Be it mohalla sabhas or mygov.in, community participation is in. But the question emerges, who can take part in these conversations, who does not, and what about those who cannot?
The idea of citizen engagement rests on the idea of citizen – someone who enjoys legitimacy, by having certain rights and responsibilities. This legitimacy is linked to legal sanction too – when you go to vote you have an id-card, something that proclaims your right to have your finger inked.
What about those who don’t have ration cards because they do not have a home or they live in spaces that are not valid in the eyes of law? How can they too be citizens, how can they too participate in these discussions of policy and law that affect their lives?
Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram’s talk on ‘Community participation: panacea or pipe dream’ spurred the audience to debate these questions. She is a visiting postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and is currently in India on a senior fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies for her project ‘Can the urban poor speak’. Her fieldwork in four non-notified slums in Delhi and slums in Bangalore focused on how people in the slums fight for certain services such as sanitation, and how community participation is used in different ways to pressure and be heard in order to achieve those services.
Even though for conceptual ease, slums are seen as a monolithic category, if you take into account the specifics related to services such as sanitation and water and land tenure, there are many differences between Delhi and Bangalore.
For instance in one slum researched by Dr. Soundarya, women in the slum faced safety issues caused by young men in their own slum. On the other hand, during conversations we had with women’s activists researching for the Convers(t)ation project, we were told that in slums in Bangalore, there is a sense of protecting ‘our women’. In both the cases, there is a patriarchal culture at play but in different ways. And understanding those differences becomes crucial in understanding the context – something that can eventually help in creating meaningful policy.
Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram’s talk was part of the ‘Research in Play’ series at FoV, where we host talks, discussions, and workshops at the intersection of theory and practice.