenure in Mumbai, Gaikwad had undertaken a toilet-building drive with the help of NGOs, and he decided to follow the same approach in Pune. And this was precisely what SA had been waiting for. It grabbed the opportunity and work commenced in September 1999.

    "We took up the responsibility of constructing 13 community blocks within the city of Pune." The deadline was four months from the time of receiving the order. SA began by delving into its data on slum settlements across the city and then helping the PMC identify and prioritise slums that had either no toilets or a very high toilet to person ratio. The project was a D&R (demolition and reconstruction) project by nature and involved replacing old toilet blocks with new ones that had additional stalls to cater to the growing population. Slums that had no facilities got new blocks. In all this, the communities themselves helped SA workers with the site selection. In addition, a quick house count was carried out to ascertain the number of males and females in the community so as to build toilets accordingly.

    In each block, arrangement was made for a caretaker's cabin. Each household using the toilet had to pay Rs. 20 per month as fees. The caretaker was selected by the community members themselves. Wherever possible, the toilets were connected to the city's sewer system or then to separate septic tanks. The NGO took up the responsibility for the upkeep of the toilet, whereas the municipal corporation provided the funds, electricity and water, and acted as the coordinator of the project. The blocks in Pune were inaugurated as and when they were finished, the first being on Feb 15, 2000. In Sangli, the projects were inaugurated on Oct 2, 2000.

    "We recognise that the poor have been working on their infrastructure issues for a long time, and that we, the so-called experts, can only meaningfully contribute to this process by being part of the process." In recognition of this core belief, Shelter Associates invited inputs from local women and men for some significant aspects of the layouts. Each of the new blocks built by Shelter Associates is different, according to the needs and ideas of the local people and the available site and space. For example, in the high-density Shanti Nagar slum, women living next to the toilets suggested shielding walls at the toilet entrances. In Sangam Wadi, another settlement, women residents were indecisive about the position of the entrance to the women's toilets. Initially, they asked for it to be on the opposite side to the men's in order to minimise harassment but then changed their minds during construction because the new position placed the entrance in front of a house which, they decided, was to be avoided as a priority.

    "Baandhani served as an important link." It played a big role in getting communities to get involved and participate in the design and later maintenance of these blocks. Today, in most slums, the communities have taken charge of regular maintenance with some guidance from Baandhani. In fact, the community building exercises taken up by the Baandhani workers in Sangli served to form the right foundation of togetherness and it led to the community taking up responsibility for the new infrastructure.

    "The bottomline: It was a very satisfying experience." Pratima Joshi maintains that this was a project that was conceived in the right spirit of partnership - with the PMC, communities and civil societies coming together to deliver a much needed service to the poor at the city level. She states this feature to be one of the major triumphs of the project. While SA has withdrawn from the second phase of the project in Pune, it continues to be involved in other infrastructure exercises in Sangli and other cities.

    Currently, it has started working in the Municipal Council of Khuldabad in Aurangabad District. This is basically a research project using the GIS which would lead to infrastrutural projects in this council. There is an ongoing pilot project with the MSEB in Pune to help them monitor the status of electricity in a few slums. This would enable the borrowers in these settlements to get their own electric meters.

    Rasika Dhavse
    December 2002

    Rasika Dhavse is a Pune-based freelance writer, and writes regularly for India Together.