As we enter the narrow lanes of Muskan gali, after wading through the unruly traffic in a rapidly urbanising Muzaffarpur, we are greeted by Noorjehan outside her house. Between the gali and the main road, the city has grown. It has a population of 3.5 lakhs as per 2011 Census. This has risen now to five lakhs, say estimates. The city got chosen to be a smart city in the early 2018 but the work towards it has not got off the ground as yet.
A couple of years ago, the informal settlement of Muskan gali was a fairly desolate location. Now, it has around 35 households belonging to both Hindus and Muslims. The settlement does not look like most urban slums that portray marginalised spaces of abject poverty and neglect. The houses are pucca and the lanes are neat though narrow.
Most women here are engaged in work for a cooperative Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad or are into lac bangle making. Noorjehan is the odd one. She’s an entrepreneur and owns a home production unit of lac bangles—colourful bangles made of resinous materials and moulded in hot kilns. She has engaged eight workers which goes up to 15 during the peak season. Unlike other women in the gali who work as artisans, Noorjehan started her unit six years ago with just one worker. Her lack of education did not prevent the flowering of her enterprise.
Better sanitation service as first step
The growth of Noorjehan’s enterprise and that of the settlement followed a similar trajectory. Just a few years ago, the settlement used to get flooded during the monsoons. Open defecation was common. The road was kutcha and so were most houses. “People had not applied for individual household latrines as their homes stood on government land and they were prohibited to undertake construction activities,” says Noorjehan, who is a member of the settlement improvement committee.
“The settlement improvement committee was set up in 2015 as a part of a project to ensure sanitation services in informal settlements through citizen participation. The committee has 10 youths as members,” says Rashmi Ranjan, senior programme officer, PRIA, Muzaffarpur who’s involved in setting up the settlement improvement committees. PRIA, a national NGO has been working on Engaged Citizens Responsive City, a four-year-long intervention supported by the European Union, which focuses on strengthening civil society of the urban poor to participate in planning and monitoring of sanitation services. The settlement improvement committee at Muzaffarpur was set up as a part of this. The project works across three cities in India—Ajmer in Rajasthan, Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, and Muzaffarpur in Bihar. It primarily engages the urban poor through capacity building activities to enable them to become active citizens, and to use new skills learnt to participate in planning (at the city level) and monitoring (at the ward level) of sanitation services.
“Partners in this change include urban poor and middle-class residents, with leadership of young women and men; mayors, elected councillors and related government departments; traders and market associations; civil society, academia and media; and women sanitation workers,” says Dr Anshuman Karol, senior programme manager, PRIA, New Delhi.
In Muzaffarpur, settlement improvement committees have been set up in all informal settlements. “These citizen groups have managed to change the situation that persisted for the past 20-30 years in their settlements,” says Ranjan.
The citizens have gotten more conscious regarding the need to maintain sanitation standards in the wards. The settlement improvement committee meets every month to discuss issues. They take action against defaulters and demand accountable governance from the municipal body. The committee has turned out to be the ideal platform for the citizens to gather their efforts and also be a support system.
The small improvements in the settlements are done using their own pooled in contributions and the committee does not look to the urban local body for everything. For example, the residents built their own drains to deal with the problem of waterlogging in the settlement and have also begun dumping their household waste at a nearby ground. They are now working on recycling biodegradable waste and preparing compost. This is being done at the individual household level now but the idea is to take it to the community level.
The city lies along the river Burhi Gandak but is entirely dependent on groundwater for meeting the municipal domestic and drinking water needs. There are 33 overhead water tanks in the city of which 12 are dysfunctional leading to a drinking water shortage.
Citizen partnership changes settlement
“Residents of over 110 informal settlements in Muzaffarpur are witnessing the importance of citizen participation in getting basic services at their doorstep,” says Dr Karol. After the formation of the settlement improvement committee, its members decided to prioritise the issues and go to the ward councillor, who was their first point of follow-up. The key issues in the area were poor drainage, insufficient water supply, and inadequate toilets. Not just that, the community was unaware about who to approach to redress their grievances. Once the issues were identified, the committee wrote applications to the councillor, the mayor and the municipal commissioner. In case they don't respond, the residents go together to the office of the municipal commissioner.
The committee keeps a record of the communications and applications they send. The commissioner is forced to take action as the residents continue to follow up. “The settlement improvement committee was able to persuade the municipal corporation to install a drinking water pipeline in the settlement,” says Malti Devi, a member of the settlement improvement committee at Muskan gali.
PRIA, on its side, provides intensive training to the committee members and builds their awareness about water, sanitation and hygiene. PRIA is working on citizen engagement in city development and governance processes and has attempted to build capacities of those living in informal settlements to demand services. “The municipalities, too seem to be responding. The informal settlements in cities such as Muzaffarpur are building a cadre of citizen leaders like Noorjehan to take up issues of development, with a special focus on sanitation,” says Ranjan.
“Sustained engagement by these citizens have proved catalytic in ensuring individual household and community toilets, cleaning and construction of drains, regular sweeping and collection of waste by their municipalities. It is important to keep up these efforts for sustainability,” says Vikas Singh, senior programme officer, PRIA, Muzaffarpur. The residents were able to ensure door-to-door collection of garbage by the municipality and found improvement in the litter bins in the area. Each household has begun segregating waste. Households are also being encouraged to do composting of wet waste at source.
Most of the residents are now aware of their rights. They know how to demand action and access government services. The settlement improvement committee was able to help the residents find their voices and be heard.